Wed March 25, 2015 4:18 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Former Governor Rick Perry’s mantra was that the Texas economy is served best when state lawmakers “don’t spend all the money.” That doesn’t mean Perry was against spending money, and he exploded when one legislative session ended with the Legislature leaving unspent $2.2 billion in general revenue and $4 billion in the Rainy Day Fund. “Generally speaking, it’s not the investments made in the budget that concern me,” Perry told the Austin newspaper. “It’s the charades; it’s the accounting sleights of hand; it’s the budgetary wizardry that gives me pause, especially with the state awash in revenue.”

Some things never change. The House Appropriations Committee this week sent the full House a $210 billion, two-year state budget that looks less like a paragon of fiscal conservatism than it does like a candidate for a reality television show on hoarding. The proposed House budget leaves $2 billion unspent from general revenue and $11.1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund. The budget also includes $4 billion in retained dedicated funds that can be used to certify the budget as balanced.

House leaders today announced they are going to add $800 million to the state’s budget in an effort to settle a school finance lawsuit brought by districts after the state cut $5 billion from education funding in 2011. That would leave $1.2 billion unspent. The yet to be seen House tax plan will whittle this amount down some, but overall this is a budget to make the legislators who ticked off Perry look like pikers.

Meanwhile, the Senate today took up legislation to reduce homeowner property taxes and lower franchise taxes for small businesses. It was a tax cut field day for the Senate’s Republicans, with votes they can carry to the electorate next year. Senators also approved a proposed constitutional amendment to bar the taxation of real estate transfers – that’s a tax that has never been collected. They also eliminated the estate tax, which has not been collected on any death since 2005. Senators also gave a $1.2 million tax break to the industry of boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts. Ki-ap! Take that House! 

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Tue March 24, 2015 12:52 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

The Texas path to the Governor’s Mansion or the U.S. Senate for decades has followed two paths: First, be wealthy. Second, win election to a lower state office before running for higher office.

As U.S. Senator Ted Cruz launched his bid for president this week, I was struck by the idea that there is a new third path: the unelected post of Texas solicitor general, an office that did not even exist before 1999.

Cruz’s 2012 victory in the Senate race marked the first time in almost five decades that a Texas politician has won high office without following one of those two traditional paths. College professor John Tower won a special election to the U.S. Senate in 1961, and John Connally jumped from Secretary of the Navy in 1962 to the governor’s office.

The Texas solicitor general argues cases for the state on appeal, including before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. That job was Cruz’s from 2003 until he resigned in 2008. So who have been the solicitors general who have followed Ted Cruz in office?

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Tue March 24, 2015 8:52 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

The climate change deniers of Texas can cling to their position if they want, but in the future it may cost the state tens of millions of dollars in lost weather hazard mitigation money from the federal government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is holding out this money as a carrot, a lure, to get Governor Greg Abbott and other Texas officials to embrace climate change as a reality and plan for it.

FEMA earlier this month released new rules that will require Texas to factor in climate change as it plans for weather disasters such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires. If Texas does not do so after the rules take effect in March 2016, the state stands to lose millions in federal mitigation money. Inside Climate News reported that the new rule will especially impact states with governors who deny the existence of climate change.

“This could potentially become a major conflict for several Republican governors,” said Barry Rabe, an expert on the politics of climate change at the University of Michigan. “We aren’t just talking about coastal states.” Climate change affects droughts, rainfall and tornado activity. Fracking is being linked to more earthquakes, he said. “This could affect state leaders across the country.”

Among those who could face a difficult decision are Republican Governors Rick Scott of Florida, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Greg Abbott of Texas and Pat McCrory of North Carolina—all of whom have denied man-made climate change or refused to take action. The states they lead face immediate threats from climate change.

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Mon March 23, 2015 5:30 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Several hundred Christian fundamentalists gathered on the south steps of the Capitol today in a rally that was less about the defense of traditional marriage than about preparing for civil disobedience if, as expected, the U.S. Supreme Court later this year declares bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Beneath a sweltering sun on the first truly hot day of the year, the preachers who spoke at the rally alluded to the idea that a nation that allows same-sex marriage is one teetering of the edge of a fiery maw. “It’s hot,” said Rick Scarborough of Vision America. “I don’t know if it means we’re closer to the sun or closer to hell.” The Bishop Sterling Lands of the Family Life International fellowship told the crowd “family is a Kingdom priority,” and added, “Satan holds marriage as high a priority as God does.”

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Sun March 22, 2015 11:06 pm By Erica Grieder

ted cruz announces GOP presidential campaign

I love this detail from Teddy Schleifer’s Friday scoop about Ted Cruz’s imminent plans to announce his presidential campaign:

Cruz will launch a presidential bid outright rather than form an exploratory committee, said senior advisers with direct knowledge of his plans…They say he is done exploring and is now ready to become the first Republican presidential candidate.

“Done exploring.” Further confirmation that Cruz is a top-notch troll when he puts his mind to it. And further confirmation, of course, of something that’s been clear for a while, at least in Texas. In October 2013, for example, Cruz told me that conservatives have “a limited window” in which to turn the country around, and continued:

“I don’t think we’re there yet, but there is an urgency to these fiscal and economic issues unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”

“That reminds me of what President Obama used to say during the primary in 2008, when people asked him why he was running for president after only a few years in the Senate,” I said. “He would say, ‘There’s a thing called “too late,” and that hour is almost here.’ ”

We stared at each other for a moment. 

“I didn’t know he said that,” Cruz said innocently.

“I thought it was remarkable,” I said. “Especially in a primary.”

For the first and last time since I began interviewing him, in July, Cruz said nothing at all in response.

Yup: running for president in 2016. How will he fare? That’s murkier. The fact that he’s expected to give his first official speech as a candidate at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University is ominous. It suggests that Cruz, looking at a crowded field in an open primary, is moving to shore up support among social conservatives. The political reasoning is clear enough: he needs to corner the market on some measurable subset of Republican primary voters and build from there, and Rand Paul is already well ahead with the liberty-type Tea Partiers. If this is the strategy, however, Cruz risks squandering his most interesting asset—his apparent ability to unite the Tea Party, which is a nebulous aggregation of various interest groups–libertarians, social conservatives, fiscal hawks, gold bugs, homeschoolers, populists, nativists, elitists, anti-elitists, anti-authoritarians, etc—with surprisingly few common denominators beyond the fact that, like all Republicans, they’re against Obamacare, which is of course Cruz’s signature issue. He would also risk casting himself as a social conservative standard-bearer, which is fine in itself, but a recipe for coming in a distant second in a modern Republican primary.

With that said, Cruz is a shrewd tactician with a record of winning apparently impossible contests: Medellin v. Texas. The 2012 Republican Senate primary. And once in the Senate—well, he didn’t succeed in defunding Obamacare, but he definitely made an impression. Not an unmixed impression, perhaps, but I bet Marco Rubio would pay a lot of money for access to Cruz’s database of email addresses. So, you know, we’ll see what he says tomorrow. In the meantime, here’s some background reading on Texas’s junior senator–a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a suit, wearing a FItBit—from our archives.

“The Man in the Arena”, February 2014. This is the aforementioned profile of Ted Cruz, which we planned as a short feature to mark his first year in the Senate—he ended up being busier than we expected. Of note, this profile includes a lot of Cruz comments that don’t appear in any other profiles.

“Ted Cruz’s Excellent Adventure,” October 2012. After winning the Republican Senate nomination, and in retrospect possibly ruining Texas politics by triggering a wave of increasingly absurd copycat primary challenges, Cruz sat for a chat with our then-editor Jake Silverstein. Highlights include another top-tier moment of trolling, when Cruz very precisely criticized Barack Obama: “I think he has pushed relentlessly for European-style socialism in this country, and I use that word in its literal sense. It describes a means of structuring an economy. Socialism is government ownership or control of the means of production or distribution. And, in my judgment, that has been the unified theme of this administration.”

“Texas Hold ‘Em,” July 2013. Even before Cruz somehow commandeered the House of Representatives and allegedly engineered a federal government shutdown, he was causing a ruckus in the capitol. Nate Blakeslee, for one, was unimpressed by his approach to immigration reform.

“Ted Cruz and the 47 Percent,” January 2013. At times, though, Cruz has shown far more nuance than his critics would consider him capable of, as in his analysis of the 2012 elections, which resulted in his call for Republicans to take the 47% to heart. It would be nice if he gave this speech tomorrow instead of the speech we should probably expect him to give. Yes, that would be nice. 

“The Overcomer,” October 2013. Brian Sweany’s profile of our new governor, Greg Abbott, otherwise known as Cruz’s former boss, and his closest political mentor.

“Master of the Senate,” December 2014. My profile of Dan Patrick, which may give some context on the Texas political landscape in the aftermath of Hurricane Ted.

“Face to Face With Rick Perry,” July 2014. Remember him? He’s also running for president and—although he has been widely discounted by political pundits, as a result of his previous campaign—I still think there’s a chance this all ends up like the climactic scene in Jurassic Park, when the velociraptors (Cruz et al) are about to eat the people (that’s us!) and then the T. Rex, Rick Perry, comes crashing through the door. 

(AP Photo/Joe Skipper)