Tue May 12, 2015 6:58 pm By Erica Grieder

Here we are in the home stretch of the regular session, and this year, earlier than usual, the Lege is divided along chamber lines rather than party ones. Tax cuts, obviously, are the biggest point of contention between the House and the Senate. Both chambers have approved proposals that would cut the franchise tax collections by a bit more than $2bn each biennium; the rivalry there is not severe. The Senate, however, announced in February that it would seek an additional $2.1bn in “property tax relief”. The House took no interest in that scheme, and announced that it would, instead, seek $2.3bn worth of sales tax cuts.

On April 8th, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick launched a pre-emptive strike against Dennis Bonnen, the chair of the House Ways & Means committee, and the tax cuts he had proposed. At first, Bonnen declined to return fire, perhaps because he hadn’t even laid out either bill in the Ways and Means committee at that point. But by the beginning of this month, with both chambers having passed their bills, and Sine Die visible on the horizon, the Lege had clearly reached a impasse. Jane Nelson, the Chair of Senate Finance, sounded an optimistic note last week: “I think things are coming unstuck,” she told the Austin American-Statesman’s Kiah Collier. Meanwhile, Quorum Report noted that Patrick had made his position clear in private meetings with business groups: he had no interest in compromise. Over the weekend, Bonnen returned fire. Previously, he had been focused on advocating for his idea, on its merits; in an op-ed, he explicitly laid out why he opposes Senate’s property tax relief plan. This morning, when the Ways & Means committee took up SB1 and SJR1, he, along with the rest of the committee, politely but unmistakably eviscerated it.

This tax-cuts fight isn’t the only impasse between the chambers this year, but it is the one that has to be resolved, because the Senate’s property tax relief plan only works if the Lege passes a budget that authorizes a couple billion dollars in state money for local school districts. The House members on the budget conference committee, of course, have no reason to agree to that. Neither do the Senate conferees have much reason to insist on keeping that provision, beyond the political one: the lieutenant governor is the president of the Senate. Patrick issued a warning back in April: “Let there be no misunderstanding, I agree with Governor Abbott that I too will not support any budget that does not have franchise tax relief. I also will not support any budget that does not have property tax relief, as well.” That was an extremely ominous thing to say, because the lieutenant governor, unlike the governor, does not have veto power. But he could, perhaps, approximate the effects of a veto, by refusing to bring the conference committee’s budget up on the Senate floor if it displeases him. Three months ago, the suggestion that the lieutenant governor of Texas would consider such a ploy would have seemed absurd. Today, though? Everyone I’ve talked to, in both chambers, is apparently resigned to at least one special session, even though Abbott has given no indication that he wants to call one. That’s because the state constitution requires the Lege to pass a budget. If they fail to do so, a special session is automatic.

What’s especially insane about this possibility is that the Senate has already lost this particular fight and has no way to win it in if they insist on a rematch via a special session. I say that with no malice or schadenfreude. I’m glad that they made an effort to rein in property taxes and I commend them for having passed a significant property tax reform, in Brandon Creighton’s SB1760.  SB1/SJR1, however, is obviously a swing and a miss. If you don’t already believe that, watch the video of the Ways & Means committee meeting this morning (starting at about twenty minutes in). If you still don’t believe it, it doesn’t matter, because even if the Senate conferees prevail on the budget bill, their plan can’t be implemented without House passage of SB1 and SJR1. And after today, it’s pretty clear that SB1 and SJR1 are dead in the House. The Ways & Means committee might send those measures to the floor, to give the whole House a chance to make a clear statement. If so, we know what that statement will be. Not a single representative has declared a preference for the Senate plan, and none of them work under Patrick. There is no scenario where a majority of the House votes for SB1. There is definitely no scenario where 100 representatives vote for SJR1.

And there is no reason to think that the House will be more pliable in a special session. If anything they’ll be more annoyed. Republicans in the Texas Senate, I hope, understand that this is not a House vs Senate game of chicken, or part of a coordinated campaign to pick on Dan Patrick or the chamber he leads. The House is not going to subscribe to the Senate’s property tax relief plan because it’s not a good plan. That’s all. That’s enough. If the Senate proceeds to ruin everyone’s summer on behalf of a plan that no one other than Patrick particularly cares about, I guess, the House might start to see this as a tribal issue. But as it stands the division isn’t House vs Senate. It’s Patrick vs Texas.

As for Patrick—for goodness’ sake, there’s no shame in trying, or even in failing. A person who never stumbles is a person who’s phoning it in. But if you trip and fall into a hole, or dig yourself into a hole, or just somehow end up in a hole, the usual advice is don’t dig in any further. Far better to find a ladder, like the one Creighton provided with his property tax reform bill, or the one Bonnen offered this afternoon, when he said that he’d be willing to table the sales vs property tax drama and focus on a sizable franchise tax reform—an idea that the House, the Senate, and Abbott could all support. Either way, Patrick has two options right now: he can continue to stand his ground, or he can accept the circumstances and try again in 2017. Put differently: he can do damage, or do damage control. 

Tue May 12, 2015 10:39 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Nellie Bly -- Library of Congress

One day last week, a confluence of events brought together the enlightening and the dark sides of undercover journalism. The first was the daily Google doodle celebrating the 151st birthday of pioneering woman journalist Nellie Bly. The second was the Houston Chronicle’s breaking story on “citizen journalists” taping 800 hours of undercover video of Texas legislators for the American Phoenix Foundation, whose public face is provocateur journalist Hannah Giles.

Giles is best known for posing as a prostitute with James O’Keefe as her pimp in an undercover sting of the liberal Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN, that tried to get workers to incriminate themselves on hidden cameras. It was the kind of work that made her father proud.

Her father is a conservative talk radio personality and blogger named Doug Giles, pronounced J-I-les. Giles runs the ClashDaily site from Florida and writes for TownHall. Doug also is the author of five books, including Raising Righteous and Rowdy Girls, about Hannah and her sister, Regis, the curator of a blog called Girls Just Want to Have Guns

Doug’s columns have had titles such as: I’m So Sick of Hearing About Gay Cakes; BREAKING: Massive Spike in Whites Setting Blacks on Fire; and WWJT: Who Would Jesus Torture? 

I told my inquiring host that as a patriotic white male Christian redneck, as far as I can deduce from the holy text, Jesus and the balance of Scripture seem to be okay with dunking Achmed if said butt munch has the 411 regarding the 10/20 of the next mass slaughter of innocent Americans. Call me crazy. I’m well aware, however, that I could be committing an exegetical error given the fact that I’m white and male and all. This is my cross.

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Mon May 11, 2015 6:18 pm By Erica Grieder

Late last week, the Houston Chronicle’s David Saleh Rauf and Lauren McGaughy broke the news that activists with a group called the American Phoenix Foundation have, since the session began, amassed 800 hours’ worth of secret video footage of various legislators and lobbyists doing whatever it is they do when they think the public isn’t watching. Yesterday, the news seemed to crystallize, once the Texas Tribune’s Terri Langford reported that the American Phoenix Foundation has given all the footage to Breitbart Texas’s Brandon Darby, who has begun reviewing the clips and told Langford that “some of it is very newsworthy.” 

This may make me sound like a really bad reporter, but as it happens, I heard about the group’s plans to secretly film straying legislators months ago–back in, I think, November; it was after the elections but not too cold to sit outside. It didn’t even occur to me to follow up on that tip, because it seemed so silly. The bar at the W Hotel is in downtown Austin. It has security cameras, I assume, and is usually bustling with activity. It has a reputation as a meat market, and I rarely go there myself, if I can avoid it, because it’s the kind of place where a young woman can’t have a quiet conversation with a friend without being interrupted a hundred times by tech bros and lawyers. All of that being the case, I thought the scheme sounded belligerent, but silly. If anyone wants proof of sordid behavior they can just stroll over to the W and see some. And any elected official, even a lowly House rep, would have to be unusually reckless or hubristic to pursue their own sordid impulses in a busy public location, less than a mile from their office, with a reputation for affluent sleaze.

That’s still my general impression. The rumor mill suggests that some of the clips are lurid enough. Even so I doubt they’re more appalling than some of the antics that are livestreamed from the Capitol today. Will they be newsworthy, as Darby said? Like many people, I find the tactic distasteful, and part of an ominous trend to keep all politicians in some kind of crowd-sourced Panopticon; that’s needlessly punitive to the politicians themselves, who are people too, and it’s unhealthy for the republic, because as the hassles of public service increase the quality of public servants is bound to deteriorate. At the same time I also found it extremely distasteful when Bill Zedler and Molly White teamed up to lecture medical doctor J.D. Sheffield about vaccine “science” last week. And what’s done is done. So let’s set aside the etiquette arguments and consider how this will play out. The clips that eventually surface will have to be judged in context, on a case by case basis. I might consider them newsworthy if they meet one of three criteria:

  1. They document aggressive, willful hypocrisy. An undercover video of a married legislator hitting on a stranger is just malicious personal gossip, unless the legislator in question is the type who never misses an opportunity to demagogue about sexual morality during a debate over a bill related to transportation funding or something like that.
  2. They document overt corruption, like, “Thanks for meeting me at the bar so I can give you this envelope of cash.”
  3. They document abuse of power.


Darby, I think, is well-equipped to arbitrate between the clips that may have legitimate public-interest implications and those that would only indulge the public’s sweet tooth for malicious personal gossip, while causing potentially serious distress to the people caught with their hands in the cookie jar and their families, who surely don’t deserve such heartache. And contra most of the Capitol chatter, I don’t think Darby and the activists who organized this sting are puppets of Tim Dunn et al–even though, as Rauf and McGaughy noted, there are plenty of provable connections between the American Phoenix Foundation, EmpowerTexans, and Breitbart Texas.

We’ll see, though; if not before the end of the regular session, perhaps during the special session, which should be easily avoidable this year, but may not be. In the meantime, I hope our hardworking legislators and lobbyists aren’t losing too much sleep over this. And for any who are—well, maybe it’s an opportunity for learning and personal growth, if not on ethics, at least on tactics: next time, if you’re looking to conduct clandestine business, consider meeting literally almost anywhere else.


Mon May 11, 2015 9:37 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Are you middle class?

Middle Class in Texas

A little over two years ago, as Barack Obama took the oath of office for the second time, he alluded to the American Dream—the idea that this is a land of opportunity where anyone can rise economically to home ownership and economic security. “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.”

As the nation continues to recover slowly from the recession of 2008, politicians today apparently are engaging in the rhetoric of diminished expectations. The New York Times today is reporting that politicians of both major parties are shunning the term “middle class” as they struggle to find ways to appeal to voters. The phrases ranged from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “everyday Americans” to Ted Cruz’s ”hard working men and women across America.” 

The once ubiquitous term “middle class” has gone conspicuously missing from the 2016 campaign trail, as candidates and their strategists grasp for new terms for an unsettled economic era. The phrase, long synonymous with the American dream, now evokes anxiety, an uncertain future and a lifestyle that is increasingly out of reach.

The move away from “middle class” is the rhetorical result of a critical shift: After three decades of income gains favoring the highest earners and job growth being concentrated at the bottom of the pay scale, the middle has for millions of families become a precarious place to be.

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Sun May 10, 2015 10:40 pm By Erica Grieder

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to take a moment to address America’s ongoing “War on Women”, and several related skirmishes in the Texas Lege this year. The origins of the conflict are of course debatable. Perhaps it began in the Garden of Eden, when Eve engineered the Fall of Man. The phrase itself was coined in 1989, by the feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, who described rape, domestic violence, and even pornography as strategies in a systematic effort to suppress and destroy women. In the context of contemporary American politics, if we’re looking for the catalytic cause of the conflict—the Battle of Gonzales, the abduction of Helen, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand—I’d point to 1973’s Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision which recognized that women can sometimes exercise their rights even contra the preferences of men who may have an opinion about it.

Whatever the cause, the conflict continues. The short-term outlook, obviously, is ominous. With Hillary Clinton the early frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, if not the inevitable nominee, we can expect “women” to be a major theme of the 2016 election cycle. And today, with mothers out in full force all over Austin, it occurred to me anew that the long-term outlook is no less grim. The state is bound to have a disproportionate fascination with women because women are the linchpin of the family, which is the building block of society, which is America’s bulwark against an incipient, Northern European-type welfare state. Fathers are important; without mothers our whole system falls apart. That’s a generalization, of course, which overlooks the existence of single fathers, and the contributions of extended family and friend networks, etc. But a look at your Facebook feed today should confirm what research has repeatedly found. Women provide more childcare than men do, on average, and more elder care. They do a disproportionate share of housework, even when they also work outside the home. They are more likely to be single parents, and so on. Many government services, in fact, are efforts to supplement the role that mothers so often play in the lives of their children. Last week, the Texas Senate passed the House’s bill expanding pre-K, which Greg Abbott had deemed an emergency item—a worthwhile priority, because studies have shown that high-quality pre-K has almost as much impact on a child’s education outcomes as having a mother who graduated from college.  

These loving, strong, selfless mothers, God bless them, provide a semi-legitimate reason for government to take such a solicitous interest in the lives of all women.

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