Tue September 16, 2014 3:39 pm By Paul Burka

Recent actions by state government have reinforced my belief that the state rarely does anything FOR the public; it only does things TO the public. The latest example is that Texas insurance commissioner Julia Rathgeber allowed the three largest home insurance companies to impose significant rate increases. Rathgeber could have challenged the companies' rates but chose not to do so. The state's insurance watchdog,  the Office of Public Insurance Counsel, objected, but Rathgeber allowed the new rates to take effect anyway.

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Mon September 15, 2014 3:39 pm By Erica Grieder

Greg Abbott's new ad focuses on his jobs plan, depicts the attorney-general rolling across a map of the United States as if he himself is an infographic, and elicited the following reaction from Austin-based consultant Colin Strother: "He proposes absolutely nothing. Literally. He proposes inertia. Inertia!" 

That's about right, although proposing inertia, in this case, is proposing that we not mess things up. In the ad, Abbott says that if he's governor, Texas will control state spending, unleash the oil and gas industry, and keep taxes low. That's basically the Texas model. The plan itself--it's the "Working Texans" section of Abbott's "Bicentennial Blueprint" (PDF)--is more detailed but not more radical. Most of its recommendations are focused on tidying up budget process. If implemented they could help constrain both taxes and spending, as the ad suggests; 'could' rather than 'would', because the Texas model of low taxes and low services is already in effect. For example, the plan wants to impose a requirement that the Legislature can only override the state's constitutional spending limit by a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority. The simple-majority provision, per Abbott, means that the constitutional spending limit is only "a meaningless 'safeguard'"--although, as the plan notes, "this provision has never been exercised." 

In other words, as Strother put it: when it comes to jobs, Abbott is effectively proposing nothing. If he was running for president, that would be ominous. But he's running for governor of Texas, and the state's record of job creation since 2000 is nearly dispositive. "Let's keep doing what we're doing" is a good plan in that sense. And it's perhaps worth noting that Abbott is advocating the status quo (more or less) at a moment when criticisms of the Texas model are coming from the right as often as the left. The Texas model calls for a lean public sector, not a negligible one. Reading through Abbott's plan, there are several provisions against the growth of government, but none that would arbitrarily undercut it. (And reading between the lines, Abbott isn't trying to crack down on spending as much as he's trying to crack down on political chicanery and shell games.) 

The next governor of Texas should, of course, resist complacency; the state's economy is more diversified today than ever. That's not a bad thing--it's partly a result of the Texas Miracle--but it does mean that we should make appropriate investments in education and infrastructure. Abbott's jobs plan includes several provisions about ending diversions that would benefit infrastructure--and since the jobs plan isn't explicit about education, I suppose there might be an implied willingness to cut school funding in favor of road funding. On the other hand, his blueprint also includes sections on public education and higher education, and the recommendations there acknowledge and anticipate Texas's changing workforce needs.

Wed September 10, 2014 9:27 pm By Paul Burka

I was interested by Eric Bearse's piece in the Quorum Report yesterday concerning Wendy Davis and abortion. Bearse wrote, among other things:

"The reason Wendy Davis has never recovered politically from her abortion filibuster is she fought on turf where she couldn't win. Outside of San Francisco and New York, most Americans oppose late-term abortions. In winning the public relations battle at the time -- becoming the national darling of the leftist intelligentsia -- she set herself up to lose the political war."

I don't take issue with the fact that most Americans oppose late-term abortions. But that wasn't what the debate in the Senate wasn't about. It was about whether one woman could stand up to the Senate bullies.

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Wed September 10, 2014 1:02 pm By Paul Burka

Why is Greg Abbott still raising money for his race for governor when he already has enough stashed away to win two or three races? Abbott is on his way to assembling the largest campaign war chest in Texas history, but it's not because he's worried about Wendy Davis.

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Tue September 9, 2014 2:34 pm By Erica Grieder

On Thursday, Wendy Davis said that as governor, she would fight to raise Texas's minimum wage to $10 an hour. This was probably the best single policy proposal her campaign has put out to date. If she had stuck with it, it could have triggered the most substantive debate of this year's gubernatorial election--and although gubernatorial elections aren't necessarily won on the basis of policy, Davis would, at least, have won that argument.

First, on the substantive merits, raising the minimum wage is a good idea, especially in Texas. I've written about this before at greater length, but the short version is that for a variety of reasons the usual national arguments about the benefits of raising the minimum wage are extra-pronounced in Texas, and the usual arguments about the risks of doing so are less ominous. Texas has a relatively low cost of living, for example; the expanded income would go further. And a modest increase in the minimum wage would pose little risk to Texas's overall employment numbers. Minimum wage jobs are in largely in the service sector, and largely driven by population growth; the Wal-Marts of the world might object to such a policy, but they wouldn't really threaten to move their stores to Arkansas.

There are arguments Greg Abbott and the Republicans would have raised against Davis's proposal. I know that because I wrote the piece linked above around the time that my book came out, and the book also argues that raising the minimum wage would make sense for Texas, so in the spring of 2013 I was talking about the minimum wage with a lot of different people and audiences. The most compelling objection I heard came in a chat with the Dallas Fed's Richard Fisher, who said that it would be dicey to raise the minimum wage at the same moment that businesses are already facing higher costs--and some uncertainty over how much higher those costs would be--as a result of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which was pending at that point.

Beyond that, though, none of the objections I heard were particularly robust. Perhaps more saliently, I actually didn't hear that many objections, even when I was speaking to a conservative audience. If anything, conservative audiences seemed to approve my pitch nearly as much as neutral or Democratic ones. None of my other suggestions went over so well. For example, when I suggested an annual week-long mini-session to true up the budget process, conservatives looked bored (this was true of audiences across the ideological spectrum). When I suggested that Texas should allow gay marriage, if only for the stability an expansion of marriage would confer on the thousands of children being raised by same-sex couples in our state, conservatives looked stoical; I could tell some people didn't agree but that they had figured it wasn't worth arguing the point with a young scamp. When I said that Texas should tax soda--which would bring in some revenue and hopefully slightly discourage consumption--listeners objected, every time, as if I had just suggested the most unwarranted violation of personal liberty this side of Michael Bloomberg. And when I said that Texas should raise the minimum wage--because if people are holding up their end of the bargain by working full-time they shouldn't end up below the federal poverty line--I would see half the people in the room nod at me or occasionally give me a thumbs-up.

Looking back, I was a little surprised by the vehemence of the objections to the soda tax. I wasn't surprised at all that conservatives would cotton to the minimum wage idea. That was in fact one of the reasons that raising the minimum wage struck me as a better idea in Texas than it would be in other states, even though it's probably a good enough idea there too. Texans, perhaps especially conservative Texans, have a cultural commitment to the value of hard work, determination, bootstraps, etc. The minimum wage is a form of labor protection, not of labor coddling; it's the minimum wage, not the minimum welfare handout. And so I think raising the minimum wage would have been a winning argument for Davis. It would have been a winning argument for Abbott if he had proposed it too.

Unfortunately, barely a day had passed until the Davis campaign had lapsed back into identity politics. That approach may win more media attention.