Fri February 6, 2015 2:48 pm By Erica Grieder

Overall, I would summarize this week in Texas politics as way less stupid than the preceding one: congratulations all around.

I expect even better things for next week, now that all the committee assignments have been made and the House can join the Senate, and specifically the Senate Finance Committee, in getting down to business. (As a side note, I was tickled by Tony McDonald’s analysis, over at EmpowerTexans, that we’re all a bunch of sheeple for thinking the House Appropriations committee is important.)

Also, a programming note: I’m working on a longer piece about the ongoing guns debate, so I probably won’t be posting about it in the meantime. But since the debate is ongoing, I’d like to refer readers to Chris Hayes’ interview with Poncho Nevarez, which aired on MSNBC last night; by the end of the segment, it’s hard to argue with Nevarez’ conclusion that Watkins is a “yoyo”, and one who is seemingly determined to thwart his supposed cause. Is he the yoyo of the week? Let’s debate that question, and any others, in the comments.

Wed February 4, 2015 7:30 pm By Erica Grieder

Joe Straus has unveiled his committee assignments for the 84th Legislature, and the most shocking thing about his announcement, in my opinion, is the Speaker’s passing comment that there are still 118 days left to go. Really? Surely we’ve been at this longer than three weeks. Nandita Berry’s opening-day speech alone took at least two days, as I recall. 

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Wed February 4, 2015 4:30 pm By Erica Grieder

Over the past year or so both Democrats and Republicans have been vocally critical of the Texas Enterprise Fund, the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, and, more generally, the state’s Perry-era practice of encouraging economic development via direct subsidies and incentives. For some critics, such practices are conceptually indefensible–the government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers—and should be ended outright. Others are in the reform camp, arguing that the concept is defensible but the programs need better management and oversight, as documented in the Texas State Auditor’s report last year. I’m in the latter camp. My feeling is that this implicit industrial policy has done more good than harm in Texas, although there’s always room for improvement and, in this case, room for reforms. For example, I would scrap film incentives yesterday. So would Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, perhaps: the Senate’s base budget bill proposes just $10m for the film incentive program, compared to $95m in the last biennial budget.  But as Aman Batheja reports over at the Texas Tribune, the governor’s office takes a different view:

Amid growing talk of curtailing state incentive programs, a representative from Gov. Greg Abbott’s office told Senate budget writers Tuesday that Texas’ film incentive program needs at least $70 million — but ideally $95 million — in the state’s next two-year budget to keep the state’s film industry thriving.

“We think this program is very important,” Stacey Napier, director of administration in Abbott’s office, told the Senate Finance Committee. “We do have data to show the program is working. It’s bringing in tax revenue.”

Last week, Abbott proposed to scrap the TETF altogether and divide the money remaining in the fund (about $100m), with half going to the TEF and the other half to the Higher Education Coordinating Board, with the idea being to use that money to recruit extra-prestigious faculty. That seemed like a reasonable plan. Conceptually speaking, the TETF, which restricts its awards to industries like biotech and aerospace, is less slushy than the free-ranging TEF. However, the TETF is the smaller of the two. Ending it would count as a major reform, but wouldn’t much restrict the state’s ability to offer incentives. Also, as noted, the TETF is designed to invest in promising industries rather than closing specific deals; about half of the money it’s awarded, since its creation in 2005, has gone to universities to support research. TEF awards are more like deals than investments: the state announces a $10m grant to, say, Toyota, which is going to build a plant in San Antonio that will employ 3,000 people.  

Film incentives are like TEF grants in the sense that they’re specific: the awards are granted to productions that meet specific criteria, about what percentage of filming will take place in Texas, how many workers will be hired in Texas, whether Texas will look reasonable on camera, etc. But as Batheja notes, supporters have defended film incentives because they are unique: because the awards are granted after the production is finished, the system can’t be gamed. That’s a fair point; TEF awardees have routinely failed to deliver the promised number of jobs and so on. And it’s why Napier, in her testimony to the Senate Finance committee, was able to say that the data exists and that based on the data, the film incentives program bring in more money than they cost.

By the same token, though, film incentives are only deals, not investments at all. They’re different, in other words, from TETF awards, but they’re also slightly different from the typical TEF grant. The hypothetical TEF award described above wouldn’t obligate Toyota to maintain its operations in Texas for fifty years, but it would logically improve the odds that a Toyota, having incurred the capital costs of the new plant and trained workers to operate it, will find it easier to stay in Texas than to up sticks. For obvious reasons there’s no such possibility in the case of film incentives. They’re straight-up deals. And they may be deals worth making. But Abbott’s preferences on incentives—in favor of film, skeptical of TETF–suggest a philosophical approach that, for better or worse, is a departure from Perry’s, and would represent a significant change of course.  

Wed February 4, 2015 3:30 pm By Paul Burka

Every once in a while, an alleged conspiracy appears out of nowhere and the right wing goes crazy. The latest example is the hysteria over Common Core, a widely used national curriculum (though not in Texas). One of Common Core’s biggest champions is Sara Martinez Tucker, a distinguished scholar and former under secretary of education whom Governor Abbott has named to the UT Board of Regents. I have generally agreed with the governor on most things that he has done since taking office, including his choices for UT regents, but it is interesting that he selected the Laredo native given his long-standing objections to Common Core.

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Thu January 29, 2015 4:26 pm By Erica Grieder

Today was Texas Muslim Capitol Day, meaning that several hundred Muslims (and friends) traveled from around the state to spend a day “to learn about the democratic political process.” Among the things we all learned is that Texas, such a big state, also includes a number of people who would take this as an occasion for a protest. The speeches, songs, and prayers on the south steps of the Capitol were, at many points, drowned out by the shouts of anti-Muslim protesters—a smaller group, but louder. One exception that I saw came when the Muslims sang the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Since at least some of the protesters were working on the assumption that being Muslim and being American are incompatible, the fact that these Muslims were singing the national anthem created some confusion, and the protesters quieted for a few minutes, until one of them shouted: “There’s no ‘twilight’ in sharia!” 

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