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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Tue January 27, 2015 6:19 pm By Erica Grieder

I wrote a preview of the 84th Legislature for the February issue, and among my predictions was that Democrats should be stoical about the push to legalize open carry of handguns, because it’s a) not that big of a deal and b) such a bill would pass easily: Republicans have enough votes and Greg Abbott had already said he would sign it. 

But by the end of the first day of session, my prediction was looking dubious. A group of advocates from Open Carry Tarrant County, advocating for their cause around the Capitol, confronted Rep. Poncho Nevarez in his office. In theory, they were asking for his support, but in practice, as is clear from a video of the encounter posted by the group’s leader, Kory Watkins, they were harassing him in personal terms because he told them, clearly and calmly, that he wasn’t planning to vote yes on the bill. As a result of their efforts, Watkins et al spurred the Lege to immediate action, which is more than many advocates can say: the next day the House approved rules letting members install panic buttons, so they could call for help in the event of such confrontations. The advocates had, somewhat poetically, shot themselves in the foot; it was probably still possible for the Lege to pass open carry, given how large the Republican majorities are, but there would be more resistance. 

As of today, the effort might well be dead. At a Texas Tribune event this morning, Dan Patrick told Evan Smith that he doesn’t think there are enough votes to pass open carry in the Lege at this point, and, beyond that, that he wasn’t concerned about it: “Second Amendment rights are very important, but open carry does not reach to the level of prioritizing at this point.” Instead, he said, he—and by extension, the Senate—would prioritize issues like education reform and tax relief.

This was surprising, considering that Patrick has done nothing to ruffle conservatives during his first week on the job (although not surprising if you consider that Patrick has always been less predictably conservative than his rhetoric and persona would suggest.) It was also the most sobering one-two punch a conservative has dealt his own side since Giovanni Capriglione told the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party that he would support Joe Straus for speaker because Scott Turner couldn’t muster enough votes to win and, incidentally, wasn’t qualified for the job.

As in the Capriglione case, Patrick’s analysis was forceful because it was essentially pragmatic. After the Trib event he offered some more explanation on Facebook and in regard to the math, he said that there hadn’t been enough votes to pass open carry last session, and that at this point don’t appear to be enough votes in the House or the Senate this time around. That may be correct. I thought there were easily enough votes in both chambers before session started, if you add up the votes from Republicans who support open carry and the Republicans who aren’t going to vote against a base-pleasing gun bill when it gets to the floor. But those numbers have surely shrunk as a result of the way open carry advocates have pursued this; their behavior has been genuinely off-putting and, accordingly, provides political cover for Republicans who weren’t thrilled with the ideal in the first place. 

Regardless, as lieutenant governor, Patrick has a figurative vote determining which issues come before the Senate. He effectively just voted no on open carry, and his explanation was totally fair. Patrick has always been clear and emphatic about his priorities. Open carry hasn’t been one of them, although he’s said that he supports it. And in a 140-day biennial session, no one can should fault him for prioritizing his stated priorities. If conservatives don’t like it, they should build a time machine and go vote for Jerry Patterson. 

What conservatives should not do is attack Patrick, as many are doing in the comments section of his aforementioned Facebook post. This is bound to backfire. There’s no evidence, even now, that Patrick doesn’t support the Second Amendment—his point was about time management, not gun laws. And if conservatives want to argue that Patrick should prioritize what is, after all, a relatively minor change in Texas’s gun laws over his plans for bigger reforms in areas such as education, taxes, and border securtiy, they’re going to come across looking like OCTC guys (or like the Tea Partiers who spent two months trying to punish Capriglione for his similar comments): bizarrely entitled bullies with no sense of proportion. And they’re not going to win the fight, any more than they won the speaker’s race. 

(AP Photo / Eric Gay)

Mon January 26, 2015 7:11 am By Erica Grieder

Good morning, Texans. I hope you all had a nice weekend and didn’t, unlike me, spend several hours brooding over a political possibility which, once you think about it, can’t easily be dismissed: Dan Patrick (left, with senators Kel Seliger and Kirk Watson) may very well be elected governor in 2018. Under certain conditions the scenario may be almost inevitable. Consider:

1. Although it’s been widely presumed that Julian Castro wants to run for governor in 2018, in view of the 2014 bloodbath it’s become much more difficult to argue that he, or any other Democrat, has a realistic chance of winning. (In fact, given that Castro is both prudent and young, we should probably re-evaluate the premise that he wants to run—and it’s not as if there are many Democrats clamoring to be the party’s standard-bearer at the moment.)

2. It’s also been widely presumed that George P. Bush would like to run for governor in 2018, or at least that he’s not planning on slumming it as land commissioner forever. However, again in view of the 2014 elections, there’s no reason to think he would beat a Tea Party favorite in one of Texas’s highly specialized Republican primaries.

3. Most importantly, I don’t think we can blithely go about our business under the impression that Greg Abbott will naturally be the Republican gubernatorial nominee next time around. Assuming he runs again, there’s always been reason to think that Patrick might challenge him in a primary. Abbott may be anticipating such a possibility—as Burka observed in September, he was still raising campaign funds two months before the general election, despite leading Wendy Davis by a double digit margin—and of course Patrick has not been shy about challenging incumbents thus far. And less than a week after they were inaugurated, the distance between Abbott and Patrick is starting to show. Abbott has cast himself as a governor who means to build on the work done in Texas over the past ten years, saying that as great as Texas is, we can do more; Patrick has cast himself as a change agent whose election represents “A New Day”. To that end, Patrick has already presided over several changes in the Texas Senate; meanwhile, the self-appointed conservative enforcers at outfits like EmpowerTexans have already taken Abbott to task over his appointments to UT’s Board of Regents. For Abbott, a primary challenge would probably be a greater challenge than the general election, because the primary is decided by a small subset of hard-right voters, and in that context, as Poncho Nevárez observed at the LBJ Future Forum last week, Abbott can expect to be held accountable for any acts of centrism (real or perceived, one might add).

When it comes to electoral politics, a lot can change in four years. But that doesn’t mean a lot will. Happy Monday!

(AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman - statesman.com, Jay Janner)