Mon April 20, 2015 10:15 am By Paul Burka

The state is headed for fiscal catastrophe if it persists in refusing to expand Medicaid and stands to lose some $4 billion in federal funds if a lucrative Medicaid waiver expires. This is the legacy of Governor Perry and all of the Obama haters in state government. It is also a test for Governor Greg Abbott: whether he will allow ideology to stand in the way of recouping billions of dollars in federal funds that the state should have coming to it. It is one thing to be ideological. It’s quite another to be out of touch with reality.

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Mon April 20, 2015 8:06 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Texas Department of Public Safety border violenceThe drug cartel violence on Friday in the Mexican border town of Reynosa will give ammunition to those in Texas pushing for an increase in state spending of up to $800 million for border security. But the violence also may be a sign that Mexico is making some progress in its war on the cartels.

For anyone who may have missed it, gunfire broke out in Reynosa on Friday as Mexican authorities arrested a Gulf Cartel leader. Cartel members attempted to halt his transfer to Mexico City by blockading Reynosa with burning school buses. Although there were gun battles, the international bridges leading to Reynosa remained open and travel was not prohibited. Part of what is happening in Mexico is a splintering of the major drug cartels as authorities concentrate on capturing organized crime chiefs.

Many of the recent clashes within the Gulf Cartel have come from infighting between different cells that control key cities along the Rio Grande.

Cartel forces in Reynosa are known as the Metros and have fought members based in Matamoros, known as the Ciclones, in ongoing turf battles over the past few months. Further west, Los Zetas have traditionally controlled territory west of Miguel Alemán, across the river from Roma, toward the northwest past Nuevo Laredo.

At about the same time as the Reynosa violence, Mexican authorities also arrested the head of the Juárez Cartel. This head of the snake approach has been effective to a point, but like the mythical Hydra, cut off one head and more appear. 

While violence has fallen in several areas of Mexico, particularly Ciudad Juárez, other areas remain in the grip of these battling criminal gangs, including much of the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, where Reynosa is.

New gangs have emerged in the past couple of years and rapidly gained strength. One of the most dangerous is the Jalisco Cartel-New Generation, which officials say ambushed a Jalisco state police convoy on April 6 and killed 15 agents.

But gang violence has been so diminished in Juárez across from El Paso that city officials have launched a public relations campaign to attract renewed tourism. In 2010, Juárez was called the most dangerous city in the world because of its 3,000 murders, but the number was down to 424 in 2014. The mayor says he wants to “vindicate the city’s image abroad.” However, the number of murders still is more than double what it was in 2007, and one critic said the new program “is like washing a face when the rest of the body is still dirty, sick of corruption, impunity, poverty and inequality.” 

So here is the rub for Texas lawmakers: The cartels no doubt have a presence in Texas with the smuggling of drugs and humans, but the extreme violence remains on the Mexican side of the border. The real question, which so far the Texas Department of Public Safety has not adequately answered, is this: what exactly is Texas getting for the money it’s spending on border security?

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Fri April 17, 2015 4:13 pm By Erica Grieder

One of the challenges of covering Texas politics is that during our state’s biennial legislative sessions, especially these frantic final two months, there’s so much happening at the Lege that it’s hard to keep track of anything in the outside world. But Tuesday, as I was heading into the Capitol, I paused to say hello to Brandon Darby and Ildefonso Ortiz of Breitbart Texas, and thereby heard a tidbit I had missed: Judicial Watch, a right-wing website, had posted a story asserting that ISIS has set up a training camp in Juarez.

This is an absurd claim, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. And Judicial Watch’s story was barely posted before it was flatly dismissed by the Mexican Embassy and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Nonetheless, some of Judicial Watch’s readers have taken the story at face value, undeterred by the total absence of evidence and the official denials. An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes, and an official statement is only as credible as the officials offering it.

Darby and Ortiz, I sensed, were exasperated about the situation, for reasons any journalist can easily understand. Many of you reading this are probably skeptical of Breitbart Texas, which is a right-wing news site with a reputation for erratic quality; I get that, but in general  I put more stock in individual reporters than in the outlet they work for, or the ideological affiliation of either, and I have a high opinion of Darby and Ortiz as border reporters. Both have extensive experience and expertise, built up over time. Both have a lot of good sources, including in law enforcement, notably. Both are aggressive and have a record of breaking news—Darby was the guy who exposed last year’s border crisis, and triggered the national focus on it, when he published photos of immigrant children in detention facilities, which a law enforcement source had leaked to him—but have maintained a commitment to accuracy, even when their audience’s attention has been distracted by a lurid internet story about a shadowy menace lurking on America’s doorstep, like the one that Judicial Watch had just made up about the ISIS training camp. The resulting kerfuffle was bound to be a frustrating and thankless distraction. Like all honest journalists they seek to inform the public; that’s hard enough even when the public isn’t being actively misinformed by lies and propaganda.

You may not feel much empathy for the reporters’ plight. But widespread misinformation isn’t just a pet peeve for people like me and Darby and Ortiz. It causes all of us, including you and your loved ones, real harm. It can cause people to waste time and money. It can prevent us from allocating efforts and resources in ways that would actually advance our goals. In some cases it puts lives at risk. This may be one of those cases. There are extremely bad things happening along the US-Mexico border every day. And yet this week, at least, Texas’s law enforcement apparatus had to allocate some of its efforts to debunking a story that is either an error or (more likely) a blatant fabrication. If you care about border security, that should worry you.

Misinformation is not a new phenomenon. Neither is spin. But both are more prevalent today than they once were as a result of technology and politics and the interaction between the two. The decentralization of what we still call traditional media, in conjunction with the increasingly negligible barriers to entry in the information marketplace, means that anyone can disseminate information, anyone can find it, and the people and structures that once served as filters are increasingly irrelevant. That’s not necessarily bad; in many ways it’s great. It maximizes individual freedom and opportunity. But it means that the average reader has to work harder. You can curate your own news feed. In fact, you have to. And in the meantime, an array of third parties—politicians, partisans, advocates—are offering you unsolicited opinions about what to read or listen to. All of these people have their own incentives. Some want your vote. Some want your attention because they can monetize it via advertisers or subscriptions. Some are just sincerely trying to raise awareness of issues they sincerely care about.

Neither aspect of the situation is going to change. And neither is intrinsically sinister; I err on the side of skepticism myself. The problems only really arise when readers are misled, deliberately or not. So I thought I’d take the occasion to lay out the types of claims that are worth double-checking, and offer a three-part strategy for how you as the reader can check for yourself, using the Judicial Watch piece as an example.  

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Fri April 17, 2015 3:13 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Texas Governor Greg Abbott today released his income tax return for 2014, and it is something of a shocker. Abbott paid just $1,752 in taxes on $131,251 in adjusted gross income.

The low tax payment was because he had paid $51,778 in property taxes on his home in Austin and $44,257 in mortgage interest. His mortgage interest was almost ten times as much as the $4,495 in charitable donations he made.

His office tried to put a positive spin on the governor’s multimillion dollar home, though, by claiming his state, federal and local tax burden was 39.96 percent of his income.


Fri April 17, 2015 12:03 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Michael Quinn Sullivan is using his Empower Texans influence machine to push the Senate’s property tax cut plan over the House sales tax plan, but there also is a connect the dots exercise involving Sullivan that Speaker Joe Straus’ Republicans might want to play before a new state ethics bill comes up next week.

Sullivan’s influence in House politics is indisputable. He has networked various tea party groups to defeat some entrenched Republicans, especially those who support Straus, in primary elections. During the 2013 session, a so-called dark money bill to dampen Sullivan’s financial influence was vetoed by then-Governor Rick Perry, and Sullivan has had an on-going fight with the Texas Ethics Commission over whether he should register as a lobbyist a fight prompted by House Republicans.

So it should come as no surprise that Sullivan has cranked up his network on behalf of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s property tax cuts. Sullivan gives some faint praise to the House plan, but he’s really pushing the Senate approach. 

With the Senate having already passed out a tax relief package, one is left to wonder why the Republican-controlled House didn’t take up that measure – even as a base from which to swap out property tax relief for sales tax relief. It would have sped up the process to ensure the legislative clock doesn’t run out on tax relief.

On the Empower Texans web site, Sullivan posted the transcript of a telephone call that obviously is targeting voters in Republican districts where the House member voted in favor of electing Straus as speaker.

This is with Empower Texans with an important call to action for taxpayers. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and the conservative Senate have so far passed a bold agenda, including spending limits, tax relief and gun rights. But liberal Republican House Speaker Joe Straus refuses to do his constitutional duty and refer these hundreds of bills to House committees. Press 1 to be connected with your state representative – who voted to put Straus in office. It’s time for Straus to stop obstructing the conservative agenda of Texas taxpayers. So press 1 to tell to demand that Joe Straus immediately refer the hundreds of bills passed by the Senate. 

Now, for the connect-the-dots exercise to the proposed ethics bill. The House is preparing to vote on a bill to remove ethics investigations of legislators and statewide elected officials from the Travis County public integrity unit and give the duty to the Texas Rangers. Similar legislation already has passed the Senate. 

The House bill had been scheduled for debate Thursday, but got temporarily derailed on a point of order. But hours before the debate, Texas Department of Public Safety Deputy Director Robert J. “Duke” Bodisch Sr. sent House members a copy of a letter that DPS Director Steve McCraw sent to Travis County prosecutors critical of them for not completing an criminal investigation of a DPS no-bid contract from 2006. 

Aside from being one of two deputy directors at DPS under McCraw, Bodisch also is the No. 2 man in charge of the Texas State Guard, an unarmed official state militia that does search and rescue and is activated in disasters.  From March 2010 until September 2013 Major Michael Quinn Sullivan was a public affairs officer for the Texas State Guard, and his duties included giving some internal affairs coverage to Bodisch.

If you take a look at the command-and-control structure of the Texas Department of Public Safety, you’ll see Bodisch does not have direct control of the Texas Rangers, but is on an equal footing with deputy director in charge of law enforcement operations. Bodisch in the past was a political operative, working in the 1990s doing opposition research for several statewide Republican candidates. He also worked in the administrations of former governors George W. Bush and Perry.

All of this probably is no more than coincidence and is just proof that Austin is one very large small town. But with a Texas State Guard connection between Major Sullivan and DPS Deputy Director and Major General Bodisch, Straus’ Republicans might want to think twice about whether the Texas Rangers will be less political than the Travis County district attorney.