Wed December 10, 2014 4:53 pm By Paul Burka

Greg Abbott is off to a great start as governor. He is doing exactly what a governor ought to do. He has started by addressing the major needs of the state, roads foremost among them, but also education. He has assembled a formidable staff of experienced hands who know their way around the Capitol. I’m optimistic that he will not be awash in ideology.

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Mon December 8, 2014 2:29 pm By Erica Grieder

In 2003, Texas passed a law deregulating tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities. By 2004, average tuition rates had started to climb; by 2013, they had roughly doubled. That being the case, the subject has been controversial for years, with Republicans and Democrats, including some who voted for the bill in the first place. And tuition deregulation is worth considering in light of the recent debate over in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrants. If next year’s Lege repeals a law that passed with nearly unanimous support in 2001, the spiraling costs of college are surely an important piece of context.  

Kudos, then, to Charles Schwertner, the Republican state senator from Georgetown, whose op-ed against tuition deregulation, at TribTalk, is completely commendable:   

At the time, supporters of the move argued that deregulation would drive students to consider which university offered the best educational value for their dollar and force schools to compete on the basis of quality and affordability. While the underlying concept of deregulation makes sense in more traditional free markets, proponents of the law in Texas failed to take a key factor into account: the explosion of readily accessible student loan debt.

In Schwertner’s analysis, rising tuition costs aren’t the only ill effect of tuition deregulation; also salient are rising debt burdens among student borrowers. The latter trend is salient, and deserves attention, because student debt is so often a burden for the borrower. And, as Schwertner argues, easy access to student loans helps explain why deregulation is a dangerous approach to higher education. In a traditional free market system, consumer decisions are driven by a number of factors, including prices. Heavily promoted (and sometimes subsidized) education loans distort those signals, especially when the borrowers are 18 year olds raised to believe that a college education is crucial to their success. 

The op-ed avoids some of the more contentious arguments that have been marshalled against tuition deregulation. Conservatives have also argued that the market ethos doesn’t work well when applied to college tuition because, as Tony McDonald argued in 2009, university regents are still government bureaucrats, not accountable to consumers or voters. A different spin on that argument is that higher education, in Texas, is oligopolistic; the state’s top public universities could hike tuition to $50,000 a year and still fill their freshman classes twice. Further, by triggering a rise in tuition costs, the 2003 deregulation has arguably forestalled equity improvements; a new study finds that more Hispanic first-time college students would have enrolled between 2003 and 2007 if not for the swelling prices. And then there are the questions of what the university administrators are actually doing with the money: UT Austin may be twice as expensive as it was ten years ago, but is it twice as good? 

All of these points are valid. But Schwertner’s approach is the best I’ve seen to the subject lately–it’s grounded in the key evidence and builds to a couple of conclusions that conservatives and liberals alike can agree on, and should take seriously: 

Texas simply cannot maintain a strong economy without also maintaining a strong workforce, and we cannot maintain a strong workforce without affordable access to higher education. Attending one of our world-class public universities shouldn’t be a luxury afforded only to the wealthy or those willing to mortgage their futures by assuming massive student loan debt.

Wed November 26, 2014 2:12 pm By Erica Grieder

The news that Barack Obama would take executive action on immigration made a big impression in Texas, a state that includes about 1200 miles of America’s southern border, about 2 million of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, and a number of Republican leaders who have taken accused Mr Obama of playing politics on the issue even before last week’s announcement. Greg Abbott, the attorney-general and governor-elect, denounced the president’s action as unconstitutional, and said that he would sue; Ted Cruz called on Republicans in Congress (who will control both chambers come January) to respond by declining to confirm most presidential appointments and by limiting appropriations. 

We’ve yet to see how this will all play out, both politically and in practice, in part because the details of what the president plans to do haven’t been fully laid out. In the meantime, I’m agnostic about the question of whether the president’s actions are legal, but skeptical of his normative rationale for acting alone. I laid out the reasons why at some length here, and would encourage readers who come directly to BurkaBlog to check out my argument and the comments thread, which has some good discussion. 

On a related note: this year’s exit polls revealed that the Republicans running for statewide office in Texas won more than 40% of the Hispanic vote–44% for Abbott, 46% for Dan Patrick, 49% for John Cornyn. This was an eye-catching result for national observers–in 2012 Obama carried Hispanic voters by a roughly 50-point margin–but it’s not totally out of keeping with Texas precedent. Karl Rove recently said that in Texas, Republicans average about 40% of the Hispanic vote; PolitiFact looked into the comment and rated it True. To me, the results suggest that at a moment when both parties are increasingly interested in Hispanic voters, a quickly growing share of the state and national electorate, they may also be misinterpreting what Hispanic voters care about. I explained what I think is going on here, over at National Review

Fri November 21, 2014 2:18 pm By Erica Grieder

Lots of news since I last checked in, from Texas and DC. We’ll have more posts next week, but in the interim, feel free to discuss the following, or anything else of interest, amongst yourselves.

1) On Tuesday Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and Joe Straus announced a deal to extend funding to the border surge that began this summer. Brian Rosenthal has a summary of the deal at the Express-News: $86.1 million in funding will be redirected from various state accounts to support an expanded law enforcement presence (DPS rather than National Guard) until early summer.

Of particular note, I thought, were the comments offered by Perry and Dewhurst. “Texas has proven beyond any doubt that this border can be secured,” said Perry, in his statement announcing the extension. Dewhurst concurred: “In the absence of sufficient action from the federal government, the state of Texas has proven it is possible to secure the border, reduce crime, and combat the impacts of illegal immigration.” In other words, both Perry and Dewhurst are saying that as a result of the expanded operations and additional resources provided by the surge, the border is secure, at least in Texas. This is striking because of the longstanding conservative argument that immigration reform should wait until the border is secure–a valid goal, but a nebulous one, since there had previously been little agreement about the threshhold for “secure.” 

2) Separately–very separately–on Thursday Barack Obama announced executive orders which will protect some five million unauthorized immigrants from deportation, at least for the next few years, and allow many of them to work legally in the interim. The move was a response to what the president characterized as Republican intransigence; he is reportedly frustrated after having asked Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform since 2013, after his 2012 re-election campaign. 

Polls suggest that a majority of Americans are sympathetic to Obama’s policy goals, but skeptical of his approach here: just 38% approve of his decision to skip the legislative process. Republican leaders, of course, are more than skeptical, and the fact that national progressives are casually dismissing critics as crypto-racists does not bode well for expanded comity in Washington. 

3) Meanwhile, to the extent that Obama’s motive here is political–to win Hispanic voters to the Democratic party–I’m skeptical that it will work as intended for a number of reasons, including that in Texas, election results suggest that Hispanic voters do not necessarily respond to Hispanic-themed issues in the way that the national parties might predict–I’ll take a closer look at this next week. 

4) Meanwhile, Ken Paxton returned a pen

Wed November 12, 2014 4:17 pm By Erica Grieder

I’ll admit that I didn’t pay much (i.e., any) attention to David Alameel’s campaign for the United States Senate this year. Frankly, after the Democratic primary led to a runoff between Alameel (a multimillionaire dentist who had supported Cornyn in previous cycles) and Kesha Rogers (a Lyndon LaRouche activist who wanted to impeach Obama and industrialize the moon) it was hard to take that side of the ticket seriously. But I would like to call readers’ attention to the speech Alameel gave on election night, after losing to John Cornyn by a 27 point margin, in which he called for “an uprising” in the Democratic party. (The issue came up during the Q&A section of the Texas Observer’s post-election panel last night; audio is available here, for those who are interested.)

He devoted the first half of his speech to settling scores with the state Democratic party, arguing that they had actively undermined his campaign, first by supporting another candidate in the primary (presumably El Paso attorney Maxey Scherr rather than Rogers, as Kevin Diaz notes at the Houston Chronicle), and later by ignoring him altogether. Those accusations are hard to substantiate. It is true that he lost by a bigger margin than the other statewide Democratic candidates, even those whose campaigns were similarly low-profile. As Jim Hogan observed, his campaign for agriculture commissioner did about as well as Wendy Davis’s, even though he only spent $4,000 and didn’t hold any events. On the other hand Alameel was the only Democrat running in a top-tier race against an incumbent, and as mentioned, there were plenty of reasons to ignore the Senate race this year. 

While skeptical of Alameel’s arguments that the Democratic Party (and Battleground Texas, which he seems to treat as the same organization) hurt his candidacy specifically, though, he did make a provocative argument later in the speech:

These self-serving elites have failed us for over 20 years and they have the arrogance to assume that they can tell us what to think and what to do? Well, from here on, we’re going to tell them what to do.

The endless poverty in the Black and Latino communities, which are desperate for help, have been ignored by our party.

And I assure you that talking to them about abortion & gay marriage, or paying a short visit during election time, is not the answer for their struggle, and they remain totally uninspired.

With regard to social issues, Alameel may be overstating the case. Exit polls found that 66% of white women voted for Greg Abbott, compared to 39% of Hispanic women; that jars with the Republican argument that Hispanic voters, being disproportionately Catholic, are predisposed to be pro-life voters. As for gay marriage, as Eva Longoria recently observed, Hispanics in Texas tend to be young, and young people, regardless of ethnicity, widely support marriage equality. And Democrats will probably bristle at Alameel’s sweeping assertion that they don’t care about poverty. Many of them do; it’s probably fair to say that Democrats are more concerned about poverty than Republicans are.

However, Alameel’s gesturing at something that his party should take seriously, even if they don’t consider him part of their party. After years of one-party rule Texas Democrats are well-established as the people who aren’t Republicans–not necessarily a bad look, in light of certain Republicans. What the Democrats themselves are for, and what they would do if in power, is much murkier. Alameel’s specific point, that Democrats haven’t shown enough concern over economic issues is valid. That was certainly the case this year. Wendy Davis spent a day–one day–focused on raising the minimum wage, before turning her attention back to her upcoming book tour. Meanwhile, on election day, voters in Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Arkansas voted to raise the minimum wage in their states. There are so many factors behind this year’s Democratic clobbering that it would be silly to point to any one thing as the cause. But if the Democrat at the top of the ticket had run a more substantive campaign, perhaps she would have narrowed the gap a bit–it’s hard to see how it could have made things worse–and left the party in a stronger position for election cycles to come.   

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, Jay Root over at the Texas Tribune reported about a January 6th memo warning Davis’s campaign manager that the candidate’s failure to set out a message meant that she was being portrayed as a generic national (aka liberal) Democrat, which risked damaging both the candidate and the party.