Mon May 11, 2015 6:18 pm By Erica Grieder

Late last week, the Houston Chronicle’s David Saleh Rauf and Lauren McGaughy broke the news that activists with a group called the American Phoenix Foundation have, since the session began, amassed 800 hours’ worth of secret video footage of various legislators and lobbyists doing whatever it is they do when they think the public isn’t watching. Yesterday, the news seemed to crystallize, once the Texas Tribune’s Terri Langford reported that the American Phoenix Foundation has given all the footage to Breitbart Texas’s Brandon Darby, who has begun reviewing the clips and told Langford that “some of it is very newsworthy.” 

This may make me sound like a really bad reporter, but as it happens, I heard about the group’s plans to secretly film straying legislators months ago–back in, I think, November; it was after the elections but not too cold to sit outside. It didn’t even occur to me to follow up on that tip, because it seemed so silly. The bar at the W Hotel is in downtown Austin. It has security cameras, I assume, and is usually bustling with activity. It has a reputation as a meat market, and I rarely go there myself, if I can avoid it, because it’s the kind of place where a young woman can’t have a quiet conversation with a friend without being interrupted a hundred times by tech bros and lawyers. All of that being the case, I thought the scheme sounded belligerent, but silly. If anyone wants proof of sordid behavior they can just stroll over to the W and see some. And any elected official, even a lowly House rep, would have to be unusually reckless or hubristic to pursue their own sordid impulses in a busy public location, less than a mile from their office, with a reputation for affluent sleaze.

That’s still my general impression. The rumor mill suggests that some of the clips are lurid enough. Even so I doubt they’re more appalling than some of the antics that are livestreamed from the Capitol today. Will they be newsworthy, as Darby said? Like many people, I find the tactic distasteful, and part of an ominous trend to keep all politicians in some kind of crowd-sourced Panopticon; that’s needlessly punitive to the politicians themselves, who are people too, and it’s unhealthy for the republic, because as the hassles of public service increase the quality of public servants is bound to deteriorate. At the same time I also found it extremely distasteful when Bill Zedler and Molly White teamed up to lecture medical doctor J.D. Sheffield about vaccine “science” last week. And what’s done is done. So let’s set aside the etiquette arguments and consider how this will play out. The clips that eventually surface will have to be judged in context, on a case by case basis. I might consider them newsworthy if they meet one of three criteria:

  1. They document aggressive, willful hypocrisy. An undercover video of a married legislator hitting on a stranger is just malicious personal gossip, unless the legislator in question is the type who never misses an opportunity to demagogue about sexual morality during a debate over a bill related to transportation funding or something like that.
  2. They document overt corruption, like, “Thanks for meeting me at the bar so I can give you this envelope of cash.”
  3. They document abuse of power.


Darby, I think, is well-equipped to arbitrate between the clips that may have legitimate public-interest implications and those that would only indulge the public’s sweet tooth for malicious personal gossip, while causing potentially serious distress to the people caught with their hands in the cookie jar and their families, who surely don’t deserve such heartache. And contra most of the Capitol chatter, I don’t think Darby and the activists who organized this sting are puppets of Tim Dunn et al–even though, as Rauf and McGaughy noted, there are plenty of provable connections between the American Phoenix Foundation, EmpowerTexans, and Breitbart Texas.

We’ll see, though; if not before the end of the regular session, perhaps during the special session, which should be easily avoidable this year, but may not be. In the meantime, I hope our hardworking legislators and lobbyists aren’t losing too much sleep over this. And for any who are—well, maybe it’s an opportunity for learning and personal growth, if not on ethics, at least on tactics: next time, if you’re looking to conduct clandestine business, consider meeting literally almost anywhere else.


Mon May 11, 2015 9:37 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Are you middle class?

Middle Class in Texas

A little over two years ago, as Barack Obama took the oath of office for the second time, he alluded to the American Dream—the idea that this is a land of opportunity where anyone can rise economically to home ownership and economic security. “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.”

As the nation continues to recover slowly from the recession of 2008, politicians today apparently are engaging in the rhetoric of diminished expectations. The New York Times today is reporting that politicians of both major parties are shunning the term “middle class” as they struggle to find ways to appeal to voters. The phrases ranged from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “everyday Americans” to Ted Cruz’s ”hard working men and women across America.” 

The once ubiquitous term “middle class” has gone conspicuously missing from the 2016 campaign trail, as candidates and their strategists grasp for new terms for an unsettled economic era. The phrase, long synonymous with the American dream, now evokes anxiety, an uncertain future and a lifestyle that is increasingly out of reach.

The move away from “middle class” is the rhetorical result of a critical shift: After three decades of income gains favoring the highest earners and job growth being concentrated at the bottom of the pay scale, the middle has for millions of families become a precarious place to be.

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Sun May 10, 2015 10:40 pm By Erica Grieder

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to take a moment to address America’s ongoing “War on Women”, and several related skirmishes in the Texas Lege this year. The origins of the conflict are of course debatable. Perhaps it began in the Garden of Eden, when Eve engineered the Fall of Man. The phrase itself was coined in 1989, by the feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, who described rape, domestic violence, and even pornography as strategies in a systematic effort to suppress and destroy women. In the context of contemporary American politics, if we’re looking for the catalytic cause of the conflict—the Battle of Gonzales, the abduction of Helen, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand—I’d point to 1973’s Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision which recognized that women can sometimes exercise their rights even contra the preferences of men who may have an opinion about it.

Whatever the cause, the conflict continues. The short-term outlook, obviously, is ominous. With Hillary Clinton the early frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, if not the inevitable nominee, we can expect “women” to be a major theme of the 2016 election cycle. And today, with mothers out in full force all over Austin, it occurred to me anew that the long-term outlook is no less grim. The state is bound to have a disproportionate fascination with women because women are the linchpin of the family, which is the building block of society, which is America’s bulwark against an incipient, Northern European-type welfare state. Fathers are important; without mothers our whole system falls apart. That’s a generalization, of course, which overlooks the existence of single fathers, and the contributions of extended family and friend networks, etc. But a look at your Facebook feed today should confirm what research has repeatedly found. Women provide more childcare than men do, on average, and more elder care. They do a disproportionate share of housework, even when they also work outside the home. They are more likely to be single parents, and so on. Many government services, in fact, are efforts to supplement the role that mothers so often play in the lives of their children. Last week, the Texas Senate passed the House’s bill expanding pre-K, which Greg Abbott had deemed an emergency item—a worthwhile priority, because studies have shown that high-quality pre-K has almost as much impact on a child’s education outcomes as having a mother who graduated from college.  

These loving, strong, selfless mothers, God bless them, provide a semi-legitimate reason for government to take such a solicitous interest in the lives of all women.

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Fri May 8, 2015 4:38 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

When you go to work on Monday, March 14, 2016, feeling like you have been deprived of sleep because of the annual leap forward to Daylight Savings Time, think back to today and thank the Texas House for your groggy state of mind. By a vote of 56 ayes to 79 nays, the House defeated legislation by Representative Dan Flynn to do away with the annual back and forth on time.

Some of the naysayers were worried about children going to school in the dark in winter, while others were worried that Sunday beer sales would not start in time for professional football kickoffs. Some just seemed confused. But then, does anybody know what time it really is?

“The only one who knows if it is sun up or sun down is the rooster,” Flynn told the House.


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Fri May 8, 2015 11:57 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Comptroller Glenn Hegar may have given the House a new weapon in the fight over tax cuts by reminding the state leadership that there are obligations that, if not adequately addressed, might harm Texas’ bond rating. One of those items is the rapid growth of state debt service, which has increased by 54 percent over the past decade and now requires $5 billion in expenditures. Some in the House leadership have told me they would like to forego tax cuts in favor of spending the money on reducing the state debt load.

Hegar’s May 4 letter was neutral on the House sales tax cut proposal and the Senate’s property tax cut. But he warned Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Speaker Joe Straus that final budget negotiations should not just focus on cutting taxes.

As Comptroller, I want to emphasize that in addition to tax cuts, it is also important to consider the longterm challenges affecting the state’s balance sheet and credit ratings. Although these issues are long-term in nature and extend beyond the upcoming two year budget horizon, they must be addressed to ensure the state’s continued good financial health and condition. Bear in mind that the state currently enjoys the highest credit ratings from the major rating agencies, which translates into lower borrowing rates for state issued obligations and less costs to taxpayers.

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