Reporting from the Texas Legislature, with investigation and analysis of the state's economy, public policy, education, and more. 

Did the House Get Rolled on the Budget?

Last week, after the budget conference committee started laying out its compromise agreement, the general impression around the Lege seemed to be that on the single most important bill of the session, the House had been steamrolled by the Senate. The conferees, in keeping with the stated priorities of Dan Patrick and the Senate, had agreed to include about $1.3bn for property tax relief and about $800m for border security over the forthcoming fiscal biennium. They also stuck with the Senate figure for public education—an additional $1.5bn compared to the 2014-15 biennium, as opposed to the $2.2bn the House had authorized in its version of the budget. The conferees also abandoned a House provision on Medicaid: the lower chamber had proposed an additional $460m for Medicaid reimbursement payments (in an effort to encourage more doctors to accept Medicaid payments), the Senate had not, and the conference committee abandoned the idea.

Some representatives were disappointed, understandably enough. The House passed its version of the budget on a 141-5 vote, and its sales tax relief proposal–the rival to the Senate’s plan for property tax relief–unanimously. (The Senate passed its budget later with a similarly huge 30-1 margin, but it’s easier for leadership to twist people’s arms in a chamber with only 31 members—especially this year, clearly.) And some representatives, additionally, were surprised. In addition to the fact that the House has been unusually cohesive this year, they had the more internally consistent approach to the process, the more experienced conferees, and on public education, at least, probably the more popular position.

From my perspective, both chambers won some and lost some, and the impression that the House lost overall is due to the fact that the House lost on a handful of visible issues, as a result of circumstances beyond their control; and if the House was going to lose, that was the best way to do it. How I see it, below the jump.

Legislating into Memorial Day

As we pause today to pay respect to those who gave the “last full measure of their devotion” to their country, it is worth noting that the Texas House last night voted against cutting college benefits to military veterans.

Lawmakers are trying to maintain the so-called Hazlewood Act, which provides free college to military veterans. In 2009, it was expanded to include the children of veterans, who now dominate the program. According to an Associated Press report in the Austin American-Statesman the cost rose from $24.7 million in 2010 to $169 million last year. A bill passed by the Senate would have drastically reduced eligibility for the program.

 “How hypocritical that on the eve of Memorial Day, the day after our memorial day service, that this Legislature is trying to break its promise to veterans and their families,” said El Paso Democratic Rep. Cesar Blanco. He was referring to the House and Senate gathering in a special session Saturday to honor Texans killed in military service.

 

A watered-down version of the bill passed, allowing the children of veterans to obtain college benefits only if they have lived in the state for eight years. 

The Right Wing Stumbles On Abortion

After several legislative sessions of getting legislation passed restricting abortion, advocates found themselves stumbling over roadblocks on Sunday.

 

The Ethics Of Pettiness

Roscoe Dean Jr.A Georgia state senator named Roscoe Emory Dean Jr. and a small town city manager named Thomas Bigley taught me the real dangers to democracy of dark money and of leaving prosecutions of corrupt officials up to their local district attorneys. Roscoe and Tom tried to raise $10 million from Colombian drug lords to finance Dean’s campaign for governor.

My experiences from covering Dean’s corruption has made me disappointed in the various “ethics reforms” bouncing around the Texas Legislature this year. The reforms often are petty and political, while others are designed to turn legislators and state officials into a special class of people not subject to the same laws as everyone else in the state. And as much as I dislike so-called dark money, don’t expect an ethics bill that includes its disclosure to get past Governor Greg Abbott. As a Texas Supreme Court justice in 1998, Abbott wrote the opinion protecting donors to political groups from being subject to disclosure.

 

Disrupt The Narrative

Hannah and Joe

At age 19, Hannah Giles became a rock star of the conservative movement after she and provocateur videographer and conservative activist James O’Keefe posed as a prostitute and her pimp to run a 2009 hidden-camera sting on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN. Republicans often accused the left-leaning organization of committing voter fraud, and the Giles/O’Keefe videos seemed to show ACORN workers were encouraging them to set up a child prostitution ring. Official investigations in three states found no criminal wrongdoing by ACORN workers and reported that the videos were heavily edited to put ACORN workers in the worst light. But the damage was done, ACORN lost both its government and private funding and went out of business. Giles’s husband later was arrested for attempting to enter U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu’s office disguised as a telephone repairman. They have been conservative activists in the past.

Giles and Basel afterward moved to Texas and set up the American Phoenix Foundation to promote investigative journalism by young conservative activists. Giles in speeches tells audiences that there is a need to bypass the mainstream media with investigations that “disrupt the narrative.” As part of that, they say they have hired 16 workers to use hidden cameras to investigate Texas legislators, an investigation that has angered both lawmakers and lobbyists.

Giles and her husband, Joseph Basel, sat down with me in the Texas Monthly offices for an hour this week to discuss their project and philosophy. My approach to the interview was to be a neutral solicitor of information so the readers can decide for themselves the motives behind Giles and Basel: Whether this is a pure investigation; is intended to oust House Speaker Joe Straus’s conservative allies; is a real scandal of lobbyists and legislators; or, whether the Texas Capitol’s legislators, lobbyists and journalists have all just been punked. We’ll know if the first video is released in June.

To make reading easier, I have broken the interview into topical parts. I have tried to be as light-handed as possible in the editing for brevity and to increase the clarity of my questions.

Continue reading this item for the first part: Disrupting the Narrative. The other parts are:

The Failings Of The Flesh 

Hannah Giles Links to Dan Patrick, Bettencourt 

The American Phoenix Foundation Watchers 

The Balance of Power

Disillusioned With Conservatives 

Faith And Freedom

Failings Of The Flesh

The American Phoenix Foundation hidden-camera investigation of the Texas Legislature seems to have sexual misdeeds by lawmakers and legislators as a major element of the video Hannah Giles and her husband Joseph Basel say they plan to release starting next month. We won’t know what they actually have until it is released, whether it is a real scandal or if we’re all just being punked. But Giles’s father – conservative commentator Doug Giles – wrote on Townhall.com over the weekend that Summer’s Gonna Suck For The Texas Legislature

 

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