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

GOP Presidential Candidates are Banking Their Billionaires

The Republican presidential candidates are collecting billionaires like squirrels hoarding nuts for winter. And this cache of cash may keep at least several campaigns politically viable until the Texas GOP presidential primary next March.

The money primary usually is the great winnower of presidential hopefuls. Candidates who come out of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina underfunded simply do not have the money for the stretch run and frequently drop out before Texans vote in March. The advent of super Pacs in 2012 started changing that, with candidates spending a combined $10 million on television ads ahead of the Iowa caucus alone. Rick Perry spent $2.86 million on Iowa television advertising

With the prospect that winning the nomination in 2016 could cost as much as $100 million apiece, the race is on for candidates to win over the billionaires—or as Molly Ivins would have called them, the oligarchs. White House hopefuls like Ted Cruz and Rick Perry are turning to people whose disposable income runs into the millions of dollars.

The billionaire buzz caught fire today with reports that the Koch brothers, Charles and David, were leaning to throwing their financial might behind Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. After listening to Walker speak at an exclusive New York gathering Monday, David Koch declared that Walker could defeat Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton in a general election, and Koch called Walker a “tremendous candidate.”  In a statement later Monday, Koch denied that he was endorsing any candidate for president. The Kochs have said they plan to spend $889 million during the 2016 election cycle to promote candidates and their small-government philosophy. If they jump into the GOP nominating process, they could be a game-changer for the candidate they back. Though their fortune comes from Kansas-based Koch Industries, the brothers own refineries, pipelines and chemical technology operations in Texas, as well as Georgia-Pacific and the Matador Cattle Company, which covers 130,000 acres in the Caprock area.  

Medicaid Hardball

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.

How to Check Whether Anyone, Including Me, Is Telling You the Truth

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.  

Michael Quinn Sullivan, Tax Cuts and the DPS Connection

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.

DPS Chief Goes Political on Ethics Investigation

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw today proved he can be every bit as political on ethics issues as any Travis County district attorney.

Just hours before the House is set to debate a bill to take public integrity investigations away from the Travis County Public Integrity Unit and transfer that authority to McCraw’s Texas Rangers, McCraw distributed to legislators a letter he sent to the Travis prosecutors demanding they conclude an investigation into a no-bid contract at his agency.

If power to investigate the contract had been under McCraw, as proposed by HB 1690, he could have ordered the Texas Rangers to stand down a long time ago.

I understand the frustrations of Republican officeholders at the prospect of a complaint against them being investigated by a Democratic district attorney and heard by a grand jury likely made up of partisan Travis County Democrats. But moving investigations to the Texas Rangers will be no less partisan. McCraw worked for former Governor Rick Perry prior to taking charge of the state police agency in 2009. The entire Public Safety Commission is appointed by the governor. And McCraw’s chief deputy, Robert J. “Duke” Bodisch Sr., was an opposition researcher in the mid-1990s for Republican statewide political campaigns.

McCraw’s letter critical of the Travis County public integrity unit was delivered to legislators and their staffs under Bodisch’s signature.

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