Patrick finalizes Senate committees

The Texas Tribune reports that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has finalized committee assignments in the senate for the 84th Legislature. Making good on two longstanding committees, Patrick both consolidated the number of committees and significantly reduced the number of Democratic chairs for those committees that remained. Three committees (Government Organization, Jurisprudence and Open Government) got the ax, and a further two committees (Economic Development and Natural Resources, respectively) were merged. This had the overall effect of slashing the total number of committees from 18 to 14.

All three folded committees had been chaired in the 83rd session by Democrats, as did a further three committees. Thus, 1/3rd of the committees had Democrats at the helm, roughly the proportion of the chamber controlled by the minority party. Patrick kept State Senator John Whitmire (D-Harris County), the dean of the chamber, in charge of the Criminal Justice Committee, a position he has held for many years. He also tapped State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Cameron County) as the chair of Intergovernmental Relations, a rather low-ranking post. Reportedly, this was an olive branch extended to the upper house’s most centrist Democrat. Lucio was the one Democrat this past week to vote for the elimination of the 2/3rds rule, as well as for the omnibus anti-abortion bill HB2 (the one Wendy Davis filibustered) in 2013.

Among other important picks and retentions was State Senator Kel Seliger (R-Potter County) staying on as the chairman of the Higher Education Committee. Seliger has been, according to the Tribune article, an “occasional critic” of the Lieutenant Governor. He also is especially pro-Bill Powers and anti-Wallace Hall, for what it’s worth. State Senators Robert Nichols (R-Cherokee County) and Kevin Eltife (R-Smith County), respectively, also retained their chairmanships (Transportation and Business & Commerce, respectively).

State Senator Craig Estes (R-Wichita County), a two-time chair in the 83rd (Agriculture & Rural Affairs and State Affairs), was stripped of both titles. Harvey Kronberg at Quorum Report opined this could be because Estes was the sole Republican against the 2/3rds rule’s demise. Estes was replaced at Agriculture, Water & Rural Affairs by State Senator Charles Perry (R-Lubbock County), a freshman. I found it somewhat interesting and telling that the one freshman tapped was not a right-wing activist like State Senators Don Huffines (R-Dallas County), Konni Burton (R-Tarrant County) or Bob Hall (R-Van Zandt County), to name a few.

Finally, all eyes were on the Senate Education Committee, of which Patrick previously chaired when he served in the upper chamber. He selected State Senator Larry Taylor (R-Galveston County) as the replacement, which garnered a wide variety of responses. Breitbart Texas appears particularly stoked. Many observers prognosticate that Patrick — now flanked by Taylor — will pursue a wide variety of educational reforms, including a more extensive use of vouchers for charter and private schools.

Say what you want about Patrick, but his first few days in office have featured nothing but him staying true on his word. Unfortunately, that means he was not bluffing on the campaign trail about implementing a very conservative agenda if sent to high office.

This is just a preview of things to come. Patrick is looking more and more like a boisterous and powerful lieutenant governor (the anti-Dewhurst, if you will). Meanwhile, Abbott looks as though he may not continue Perry’s mega-powerful theme. Texas politics may very well regress back to the mean, with a more powerful lieutenant governor and a less powerful governor. Still, don’t be surprised if Patrick runs for governor (and wins) in 2018.

Crocodile tears

The Houston Chronicle reports that Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for Governor, has unveiled yet another television ad. Going back to the style of his first, very positive and self narrated, Abbott lamented the troubles facing Texas roads and outlined his proposal to help.

“A guy in a wheelchair can move faster than traffic on some roads in Texas,” Abbott says. He proposes prohibiting moneys in the State Highway Fund from going to non-highway sources. From what the ad says, Abbott appears to insinuate that these so-called diversions are pork barrel spending used by legislators as de facto earmarks. According to Abbott’s website, this could save $400,000,000.00 a year, or $800 Million a biennium!

This is all good and well, but the Houston Chronicle noted earlier this year that House Speaker Joe Straus will instruct members to compile a budget next session that does exactly this. Accordingly, if one were to agree with this proposal, Straus should get the accolades, not Abbott. However, this assumes that the proposal is a good idea. The Chronicle article suggests that the bulk of this non-transportation money spent out the highway fund goes to law enforcement agencies. Abbott’s website also admits that, “In the 2014-15 biennial budget , more than $800 million was appropriated to non-transportation related agencies, including the Office of Comptroller, the Veteran’s Commission, and the Department of Insurance.” Not pork-barrel spending, but veterans. Obviously, these important government expenditures will have to be made up for elsewhere in the budget, so the actual “savings” will be kept to a minimum.

As Dug Begley, the Chronicle’s awesome transportation columnist, has opined, roads are quite high priority but low on the totem pole for folks willing to spend money. People like Abbott, all too often, appear to think that they just magically appear one day. Those in the know in transportation land have said many billions of dollars are needed per annum just to maintain the quality of our roads with the exponentially increasing population. $4 Billion to $8 Billion, by some estimates. Abbott’s plan does not do this, and State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County) does not have a good plan for it either.

Both candidates are afraid of uttering the true solution to this problem: raising the gas tax. Unchanged for nearly 25 years, the gas tax is the main mechanism that the State of Texas uses to fund its expansive highway system. Republicans and Democrats alike, trembling in fear before vehemently anti-tax voters, dare not to speak of raising it. But, because of this reluctance, the Texas Department of Transportation has only dug itself deeper and deeper into debt. State Senator Kevin Eltife (R-Smith County) is one of the few politicians willing to frankly discuss this problem, and the need to do something drastic (like hike the gas tax). The New York Times reported on this development last year in some detail.

But Eltife is not running for Governor, Abbott is. And Abbott’s grand plans for roads are completely worthless. It does not even put a band-aid over the problem like the Legislature did last session. He may shed crocodile tears over our crumbling roads, but he and his Tea Party friends’ extreme ideology are partly why we are in this situation. Roads are expensive.

Duncan leaves the Senate

The Texas Tribune reports that State Senator Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock County) will be resigning from the Senate in order to become the next Chancellor of Texas Tech. Admittedly, I heard a rumor about this a couple of months ago and utterly refused to accept it until I saw it confirmed. I do not especially care about the wonky higher education implications of this, and considering that I do not even talk about the (albeit fascinating) inside politics at the UT system on this publication, I will not bore you with the Ivory Tower tales from Lubbock, Texas (Editorial note: Carl, this is not elitist against your alma matter, it is a general comment that details of inner squabbles with universities, even involving my own college, are not meant to be published here).

Rather, I think the implications of someone like Duncan leaving the Texas Senate are quite significant for two key reasons. First, Duncan is definitely one of the most noble Senators in the upper chamber, and likely the most noble among Republicans. Avid followers of the chamber will surely remember Duncan for his kindness, integrity and all around good graces toward those on both sides of the aisle. However, much more pressing is that he was a foe to ideologues and partisan-over-policy attitudes, especially those in the Tea Party and other fringes of the right wing. In fact, early this year, Duncan strongly repudiated the so-called “race to the right,” a move that garnered him some positive press from an op-ed of mine in The Daily Texan.

But the Senate is losing much more than a moderate, click here to find out what!

Deuell backs Patrick

I promise you that this is very significant. State Senator Bob Deuell (R-Hunt County), a long time stalwart of the upper chamber hailing from the east, has endorsed Dan Patrick in the Republican primary for Lieutenant Governor. Patrick (R-Harris County), yet another member of the State Senator, did not always appear to have the most amiable of relationships with Deuell. Not so much for any centrism, but his bipartisanship and general decency around Democrats did him in with the Tea Party. Accordingly, he drew a Tea Party backed, far-right challenger in Bob Hall this primary cycle. Deuell and Hall will face off against one another next month in a runoff election, though polls generally put Deuell at an advantage.

Deuell supporting Patrick in a desperate attempt to improve his conservative credentials should not be seen as surprising in the least, but it is extremely important because of what it means for the future of the Texas Senate. Simply put, Deuell was an invaluable part of coalition I conjured up to combat the reign of terror from Dan Patrick, who –barring an incredibly strange turn of events– will be the next Lieutenant Governor of Texas. The point I made last month was that, assuming Wendy Davis’ Senate seat falls into Republican hands (Dems were too lazy to find a candidate worth their weight in paper), 5 Republicans would have to defect and join with the Democrats to strip Lt Gov Patrick of all his power at the start of the 84th Legislative session in January 2015. As I explained previously, the broad powers that the Lieutenant Governor has as the President of the Senate is by tradition not constitutional mandate. A majority of the Senate could easily strip the Lt Gov of her or his powers.

Click here to read more!

Lieutenant Governor Patrick?

Let us assume that Dan Patrick wins the Republican nomination for Lieutenant Governor. Further, let us assume that –no matter what the Washington Post may say–  Patrick wins the general election. What, then, will become of our Texas? Liberals are preaching about a tentative apocalypse that may occur if Patrick takes the dais at the Senate. Tea Partiers are giddy at the prospect of having one of their own in office.

This leads us to examine just what would, in fact, happen if (when) Patrick is inaugurated into office at the commencement of the 84th Legislature in January 2015. An article in the San Antonio Express-News begins to answer that question, but stops shy of the pronouncement I will go on to say. Simply put, the article notes the continuing hostility between Patrick and many of the Republican members of the State Senate. In my opinion, the article focuses too much on the prospect of what the Senate majority would do if State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), the Democratic nominee, is elected, given how quixotic that proposition could be. Instead, I would like to focus on how the Senate majority may react to the –far more likely– result of Dan Patrick being elected Lieutenant Governor.

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King James VII

This is two days old (I was in meetings all day yesterday), but nonetheless very important news. The House has rejected the Senate’s bill to impose term limits on statewide officeholders. While most news sources had a line or two about this in their wire service, nobody wrote a major article on it–with the significant exception of the Tyler Morning Telegraph.

The bill had been proposed and pushed through the Senate by Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), where it passed on a 27-4 vote. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) had similarly been campaigning for the bill, SJR 13, in the House. Not only did the bill fail to garner the 2/3 majority required for passage of a Constitutional Amendment, it couldn’t even muster up majority support. The roll call was 61 in favor, 80 in opposition.

While I want to just blame the tea party and the far-right for this, about half the Democratic caucus also voted in opposition to this legislation. Alma Allen, Carol Alvarado and Jessica Farrar, just to name a few Houstonians. The bill would have imposed term limits for EACH executive office (Gov, L. Gov, AG, etc), of two four-year terms. The limits would not be effective to current officeholders, meaning Perry would still be able to serve, hypothetically, through 2023. It’s official, Perry is now “King James VII.”

Executive term-limits pass the Senate

Senator Eltife’s proposal to apply Executive Officers to a limit of two term was passed in the State Senate today. By a vote of 27 (15 Republicans, 12 Democrats) to 4 (all Republicans), the State Senate moved the proposed Constitutional Amendment to the House. If it passes by at least 2/3 majority in the House. The Chron article mentions that the proposed amendment exempts current officeholders,  meaning Rick Perry could stay in office until 2023.

You can see my thoughts on term limits here. Essentially, I support this proposal, because it only applies to Executive Officeholders. I support term limits on the Governor for the same reason I support them on the President: it prevents too much power being concentrated in one person for too long. I find it pretty interesting that comments on the Chronicle are so supportive of this measure (albeit, opposed to the fact that the term limits exempt the legislature), I had always figured the internet commentators there to be more libertarian than that.