Archive | Texas Senate

RSS feed for this section

The legislative session of bad ideas and worse outcomes

Today is the final day of the legislative session of 2015 in Texas. With any luck, we won’t see this clown car back for a very long time. For you legislative newbies, the last day of session is called “sine die.”

“Sine” is latin, and means “oh my God, if they stay any longer, I’m just gonna.”

“Die” means die.

On one hand, expectations were low, but were quickly exceeded by legislators hell-bent on unexpected lowness.

Up at thirty thousand feet, it’s not surprising – too many people were new to their jobs for anybody to get a passing grade on their first try. With the exception of House Speaker Joe Straus, much of the leadership had never done this before.

It showed.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick is sure to spend the rest of the week crowing about him being the most successful Lt. Governor of all time. But the first thing he did was change the Senate rules to mow over the Democrats, and suddenly “the greatest deliberative body in the world” wasn’t even the greatest deliberative body in the building.

If you rewind back to Patrick’s inauguration speech in January, his biggest emphasis was in passing public school vouchers. Then the voucher bills promptly died.

Granted, Patrick also emphasized cutting taxes, and cut taxes they did. Businesses will get a break, but heading for a campaign mailer near you will be bragging that they cut homeowners’ property taxes. That big “cut you will notice” turned out to average about 35 cents per day for homeowners. Don’t spent it all in one place (sorry, renters – you’re out).

Yes, they had modest tax cuts, and yes, they passed a conservative budget, and they’ll all brag about all that in the campaign mailers. What they won’t mention is that they did little to move the ball forward on infrastructure or massive expensive debt, all while hoarding more than 18 billion dollars of your money which still isn’t working for you.

They’ll brag about their investment in border security, while forgetting to mention that the border region isn’t even statistically dangerous, or that the efforts of the Feds, not the DPS or other state authorities, are responsible for most interdictions. But they certainly threw 800 million bucks of your money at the problem. Because campaign mailers!

And ethics reform? What they passed is ethics DEform. Legislators acted like it’s just completely unreasonable to pass a bill that would actually let Texans know where the money comes from or where it went. And just for good measure, they passed special legislation that will make it much harder to prosecute…only legislators.

Despite court rulings against public school finance, and massive cuts to education in past sessions, many school districts remain behind the 8-ball from those past cuts, and if anything they institutionalized everything that is wrong with the current finance system, despite House Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock’s laudable efforts to have a real debate on improvement. But be sure to look forward to those campaign mailers about how education is their highest priority!

And never fear, patriots! Endless hours of debate was lovingly devoted to all the darling issues of importance to the Tea Party clown car. Guns everywhere! More heavily-regulated uteruses! We hate icky gay people more than you!

And speaking of gay people, they continued to strenuously oppose marriage equality, using as their excuse the fact that Texans voted for it years ago – even as they overturned the results of the election held in Denton last fall that overwhelmingly prohibited fracking there.

So yes, lip service was certainly paid to the enforcers of Republican primary politics, but the leadership didn’t even do that very well – even the Tea Party is grumbling that everybody’s a disappointment, while legislators didn’t even attempt to pay lip service to the other 96 percent of Texans.

It wasn’t all bleak. They did find some money for roads, but not enough to keep up. They did pass a pre-K bill – one which doesn’t expand the program to more kids, and one which almost but not quite gets us back to previous pre-K funding.

These two achievements will be lauded only because they’re two of the only things the legislature accomplished that didn’t actively go in the wrong direction. Let that sink in.

Style points must be given to Governor Greg Abbott. He managed to stay above the fray every time there was some hot Republican-on-Republican action, while gently guiding legislators toward his point of view behind the scenes. Progressives may not agree with Abbott on much, but after the blustery swaggering days of Rick Perry, and the antagonistic “my way or the highway” approach of Dan Patrick, Abbott’s less flashy, calm leadership style was at least a few molecules of fresh air.

All told, there will be a lot for conservative Republicans to campaign on. But while they’re busy bragging to Republican primary voters about all they accomplished, to the rest of Texas, this legislative session will sadly be remembered for absolutely nothing at all.

Comments are closed

SCOTUS taking Texas redistricting case is potentially bad news for minorities, Democrats

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an obscure redistricting challenge to Texas Senate districts that, frankly, most court watchers have not paid much attention to. The case, Evenwel v. Abbott, had been dismissed at the trial court level.

If the Supreme Court revives this case, it has the potential to turn what’s left of the Voting Rights Act on its ear, and devastate minority representation in Texas.

Here’s how: currently, districts (Congressional, state House, state Senate, city council, etc.) are drawn based on total population. The plaintiffs in Evenwel want those districts to be drawn based only on citizen voting age population. Under their scenario, people under the age of 18 don’t exist, and non-citizens don’t exist. From a public policy standpoint, this flies in the face of reality, and of why governments exist and who governments serve. Children count; governments serve them in many ways, from health care to public education. And even non-citizens count – can you imagine firefighters not bothering to put out a house fire because an immigrant lives in the house? Governments serve everybody living within its geographic boundaries in some way, and they collect taxes from everybody living within those boundaries in some way – not just those who are citizens of voting age.

Politically, the case has potential serious ramifications for the current make-up of the Senate, and if the plaintiffs prevailed, it would almost certainly mean fewer minority Senators holding office. The current map was drawn using total population. Under the plaintiff’s scheme, the state would be required to draw maps using only citizen voting age population, not total population. Thrown out of the count would be everybody under the age of 18, and everybody who isn’t a citizen.

The Hispanic population in Texas is very young (in fact, Texas in general is very young – more than 25% of Texans are children). And Texas had an estimated 1.7 million non-citizen residents as of 2010. These residents are counted in the census (as they should be, even redistricting aside, since the funding for many federal programs depends on it). These residents also live disproportionately in the Senate districts of current minority Senators and/or Senators of minority voters’ choice – mostly in urban and South Texas.

If these children and non-citizens suddenly didn’t count toward the totals in map-drawing, the districts of most if not all of the racial minorities currently in the Texas Senate would necessarily become much larger, since the one man-one vote principle dictates that districts be roughly the same population. Since there are only so many minority Texans to go around, plus other Texans who ally themselves with minorities, it is entirely possible that these larger districts would elect fewer minority Senators, or Senators of minority Texans’ choice regardless of the Senator’s ethnicity. Senator Sylvia Garcia’s urban and Hispanic-heavy Houston district, for example, was drawn based on its total population of 812,881 people, but only contains 383,985 citizens of voting age. Meanwhile, quick-and-dirty math dictates that the new ideal citizen age voting population of any Senate district would be 522,508. Her district would have to be re-drawn to be significantly larger if the plaintiffs prevailed. While other districts’ mileage may vary, this scenario would be the rule, not the exception, in other Senate districts currently holding a significant minority population.

If the plaintiffs prevailed, the net result would be less minority representation, and presumably less Democratic representation, since all current Senate officeholders who represent a definitive minority population are Democrats, and with the exception of Senators Watson and Whitmire, are themselves racial minorities.

The bottom line is that if the plaintiffs prevail, it’s devastating news for minorities, Democrats, and progressives. Which is one key reason why conservative organizations support the lawsuit.

The good news: just because the Supreme Court opted to hear this case doesn’t mean the plaintiffs will prevail. Accepting a case only requires that four justices want it. But for a plaintiff to win a case requires that five justices agree with the plaintiff’s argument.

As is usual in voting rights and redistricting litigation, all eyes will be on Justice Kennedy – the perennial swing vote on such matters. The court will take up the case in its next session, which begins in October. Keep your seat belts fastened.

Comments are closed

Yay! It’s House budget day!

Welcome, first time Texas Legislature watchers, to the next significant part of the budget process – the day the budget hits the House floor! The Senate’s budget floor debate is scheduled a few days from now.

As a LettersFromTexas tutorial for the benefit of you, the crap-reading public, here’s what you can expect out of the budget process in each chamber:

Typical budget day in the Senate: 5 amendments, 3 frowned upon, all quickly tabled. In extreme cases hurt feelings may extend all the way until high tea. Several mani-pedis may need to be rescheduled. This is a day of high stress for waiters at Jeffrey’s, 3 Forks, and Austin Land & Cattle, so please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.

Typical budget day in the House: 350 amendments, fisticuffs, and a possible food fight in the members lounge. Tea Party threatens to form 3rd party in next election, 3 committee chairs announce retirement from politics, and 7 agency Executive Directors found hanging from rafters. CSI team called in to investigate.

This has been your LettersFromTexas budget debate tutorial. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled House floor clawing, scratching, and biting.

Comments are closed

Wendy Davis for Lieutenant Governor? No.

I really wish Wendy Davis would decide on her political plans, so that everybody can stop being an expert on the decision that I trust she’s more-than-smart enough to make for herself. And frankly, when she gets done mulling over her future, I hope she ultimately decides to run for Governor. I’ll certainly support whatever decision she ultimately makes; almost all Democrats, and more than her fair share of independent voters ultimately will.

But what I wish more than anything is for progressive activists to stop believing that her running for Lieutenant Governor is somehow a neato keeno option. It’s not.

For one thing, the first Democrat to win a statewide race since before today’s college freshmen were born is probably going to do so by completely changing the dynamic of the election. That’s more difficult to do down-ballot, for several reasons. But while I feel strongly about that factor, it’s arguable, as evidenced by all the people who constantly argue about it.

Here’s a structural factor which really isn’t arguable: the real powers of the Lt. Governor are not vested in the state Constitution; they’re given to the office by the members of the Texas Senate themselves when they pass the Senate rules. So, all those times that journalists have written that the Lt. Governor is arguably the most powerful office in State Government? That’s just the Senators handing over that power. Absent the rules that a simple majority of the Senators pass at the beginning of a legislative session, Lt. Governors would essentially be reduced to breaking tie votes in the Senate (which seldom happens) and waiting for Governors to die, be indicted, or be elected President, so the Lite Guv can move into the mansion. Other than that, they’d be coloring, cutting, and pasting in a really nice office.

We have all watched for several years as the Republicans in charge in the Senate have consistently changed the rules to win. When they couldn’t pass a 2003 mid-decade Congressional redistricting bill when Tom DeLay ordered them to do it, they just changed the rules which would have required a two-thirds vote to debate legislation, and they bypassed the Senate Democrats who opposed it. After the associated Democratic quorum break petered out, they passed the redistricting bill. They said at the time they’d never do this for anything else other than redistricting bills. But several years later when they couldn’t pass voter photo I.D. legislation over the objections of the Senate Democrats, they made a special rule just for that bill, and passed it too. Most recently, this summer when they couldn’t pass their anti-abortion legislation, they did away with the two-thirds rule to pass that as well. Then when Wendy Davis began her filibuster, the Republicans immediately made it clear that they’d ignore generations of Senate precedent regarding filibuster traditions and germaneness rules to silence her.

Is there any doubt in your mind that this bunch would change the rules again if Davis was elected Lt. Governor, to ensure that her leadership was minimized? Of course they would. The Senate would simply move to a majority leader system, in which the Republican Caucus chair would run the business of the Senate, leaving a Lt. Governor Davis in a largely-symbolic job, with little power and few staff. She would not determine which bills are called up for debate. She would not appoint committee chairs. They certainly wouldn’t let her control parliamentary rulings, like the ones which silenced her during her filibuster. They’d probably do away with the two-thirds rule altogether, although frankly I think they might as well do that anyway, since the Republicans have made it clear that their definition of the two-thirds rule amounts to “you can have your two-thirds rule, as long as I have my two-thirds.”

Incidentally, I also believe the Senate may well change the rules in the event Dan Patrick wins his race for Lt. Governor. One can count on one hand the number of Senators who trust Patrick. So this isn’t entirely partisan – you can’t blame the Senate majority for an unwillingness to hand over their power to somebody they don’t trust.

None of the above breaks new ground. I’ve been talking to any reporter who would listen about this, and so have others, including Matt Angle, who is one of Senator Davis’ close confidants. But the chatter continues.

I get it – there’s a certain “the shoe’s on the other foot now” symmetry to the notion of Davis’ election to the very office most responsible for silencing her during her filibuster. It’s the office most responsible for the fact that the Texas Senate, once a proud and honorable institution, is nothing special anymore. But the idea just doesn’t work.

Wendy Davis could be the first candidate for statewide office Democrats have seen in a very long time who ultimately proves to be viable, or she could opt to run for re-election to her state Senate seat. But no matter where she lands, the structure of the office almost certainly means that it won’t be as a candidate for Lt. Governor.

Comments are closed

The greatest deliberative body in the world?

“The Texas Senate is the greatest deliberative body in the world.”

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. Texas state Senators of both parties love to say it.

I wonder if they even noticed, before last night, that it’s not true anymore?

Yeah, about last night.

Last night made it clear that these days, The Greatest Deliberative Body In The World may not even be the greatest deliberative body in the building.

Perhaps it was the first point of order sustained against filibustering Democratic Senator Wendy Davis, in which this great deliberative body, where virtually all things are usually ruled germane to debates, suddenly ruled that Davis’ discussion of past legislative family planning budget cuts wasn’t germane to a bill on abortion restrictions.

Or perhaps it was the second point of order sustained against Davis, in which she was ruled out of order because another Senator decided to help her with her back brace. Yes – a point of order was sustained against a Senator based on an entirely different Senator’s action.

Or maybe it was Davis’ third strike – which called her out and ended her filibuster – the Republican point of order sustained against her in which Davis’ discussion, on how other legislation on the topic of abortion restrictions could affect this bill,was ruled not germane.

Let that sink in: debate on the topic of abortion restrictions is unrelated to legislation on abortion restrictions. That was the Republican claim, and that was the Republican ruling. Everybody watching in the building and around the world knew that Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, was the referee who threw the game. It was intended to end Wendy Davis’ filibuster. It may have instead ended some Republicans’ careers.

Dewhurst shouldn’t have been surprised when it also ended the last shred of patience with the hundreds of pro-choice Texans watching upstairs from the Senate gallery. Ignited by Senator Leticia Van de Putte’s angry pronouncement that a female Senator’s motion wasn’t being recognized over a man’s, the upstairs crowd exploded, and their deafening noise took over the building for more than ten minutes and ran out the clock.

It’s terrible precedent for a Senate gallery to take over the Senate floor. It’s worse precedent for the majority party to cheat in order to win. Thousands of people swarmed into their Capitol building last night to see how their government works, but once they got there they found out that, these days, it doesn’t work at all. Republicans shouldn’t have been surprised at their reaction, which was essentially to rise up with one voice and declare “up with this shit we will not put!”

I’ve been watching the Texas Senate for almost 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve also never seen anything like this level of clock mismanagement by  legislative leadership, which is why this anti-abortion bill ended up in the red zone in the first place, vulnerable to Wendy Davis’ ultimately-successful filibuster.

Ironically, despite Dewhurst bumbling just about everything he touched last night, he’s also the lone Republican in state leadership who first raised the alarm bell mid-last week, and turned out to be exactly right in urging the House leadership to hurry up and return the legislation to the Senate, lest the bill get into Democratic filibuster range. The House scoffed at him, declined to meet Saturday, and put off final debate until a day later. Dewhurst’s warning turned out to be an accurate premonition.

This morning, the special session is over. The anti-abortion bill, currently dead, faces an uncertain future at the hands of Governor Perry’s decision of whether to call another session. People like Democratic Senators Wendy Davis, Senate Democratic leader Kirk Watson, and Senator Leticia Van de Putte are suddenly progressive heroes, the former propelled into international political stardom. Tens of thousands of Texas progressives and Democrats are suddenly feeling more empowered than they’ve felt in a generation.

And it’s entirely possible that none of it would have happened, if the Republicans in charge had managed the clock and run a fair fight.

Greatest deliberative body in the world indeed.

I’ll leave you with my own point of personal privilege, which not only demonstrates how proud I am of Wendy Davis and the Senate Democrats, but also proves that this woman can filibuster for 13 hours late into the night, and still be up and awake by 9 am the next morning:



Comments are closed

The six percent

Today’s a big day for Democrats in the state legislature. And at the end of the day, they’ll probably think they won a big one.

Thankfully, they’re working hard to kill a bill which, if it passed, would be among the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation. In fact it’s probably unconstitutional.

The bill outlaws most abortions after 20 weeks into a pregnancy (that’s most of the “probably unconstitutional” part – the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade is generally agreed to protect abortion rights until about the 24th week), requires doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of a clinic, requires clinics to meet standards so strict that it would close all but a few clinics in Texas, and requires that abortion-inducing medications be taken in the presence of a doctor. Proponents of the bill claim it’s about improving women’s health, but can neither point to a current related problem nor identify how their bill solves it.

The fact that doctors’ professional organizations oppose the legislation would normally be enough for most Texans to conclude that the Texas Legislature is practicing medicine without a license.

But there’s nothing normal about this “special” legislative session, and there isn’t anything about this issue aimed at “most Texans.” There’s also nothing normal about the way the Republican leadership has handled it – which brings me back to the top: at the end of the day, Democrats will probably think they won a big one.

But are Democrats winning, or is it more that Republicans are losing?

In light of a million trillion pronouncements from all manner of Republican leadership that this is magically The Most Important Issue In The World, consider the following:

— Governor Rick Perry (who exclusively controls the agenda of a special session of the legislature) didn’t add abortion legislation to the agenda until they were well-into the special session.

— The presiding officer of the Senate, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, who aggressively pushed Perry to add the issue to the agenda, spent at least a week of the 30-day legislative session in Europe. (Perry didn’t add it until after Dewhurst returned)

— The presiding officer of the House, Joe Straus, adjourned the House of Representatives for a two-week period of the 30 day session.

All of the above contributed to where we are today – the last day of the special session – during which it is likely that Senate Democrats led by Wendy Davis of Fort Worth will kill the legislation via filibuster, following heroic efforts by House Democrats over the weekend to slow down the process and put the bill in range of Davis’ efforts.

I hope this legislation is dead by the end of today. The whole situation would be laughably wacky, except that if the bill passes, it will kill women. It wouldn’t make abortions less necessary for the women who need them, it would just make them less accessible. It would make illegal and dangerous back-alley abortions more likely, and make life-threatening outcomes inevitable. To the extent it prevents any abortions, it doesn’t make affordable prenatal care any more accessible by the women forced to continue their pregnancies. It does nothing to make day care for these children more affordable, and nothing to improve the quality of the public education these children deserve.

But I’m not going to change any minds with this piece. What I can do is point out the truth behind this shady process.

The fact is, the Republican leadership has done just about everything they could do to mishandle the legislative session, leading to the Democratic minority being in range of killing the bill. And I’m glad they are, since advocates of the policy aren’t representing mainstream Texans in their efforts – they’re playing to a very limited crowd: Republican primary voters.

Republican officeholders are terrified of their own primary voters. Aside from the stray post-redistricting election here and there, the vast majority of Republican incumbents who lose their re-election efforts do so in the Republican primary – in most district elections and statewide, Democrats have been little threat to them. The pro-life stance in the abortion debate is the big motivating issue for only one voting segment: Republican primary voters.

So who are these voters? Of the 25 million people who live in Texas, it amounts to fewer than 1.5 million people. That’s about six percent of Texans.

Six percent. That’s the entire audience Republican officeholders are playing to, while the other 94 percent of Texans look on as spectators to this sham. That six percent are also the folks who have been electing all the statewide officeholders around here for almost 20 years, since the only two things a candidate has to do to get elected statewide in Texas are to win in the Republican primary, and to not get hit by a bus until after the general election.

Both the safety and liberty of Texas women are being sold down the river for the sake of that six percent. The legitimately important issues of concern to mainstream Texas families stay on the back burner for the sake of the six percent. And virtually all the public utterances of the Republican leadership in Texas are aimed squarely at attracting the six percent.

And that’s exactly how things will continue around here until Democrats win a statewide election, and Republicans suddenly remember the other 94 percent. There are 23.5 million Texans Republicans haven’t had a conversation with in 20 years.

But the longer Republicans pander to their precious six percent, the more likely it is that Democrats will be back in the game sooner rather than later. The lack of leadership around here isn’t indicated by Republicans mishandling the clock. It’s best indicated by them ignoring the 94 percent.

Thank the House Democrats for their amazing round-the-clock efforts in the last few days in slowing down this legislation. Be grateful for the Senate Democrats standing strong and united yesterday in blocking the rule suspension which would have greased this bill through. Cheer on Senator Wendy Davis today as she hopefully carries the ball over the finish line and kills this bill.

But then, after all that, don’t be surprised when the Republicans immediately call a do-over, and legislators are back in Austin for a second special session.

Because, dear 94 percenters, the other six percent must be catered to.

Comments are closed

On the Texas Senate abortion debate

Last night’s discussion on YNN’s Capital Tonight centered on debate in the Texas Senate on anti-abortion legislation. It was one of the most infuriating Senate debates I’ve watched in years, and while I was unable to watch the entire debate because we went on the air while the Senate was still in session, I was very proud of Senators Whitmire, Davis, and Van de Putte for standing up to this ridiculous legislation.

Here’s some of what I said on the show last night:

What’s your opinion? You can watch the entire episode of Capital Tonight online here.

Comments are closed

Or perhaps this might help…

…since the last one didn’t seem to do the trick.

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 12.35.19 PM

Comments are closed

Attention Texas legislators

This might help.

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 10.16.04 AM

Comments are closed

Texas’ water infrastructure funding should not go down the drain [with video]

Following skirmishes on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives earlier this week which resulted in legislation tanking which would have put $2 billion in funding for much-needed water infrastructure, it came up on YNN’s Capital Tonight Tuesday. Here’s my take:

Water infrastructure, as an issue, stands on its own in Texas. It is a critical one, and if the legislature leaves it unfunded this session, it will create serious consequences for Texas’ future. They’re not growing any more water around here – the resource is, at best, a constant, and with recent droughts it’s not even that. This isn’t one of the Governor’s fake issues, designed to get him more support or make his friends richer. It’s a very real challenge.

Texas has a tripod of critical interests on the water front (pun intended, and I apologize). None of the three – energy, agriculture, and population growth – can be shortchanged. Energy exploration, an essential economic driver in Texas, takes a lot of water. Texas’ ever-growing population takes a lot of water. And the agricultural activity necessary to feed all that population growth three times a day takes a lot of water. If you shortchange any one of these, things start falling apart, and quickly. It takes a massive commitment to conservation, increased efficiency, and smarter management. Unless the water fairy unexpectedly shows up to save us all from ourselves, that all requires serious investment.

I respect the efforts of some of the House Democrats to leverage the issue in attempts to get more public education funding cuts restored, and I hope they succeed in restoring those cuts somehow. I even understand the misgivings of Tea Party Republicans against spending any money at all, even for the most legitimate of infrastructure investments – I completely get that your political base isn’t interested, and that the anti-government folks are on your ass.

But when it’s all said and done, I hope the legislature well-understands that funding the water plan has to happen. And I think most understand the consequences if it doesn’t.

You can watch this full episode of Capital Tonight here. And you can catch me on tonight’s episode on YNN in Austin at 7 pm. Give it a shot – we get into all sorts of interesting topics of interest to the policy- and politically-addicted.

Comments are closed

Education reform: parent trigger legislation advancing in the state Senate [with video]

School reform legislation which would shorten the number of years a poorly-performing public school could continue without parental intervention is advancing in the Texas Senate. This “parent trigger” bill is not without controversy; there are concerns that the shorter time a school would be given to correct itself isn’t enough time for corrective measures to kick in.

The concern is fair, but I don’t think in real-world situations it would usually work that way. Under both current law and the proposed legislation, the clock doesn’t start ticking until after a school is at the “unacceptable” stage. If, under the proposed shorter timeline, school district administrators know in advance that they only have a couple more years to improve once they sink to the bottom, I think fewer schools will get to the bottom in the first place; they’ll begin corrective measures earlier in a school’s downhill slide. If the motivation for schools to improve begins earlier in a school’s eroding performance, that’s good news for the students.

Here’s what I said about it when asked on last night’s edition of  YNN’s Capital Tonight:

You can watch Capital Tonight live on YNN in Austin from 7-7:30 pm Monday – Friday, you can watch last night’s entire episode online here, and you can join in the discussion on this legislation right now, by leaving a comment with your thoughts!


Comments are closed

Bipartisan education reform? It could happen [with video]

Following up on my piece the other day about education reform, we continued the discussion last night on Fox news in Austin:

Here’s the original piece.

Comments are closed

Dan Patrick’s other ideas: are they worth serious discussion?

When Ann Richards was governor, she had a letter written by some long-past governor of the early 1900s hanging on her office wall, in which this forgotten (by me) governor was lamenting issues surrounding public education. It was amazing in that the issues about which this governor wrote were the exact same issues Governor Richards was grappling with generations later, which are also the same issues legislators and the courts are debating today.

Legislatures never solve public education issues; it’s a continuing process, not a single event. But given the stakes – the next generation – legislatures never stop plugging away at it, nor should they.

It’s easy for progressives to get disgusted with conservatives’ particular obsessions on education issues, mainly because of the laser focus on school vouchers a few of them maintain – which newly-minted Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick just announced is “the old word,” and has rebranded the “business tax credit.” Way to go, Senator – when the policy is crap and you’ve lost your public support, don’t give up – just re-name the crap.

Dan Patrick

Senate Public Ed Chair Dan Patrick

Vouchers have always been a bad idea, and no matter what they’re called in the future, they’ll continue to be a bad idea. They’re not even a conservative idea. If you give away taxpayer money to private schools with little or no accountability, that’s not conservative. And if you do so with effective accountability measures, the private schools don’t want the money. All this, against the backdrop of continuing to starve neighborhood public schools of even more of the funding the people in charge have already cut. No thanks. It’s no wonder that vouchers already appears to be on life support this session.

But I’ve been in the thick of what seems like a thousand legislative skirmishes over public education, and I’ve seen a lot of interesting ideas thrown under the bus, mainly because of progressives’ distrust of the conservatives proposing them. It’s understandable; when you have a big fat bill caption on a public education bill, myriad harmful floor amendments, including vouchers, can conceivably be slipped in, out of reach of Democratic efforts to stop them. Many a good, or innocuous, piece of school legislation has been killed or slowed, for fear of what the legislation doesn’t yet do.

But unless you’re ready to claim that you don’t think there’s any room for improvement in public education, sooner or later, Democrats in the legislative minority, and Republicans in the legislative leadership, are going to have to find a constructive way to work together and pass meaningful reforms that move the ball forward, while agreeing to take divisive issues such as vouchers off the table, at least for the purposes of discussing those other ideas.

Charter schools are a good example. I’m the odd Democrat who never really had a problem with the concept of charter schools, and I still don’t. There are some great ones out there doing fantastic work, among a population of students which was already in large part lost to the traditional public school system. There are also some terrible charter operations out there, bilking taxpayers and robbing kids of their future. I’ve long thought that the legislature’s inability to decisively deal with the latter, or foster more of the former, has a lot to do with a lack of trust between legislators and among stakeholders.

I bet most of those who oppose charter schools wouldn’t bother with it, if they knew that the state would shut a bad one down in a heartbeat. But currently, that doesn’t happen. And now, charter school advocates want to raise or remove the cap on the number of allowable schools. My first reaction when I heard about it was to roll my eyes and think, “they wouldn’t need to raise the cap if they’d shut down the bad actors in the system,” but I don’t think it’s true – there would still be more legitimate demand for additional charter schools than the current cap would allow.

Wouldn’t it be reasonable, however, to have a good-faith discussion resulting in legislation that really did quickly shut down crappy charter schools? And if the trade-off you had to make to get there would be to raise or lift the cap, wouldn’t that be worth it, or at least be worth the discussion?

If you’re one of those who is just by-God opposed to charter schools, you’ve already lost the war – they’re here to stay. Even President Obama supports charter schools. And once you’ve internalized that fact, it’s easier to concede that if they’re going to be around anyway, if you care about the students in these non-traditional public schools, you’d want to make sure the good ones get better and the bad ones get gone.

I’m pretty tired of progressive legislative strategies on public education often consisting of little more than seeking assurances from Republican bill sponsors that if Democrats allow a piece of legislation to move forward, the Republican will promise on a stack of guns and bibles that they won’t accept a voucher amendment later in the process. The strategy has worked well in keeping vouchers off the books, but there has to more to the public education debate; there has to be a better way to debate other ideas that might work well.

Legislators who are public education advocates should sit down with Chairman Patrick – like it or not, it’s his legislation, and his Senate committee. Figure out how to make a charter school bill work. Then figure out what else is on Patrick’s mind, and see what else might work. Because, clown-car hearings about sex ed and vouchers aside, just because a piece of legislation is carried by a voucher advocate, doesn’t necessarily make it a bad idea.


Comments are closed

BREAKING: legislators stunned to find that anti-smoking bill causes reduction in smoking

Strange things happen with the legislature comes to town.

The eyebrow-raiser today is a bill by state Senator Carlos Uresti, which would raise the minimum age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21.

smoking_cigaretteSee, Uresti’s bill has stalled already. It stalled because of the fiscal note on the bill, which is report they attach to all legislation which estimates for lawmakers how much a bill would cost, or how much revenue it would generate. The fiscal note on Uresti’s bill estimates that if they raised the smoking age from 18 to 21, it would cost the state about $20 million a year in lost revenue to the general revenue fund from cigarette taxes.

The methodology used to estimate the loss of state revenue? I’m glad you asked. The Comptroller’s office says Uresti’s bill would lead to a 33 percent reduction in tobacco use by young people. That means fewer people would be buying cigarettes, and less taxes collected on those sales.

Let that sink in for a minute. Uresti’s bill has stalled because the Comptroller says the bill will accomplish exactly what Uresti hopes it will – prevent a lot of young people from smoking.

This would be the same legislature that complains of all the money they have to appropriate for public health. Ask any doctor in America if there’s one thing – ONE THING – that a person who smokes could do to improve their health, and I’m just going to make a wild-ass guess that you can figure out what they’d answer. If you still smoke, sooner or later you’ll pay with your health – and so will taxpayers, if the smoker is one of millions of Texans who depend on the public health care system.

So the same legislature which complains about all the money it takes to treat sick people, might decline to pass a bill which would reduce the number of sick people, because the legislature would rather have their money?

Never mind the little unimportant sentence at the very end of the fiscal note: “with the reduction in the use or tobacco products, there could be an indeterminate savings to the state in the future resulting from reduced health care costs.” Translation: for an investment of $20 million a year, we can make Texans healthier, and cost taxpayers less.

And that’s what passes for “conservative” around here.

Comments are closed

Letters From Texas elementary school student project: an introduction in engaging in the legislative process

Hi kids! This website is usually for grown-ups interested in politics and government, but we here at Letters From Texas Worldwide Headquarters thought it would be fun to turn our attention to smart elementary school kids like you. Your parents and teachers have probably told you that part of being a good citizen is to pay attention to, and participate in, what your state government officials do to represent you!

Today’s topic: participating in the state legislative process. This fun project will encourage you to form your own opinion on a real issue being considered right now, let key legislators know what you think, and actively participate in the process. This will be fun!

Here’s a real-world situation that you can actually participate in: the legislative proposal that would ban text messaging while driving.

You see, many Texas legislators, led by State Representative Tom Craddick and State Senator Judith Zaffirini, believe that text messaging while driving should not be permitted. Supporters of the measure say that it’s very very bad, because a driver who is text messaging pays less attention to the road, and could cause a bad thing. Opponents of the proposal often agree that text messaging while driving isn’t a good idea, but also say that they’re tired of government telling them what they can and can’t do on so many fronts, and that some things should just be left to common sense

Extra credit: look up “libertarian.” You’ll read about examples of these people. Many of them are smoking what is called “weed.”

Assignment 1: What is your opinion about the text messaging while driving proposal? Tell us in one paragraph what you think, and why!

But merely having an opinion isn’t usually enough for full participation in your representative government – did you know that you can also affect how a proposal will read, and what the resulting law will require of good citizens like you? You can! Legislators have policy staff, and part of their job is to talk to good citizens just like you, and listen to your opinions! So you could actually call the offices of the authors of a proposal, and/or the legislator who represents your own neighborhood, and tell them what you think!

Here’s something to think about: text messaging while driving isn’t the only dangerous thing that a driver could be doing that prevents him from being a safe driver. There are many things that could distract a driver. Here’s one you might not be familiar with – it’s called “road head.”

In case that term is unfamiliar to you, have you ever been sitting in class, and you get very very sleepy after lunch, and your teacher is being extra-boring, and you could hardly stay awake? Remember as you sat in class fighting sleep, your head started getting heavy and drooping, only to jerk back up? Well, if you had been driving at the time, it would be called road head! I bet you couldn’t pay much attention to what your teacher was saying when you got that tired, could you? Can you imagine how dangerous it would be if you were driving? Road head is more common than you think. In fact, I bet you’ve been riding in a car, especially at night, and have noticed the silhouette of a head bobbing up and down in the car driving in front of you, haven’t you? That person was getting road head – they’re very sleepy and should not be driving!

In fact, you could go ask your dad right now if he’s ever gotten road head while driving – he might be surprised that you know about that!

textingIf you agree that a driver getting road head is even more dangerous than text messaging while driving, you could even call legislators’ offices and suggest that they amend the bill, insisting that they add prohibiting road head to the list of things that would be illegal! Remember – those legislators have policy staff whose job it is to listen to the opinions of good citizens, especially smart kids like you!

But be careful! A clever policy staffer might try to tell you that road head is already illegal, because it would fall under the already-existing rule against reckless driving. It’s the oldest trick in the book, and you can just reply “how is that different from texting while driving – isn’t that reckless too, so it’s already illegal?” They’ll have to acknowledge that you have a point, and then they’ll know how smart you are!

Assignment 2: call Representative Craddick’s office, and tell them that if they want to outlaw text messaging while driving, you think they should also outlaw road head. His policy staff is always very nice and polite to kids like you, and you’ll have a friendly conversation!

Extra credit: here’s a fun fact about Representative Craddick – even though his first name is “Tom,” and even though everybody knows that “Dick” is a nickname for “Richard,” lots and lots of people, mostly socialist Obama-loving kid bloggers, used to call Representative Craddick “Dick.” It’s a mystery worth asking about, and his staff would probably welcome the opportunity to tell you the fun story! So when you call, right after you tell Representative Craddick’s staff that he should outlaw road head, you can also ask how he got to be a Dick. It will make the conversation more fun for everybody!

Assignment 3: call Senator Zaffirini’s office too, because she’s the other legislative leader on this bill. Just like your conversation with Representative Craddick’s office, you can suggest that they add outlawing road head to the proposal!

Extra credit: here’s a fun fact about Senator Zaffirini and her office – they love to start working every morning very very early, much earlier than just about any other office in your state capitol! There might be an interesting reason why, so right after you tell Senator Zaffirini’s staff member that she should outlaw road head, you can ask the staff member why he comes so early!

Kids, this will be great! After you’ve finished with these assignments, next show-and-tell day, you can raise your hand, and you can tell the whole class that you’ve done all the research and have a big report on the dangers of road head. If your teacher seems startled, it’s probably because she’s so impressed that you took the time to educate yourself and participate in the legislative process!

Please stay tuned for future elementary school curriculum topics from Letters From Texas! The next lesson, coming soon: how to help out your teachers by safely and efficiently testing out your school’s fire alarm!

Comments are closed