A long read but be patient for news at the end. So, How was the 86th Texas Legislative Session?
Well, if you talk to legislators themselves, it was the best ever. That is based on how they FEEL more than anything else. There was far more ‘cooperation’ than before; everybody was nicer to each other throughout the session. The fights were minimalistic from the outside. So everything is great, right?
Not exactly. We don’t send these folks down there to be a large tax-funded social club; we send them down there to get things done. So let’s move away from feelings and get on to facts and accomplishments. Did they ACCOMPLISH more?
I would say yes. But not as much due to ‘Kumbaya’ as they would like to believe; a far larger share of the credit goes to the ridiculously strong Texas economy generating record-shattering amount of tax collections. Kumbaya would not have held up if they hadn’t been able to throw pallets of cash at every problem; real or perceived. It’s easy to accomplish things with a tsunami of cash.
But did they accomplish the RIGHT things? In many areas, no: Indeed, they accomplished many DEMOCRAT goals and it is notable that the Democrats are every bit as happy about this session as the Republicans. In what ways did the Democrats win over what SHOULD have been the Republican’s principles?
The legislature- by nearly unanimous consent in one of the worst displays of groupthink I have ever seen- supported the contention that the answer to the problem of ‘troubled kids’ (including those that shoot up schools) is to be found in the mental health field when the REAL issue lies in an utter lack of training in or exposure to moral conduct. They utterly ignored the fact that many of those ‘troubled kids’ who shoot up schools were ALREADY in the hands of the mental health professionals- and most were on psychotropic medications. There was no serious discussion during the steamrollering of SB10/SB11 on the issue of an increasing dependency on pharmacology for controlling mood and behavior, rather than self-discipline. It also masks the issue that many kids ‘act out’ in school because they are bored out of their minds from not being challenged enough by a dumbed-down curriculum. Expectation drives achievement to a far greater degree than the current educational philosophy is willing to admit; they are too focus on ‘societal pressures’. And nearly every GOP legislator utterly ignored these issues, too much in fear of the ‘education’ lobby to do otherwise. (You will note throughout this I put ‘education’ in parenthesis because SO much of what they do is NOT related to actual education. The attitude is that they are in total charge of care for children- and parents are to only be in a supporting role to their control of that caregiving; transportation, health, diet, and principles all supplied by the school.)
That fear of the ‘education’ lobby extended to the budgeting and education finance pieces, where huge increases in funding were shoveled out and accountability for its use totally ignored. By the third week of session, it was quite clear that the entire legislature- nearly the entire ‘Freedom Caucus’ included- was hell bent on spending every last dime they could lay their hands on in a time of massive tax revenue increase to pacify the ‘education’ lobby because of their heavy political activism in the last general. (Not that it will SAVE many of those GOP members; the Democrats ALWAYS promise more- and will have most of the education lobby out working against the GOP in November, 2020).
However, lucky for those GOP members, the Texas economy – and the grassroots STRONGLY demanding property tax relief- proved to be enough to get SOMETHING out of it. So, in the end- in something that has to be classified as a substantial achievement- they came up with a last-minute deal to use about half of the nearly $10 billion in unanticipated revenue to buy down property taxes. But make no mistake: the biggest hero here is A Texas economy that allowed them the take care of $7 billion in costs associated with the unprecedented Harvey disaster, find $6.3 billion more to throw at ‘education’ AND put together a $5 billion property tax relief package.
But that does not remove the fact that some heroes in the legislature had to fight the ‘spend it all’ crowd that planned on ruling the roost entirely. Most of those heroes were on the Senate side: Bettencourt as the main leader. Chairman Burrows on the House side had a good heart and intent, but he was a bit overwhelmed in the backrooms by older and ‘wiser’ heads as it was his first time chairing ANYTHING. Other key Senators who chipped in were Creighton and Hancock ; even Larry Taylor was unusually resistant to the ‘spend-it-all’ crowd, And Bob Hall & Angela Paxton gave some important assists. But in the last days during conference committee- where the final deal ended up better than expected- someone had to have beat Huberty and his HB3 committee picks into submission and I’m not 100% sure who that was. I believe it was Abbott, likely with an assist from Bonnen. And that was key.
And that brings me to a discussion of the new Speaker, Dennis Bonnen. How did he do? Well, first off, let me say he was better than Straus, mainly through clarity & focus and allowing the membership to drive the House more. Was that mostly a benefit to conservative policy & principle? No, it was not. But frankly, one has to give credit for a level of honesty: if he’s opposed to you, Straus would smile at you and hav a minion put a knife in your back. Bonnen snarls at you and plants the knife in your chest himself. Bonnen was about as clear in messaging from the beginning of the session on. Picking Sefronia Thompson as Chair of Public Health was CLEARLY announcing Bonnen had no intention of having big fights to advance the Pro-Life issues this session. The same with selecting Poncho Naveraz as Chair of Homeland Security & Public Safety in terms of major Second Amendment fights. At the same time, he stacked the committees to stop the Democrats from advancing major social issues as well. Burrows as Ways & Means Chair meant no massive increases of business taxes. Klick on Elctions assured not ‘same-day’ or electronic registration or massive expansion of mail-in ballot utilization; all open to MAJOR fraud.
And then there was the Big 3 debacle of- in the midst of this MASSIVE state revenue increase- come up with the bright idea supporting an overall sales tax INCREASE for a property tax buydown. And to do so by having voters VOTE on a tax INCREASE (for whatever reason) and tying GOP political fortunes to that vote. All I can say is W – T – F??? This was concrete proof that Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen were spending NO time consulting with people outside the Austin bubble; anyone else would have told them this was political suicide. Political suicide stopped by 3 courageous Senators (Bettencourt, Hall and Paxton) who went up against the Big 3 steamroller with ‘no-confidence’ PNV (present, not voting) votes in committee to bring it to a halt and force the sales tax piece to be considered separately. When returned to the House floor separately, 60 Democrats signed in opposition (sales tax work out to be on the regressive side and the monetary shift, as analyzed by the LBB, showed the swap would benefit mostly the upper 20%). And Bonnen & Huberty couldn’t- with all the flogging they could muster- couldn’t get enough of the GOP members to commit electoral seppuku and vote FOR the sales tax increase. Bluntly, Bettencourt, Hall & Paxton likely saved what change the GOP has of retaining the Texas House in 2020; and they were punished for it by Patrick (Bettencourt was not the SB2 conference chairman & Paxton wasn’t even on the committee. Hall paid the price at the bill level).
What else was an utter failure this session? Essentially EVERYTHING that were conservative priorities; they got a VERY weak version addressing the elimination of School M&O off property taxes (8%, then 13% rate reduction in the next 2 years) , and a really weak religious liberty bill (the ‘Chick-Fil-A’ bill- SB 1978- that only prevents discrimination by basic religious affiliation and donations made). They DID eliminate deals with cities funding Planned Parenthood in SB22 (not the people to put in charge of sex education, since they have a large financial interest in sex ‘going wrong’, letting them make money on ‘correcting’ it.)
Voter integrity effort of any significance- failed. The Election committee was a waste. Eminent domain reform- died. All efforts to rein in tax-funded lobbying- failed. They never heard Middleton’s bill and that took Hall’s weaker bill, essentially tortured it by watering it down with a firehose and, when they were done playing with it, killed it on the House floor. (At least we have a record vote of which GOP members backed tax-funded lobbying. In the DFW area, Tan Parker, Lynn Stuckey and Angie Chen Button did. Straus would never of even allowed that vote.)
And the biggest disappointment was the so-called ‘Freedom Caucus’. Their utter retreat from all issues controversial (except for Jonathan Stickland, who grew so disgusted, he left the Caucus) was embarrassing to see. They did it for ‘a seat at the table’ and what did it accomplish? Absolutely NOTHING. Not one of them authored & passed a significant bill (unless you count protecting lemonade stands) and none were even included in any significant conference committees. Matt Krause even authored HB1951, which would have gotten TxDOT BACK in the tollway business; UGH! They got a seat at the table, then were told to shut up & sit quietly. And all pretty much did, except for Stickland and Cain(a little bit). What an embarrassing waste; I’m sure the backroom boys had a good laugh about gelding the Freedom Caucus.
So, the SB2-HB3 combination was a pretty good result (though could have FAR better if they didn’t spend so much in HB1) and save the session. But the rest of the session; pretty much a waste of time. Trust me, they are all coming home and will sing the praises of this session, because of ‘kumbaya’. But Kumbaya got us essentially NO improvement in overall result and cost us dearly in some priority areas.
And, if you’ve gotten this far, then let’s address MY activities there in Austin (far less important). I felt I actually made SOME difference; some of the numbers that ended up in SB2-HB3 (like 3.5% Voter Approval Rate, 10% minimum school tax relief, and 3 years on ‘banking’ excess rate) were being heavily shopped by me in the various offices as the ‘minimally acceptable’ reform/relief combination for weeks before the deal. Also, I got a number of unsolicited ‘attaboys’ in the hallways (even from some lobbyists) for essentially bringing some common sense to some of the discussion that so often lack it (the sales tax thing definitely needed it, but didn’t get it.) And I often found catching a member on the way to chambers for the day for 30 seconds paid off more than formal meetings and was please I was SOUGHT OUT in the hallways a number of times (The last time by Sen. Hall on SB29). Gratifying. Lastly, my ‘Not a Damn Lobbyist’ shirts made me highly recognizable and appreciated in many places; it perfectly expressed what MANY people think. They also got so under the skin of the Professional Political Class that they paid to make ‘Damn Lobbyist’ buttons in response. That was the only fun part of the whole deal; the rest was a soul-crushing grind with only glimmers of satisfaction. SO outnumber by people paid to block common sense from happening. It didn’t help my actual job grew to be more arduous through this period, as did my son’s need for assistance.
And lastly- for those who think my words are worth reading to the end- I am announcing that I am formally retiring from 57 years of volunteer political campaigning. There simply are no longer enough conservative ideals being practiced by 95% of GOP officials to put my effort freely into them staying in office. And the system is corrupting them faster than we can replace them in the primaries. I no longer am scared enough of the Democrats, because the GOP- in their desperation to retain power- are accepting WAY too much big government policy of the Democrats as their own approach. If the Democrats take over and start down the socialism route, just maybe the GOP will rediscover actual Constitutional governance; but I doubt it. It’s be later generations that will have to straighten out this mess. I may still work to drop some common sense in a few places, but my days as slave labor for new folks to be corrupted are gone. That includes my famous ‘yellow sheets’ at primary time; WAY too much volunteer work involved.
I actually tried to retire from all of this in 2014, but Van Taylor talked me out of it- both of my knees were flesh and bone back then (but we had a VERY successful year). However, there are no Van Taylors nor Matt Rinaldi’s left in the state legislature, so I won’t be talked out of it again. Online commentary will be my ONLY effort.
In the campaign world, I’m done and checking out. Exiting stage right (because the entire stage is moving too far left for me.).