Monday, December 27, 2010


With the impending session of the Texas Legislature, there is a great deal of conversation about sacrifice.  One of our statewide leaders recently said the people of Texas are going to have to “tighten their belts” in order for the state to survive the coming session with no new taxes.  The big question that comes to mind, “Who will be sacrificing?” or “Who will be sacrificed?” as a result of the hole of 25 billion plus Texas finds itself in. I doubt any measurable personal sacrifice will be found among our state’s top leaders.  

Our governor has become a multi-millionaire since coming to the Legislature as a West Texas poor boy, and he is currently living in a rented, multi-million dollar mansion at the state’s expense.  Our lieutenant governor is one of the wealthiest people of the state; and our speaker of the House is the son of an old-money family from San Antonio.  I seriously doubt that any sacrifices on their part will compare to those felt by the average, middle-income Texan; and certainly will not compare to the sacrifices felt by the poorest Texans.

If you work for a living, you are the one whose belt will most likely be tightened the most.  Even worse, all of the sacrifice won’t be yours.  The future of your children and grandchildren will be sacrificed on the altar of short-sighted, no-vision, no-new-taxes at-any-cost philosophy.

Since the early 1960's, Texas has launched a program of contributing less and less to the greater needs of public education, pushing off the responsibility on local school districts and local property owners.  The attention to quality education in Texas began its decline in the late 1960's until the Legislature, in an act of courage, passed in the 1970’s, the Education Reform Act. The Perot Committee traveled far and wide studying not only education systems in the United States, but throughout the world; and made a set of recommendations, many of which were incorporated into Texas law.

The evaluation of teachers was improved.  Attention to classroom work and learning was brought a step closer to parity with extracurricular activities through “No Pass, No Play.”  Research clearly indicated that children in the early grades did much better with a teacher/pupil ratio of 15:1.  As a major compromise, mainly to accommodate spending less money, 22:1 was adopted rather than 15:1.  Even though the 22:1 teacher/pupil ratio was not ideal, it was a substantial improvement to the 30 to 35:1 teacher/pupil ratio which existed at the time throughout the state.  

Already, leadership of the Texas Legislature is saying one way to help meet the deficit is by abolishing the requirement of a 22:1 teacher/pupil ratio.

Higher education is yet another area being mentioned as a source for slashing our state’s budget.  At a time when India, China and other developing nations are emphasizing education and training their young for high-tech jobs in a vibrant, growing economy, Texas, apparently without vision, is talking about making it harder and harder for middle class and poor children to obtain a quality higher education–a wrongheaded policy which will not serve us well in future international competition for the high-paying jobs.  

This lack of vision on the part of the leadership of Texas will condemn our state to continue to lead the nation in the number of minimum wage jobs of any state in the union.  It will also mean higher tuition for those struggling to educate themselves.

Our “no new tax” policy, even to the extent of indexing our tax which provides maintenance of our roads, bridges and highways to maintain the same level of support, is causing us to suffer with crumbling bridges and pothole filled state highways.  The current solution, apparently on the part of many of our leaders, is simply to give away our highway right-of-ways to foreign corporations to create toll roads and suck more Texas dollars out of our state.

Although many of our legislators boast of never voting for a new tax, each session for the past 10 years, they have blindly voted for increased fees on everything which carries a fee in Texas, including hunting and fishing licenses, admissions to state parks and renewal of almost every kind of license imaginable.  Call it a fee, if you will.  It is in fact nothing more than a thinly disguised tax.

The “no new tax” mantra which so pervades conservative thought in Texas brings with it a consequence, possibly unintended, which forestalls any conversation about tax reform.  Simply because a tax is new does not necessarily mean it would better serve the people of Texas and be more efficient or fairer than many of the old taxes.  In all probability, special interest groups who have an unwarranted tax break because of the old structure are among those who shout the loudest about no new taxes.  I doubt very seriously giving multi-million dollar country clubs an agricultural exemption from their property taxes serves us well.

Many of the newly elected members of the Texas Legislature, who have never served in an elected office, paint themselves as deeply devoted Christians.  Some have even suggested the Legislature is so bent toward Christianity they would not favor allowing a Jewish speaker to preside over it.  

I am struck by a quote from the book entitled, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, in which he wrote, “You can tell whether or not an officeholder is truly Christian by looking at his budget.”  Time will tell in the very near future as to the level of Good Will -- Christian or otherwise -- of our Legislature.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


As most states of the union, Texas will face a monumental challenge in dealing with its budget, or lack thereof.  Depending on whom you believe Texas will face a deficit of between 14-28 billion dollars.  According to the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House, everything is potentially on the chopping block.  In addition to the budgetary issues, we will have issues related to law and order and immigration.  Bills have already been filed ranging from abolishing the death penalty to authorizing a new crime for driving while drinking, whether you are intoxicated or not.  Our governor has already made mention of the fact there is a real possibility of opting out of federally mandated or sponsored medical programs.  He in fact mentioned Medicare.

There are some ways many of these same issues have been dealt with by other states which I would certainly hope Texas will not emulate.  First of all, opting out of Medicare has been tried by the state of Arizona.  If Governor Sara Palin fears real death panels, she needs to cast her eye on the Legislature and the Republican government of Arizona.  There are people in Arizona actually at death’s door and will die because of Arizona’s policy of opting out of most of the federally funded medical programs.  Specifically, people who need transplants have been informed they will no longer be able to obtain a transplant paid for by a government-sponsored medical program.  If they want to continue to live, they will just have to figure out some way to pay the huge costs associated with medical organ transplants.  This sounds like a real death panel to me.  Texas already has a modified version in that private insurance companies can make the decision that they have spent enough on you no matter how long you have paid for your medical policy; and in effect condemn you to die, if you don’t happen to have lots of cash in the bank.

Immigration is another area where Arizona has taken the conservative lead, and, again,  I hope Texas will not follow that lead.  Several ultra-conservative members of the House have already introduced Arizona-type bills which would give police authority to simply stop you on the suspicion you are not a bonafide citizen of the United States.  I  seriously doubt they will be stopping blonde-haired, blue-eyed people who speak good English.  This is not only a bad idea from the standpoint of abusing civil rights of real citizens, but it doesn’t make sense in a down economic year because it is costly to the economy of the state.  Independent studies have already reflected that because of lost conventions and tourism in Arizona, millions have been lost directly attributable to the Arizona law to fight illegal immigrants.

The third area where Arizona and Texas seem to be on the same track is in the area of handling prisoners.  In one sense Texas is slightly ahead because Texas incarcerates more of its citizens than most nations in the world.  Arizona, proportionately, has a pretty good record of locking up people as a solution to solving crimes and other social problems.  Unfortunately, Arizona has gone overboard in attempting to cut costs by employing privately run state jails.  Based on my personal past experience in the Legislature, state jails seem to pop up more as a result of lobby efforts by the private prison lobby than based on real need or social efficiency in fighting crime.  Texas already has a large number of private jails, and I will almost promise you that in the coming tight budget session there will be enormous pressure to relieve the state of the cost of building any more jails by simply turning it over to private enterprise.  In the long run, such a strategy will cost the taxpayers of this state millions, if not billions.

Aside from the waste of money in yielding to big-time lobby interests, private prisons and increased jail facilities are a mistake.  We pursue this out of two mis-begotten beliefs.  One is the longer you sentence someone, the more likely it is that person will not commit another crime.  The second is probation and parole is simply not punishment.  The reason both of these arguments are flawed is that study after study demonstrates the likelihood of being apprehended and placed in the criminal system is a greater deterrent than the length of sentence.  Most people studying criminal behavior and punishment agree 3-4 months behind bars is as effective as 3-4 years as a deterrent.  If the person is going to be deterred from a life of crime, simply seeing the inside is generally as effective as a longer sentence.  If 3-4 months won’t do it, probably 3-4 years will not do it either. 

The second misdirected belief is that parole or probation is not punishment.  Wrong!  It is in fact punishment, and it is in many cases more effective than simple incarceration.  We spend more money locking up young people for minor crimes than it would take to put them in a highly successful educational program in one of our colleges or universities.  Most people end up being incarcerated because they do not know how to deal with society.  They make poor choices which could be avoided were they assigned to a person to monitor their behavior and direct them on better paths to success.  Parole and probation operate, if adequately staffed, more successfully as a deterrent most of the time than incarceration; and at a fraction of the cost.  Texas’ problem is mainly that the Legislature generally will not deal with prevention, but only the consequences of bad acts and have never adequately funded probation departments or the parole officers of this state.

Another area where I believe Texas to be off on the wrong foot is the attack on our 200-year tradition of open and free beaches.  We have had for as long as memory serves open beaches in this state where people cannot claim ownership.  It is even embodied in our constitution.  Unfortunately, our all-Republican Supreme Court has put private property concerns ahead of public concerns about our state’s beaches.  In a recent decision our Supreme Court ruled that even if the mean high tide marker passes where a structure is built and the structure is right in the middle of the beach, it still is private property; and the state cannot force its owner to move it.

It seems to me the next logical step in this bad decision is that people may now claim, based on this Supreme Court ruling, that they have a right to fence off certain areas of the beaches.  Florida and some other so called resort states are famous for allowing big, plush resorts and hotels to claim ownership of the prime beaches.  Get ready because Texas appears to be headed in that direction under the influence of our free enterprise conservative judges.

The last bit of insanity which appears to be heading for popular acceptance in our coming crises year is the decision of our leaders not to use Texas’ rainy day fund.

Apparently over the past several years we have had enough money coming in from tax revenue to create a savings account. This being the case, we should have been paying less taxes instead of putting it in the bank.  Nonetheless, if we have in fact created a savings account of Texas’ taxpayer money, I doubt there will be in the near future a year any worse for our financial status than the one coming up.  It seems as silly to not dip into the state savings fund for absolute necessities as it would for a family to go hungry with a big CD in the bank.

Well, as I’ve often said, being right is too often the consolation prize in the world of politics.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Article 3, Section 9 (b) of the Texas Constitution says: “The House of Representatives shall, when it first assembles, organize temporarily, and thereupon proceed to the election of a Speaker from its own members.”  

Speakers’ races in the Texas Legislature have always been colorful--most of the time controversial--and generally influence the course of the legislative session.  The Legislative Session of 2011 will meet all of those criteria.

Past speakers’ races generally provide great entertainment for those of us who thrive on watching politics.  The coming year’s speaker’s race demonstrates clearly once again that Democrats and Republicans have one thing in common.  Once they obtain power by defeating the other side, they generally turn to fighting with one another for who will get to exercise the recently gained power.  

The 2008 election produced a closely divided Texas House of Representatives. Only 2-3 votes separated the number of Democrats and Republicans.  There was a good deal of bitterness over Speaker Craddick, who used the Tom DeLay School of hard-nosed politics, and who exercised dictatorial powers over the House to the extent that he offended many Republicans.  There was a House revolt of moderate Republicans who joined with a large number of Democrats and proceeded to elect a moderate Republican, Joe Straus, III, of San Antonio, speaker of the House.  Most people throughout the 2009 Session found Straus laid back and judged him to rule the House evenhandedly.  Apparently, evenhandedness and openness does not suit the new Republican majority of 99 in the Texas House of Representatives.  

No sooner had it become evident that Republicans had obtained a near super-majority in the Texas House of Representatives than the clamor arose for a more conservative type of Republican to be speaker.  Before all of the votes were counted, Representative Christian of Center, Texas, chairman of the Republican caucus, started contacting new members and informing them that the Republican Party expected them to toe the Republican conservative line and that non-conservative Republicans would not be tolerated.  Further, Christian and others began running up the trial balloon that the Texas House, like the United States House of Representatives, should elect its leader by caucus.  

In other words, if the Republican caucus were to meet with its 99 new members and 46 of them decide that someone other than Straus should be speaker, the Republican leadership proposes that person should be the speaker.  It doesn’t seem to matter that, by that method, 104 members of the House would be disenfranchised from having any say in their own presiding officer.

An even nastier aspect of hard-nosed politics has arisen in the current speaker’s race.  Apparently right-wing Republicans are sending out robo-calls and mass mailings to conservative members’ districts urging them to vote for a “Christian” speaker and urging them to support one of the two ultra-conservatives running for speaker.  Straus is Jewish.  Even nastier comments have been posted on blogs urging members not to vote to let “Jewish Bosses” take over the Texas House of Representatives.  As one House member said, “It’s so distasteful, it could give Christianity a bad name.”

These instances provide evidence that we have not advanced much beyond the worst elements of our civilization when policymakers are unable to see, much less eradicate, either ignorance or antisemitism from their own ranks.

Thus far it appears Straus is holding onto approximately 100 votes to re-elect him speaker.  To their credit, all but three or four Republicans have not yielded to the right-wing, bigotry pressure to vote against Straus because of his religion or because he is a moderate influencing the House.  I predict Straus will succeed in being re-elected speaker for at least one other term.  

In the late 1950's the selection of the speaker changed slightly.  Prior to the late 50's selection of the speaker of the Texas House was largely a good ole boy, insider process.  Handshakes were used more than written pledges and personal relationships and friendships were probably more important than political philosophy at that time.  Unfortunately for liberals in Texas they developed the system that worked once, but it was better suited for special interests and big-money lobbyists.  

During the election in 1960 Jimmy Turman, a fairly liberal educator, was selected speaker.  Labor and more liberal groups campaigned by supporting various candidates for election based on their commitment to vote for Turman as speaker.  It was the first time that a speaker’s race had become involved in the election of individual members.  The so-called Texas liberals soon learned they had made a bad mistake.  This was a process tailor-made for special interests and lobbyists who were able to fund large sums of money in the election of House members.  After the election of Turman, conservatives used the same technique to elect Byron Tunnell, Ben Barnes and Gus Mutcher.  Then, for the first time, a scandal brought some reform to the way speakers were selected.  It came in the form of Sharpstown.

Speaker Mutcher was convicted of accepting a bribe.  Over 60 new members were elected to the House and Price Daniel, Jr. was elected speaker as the reformed leader of the Texas House.  Although Daniel refused to accept or solicit written pledges for speaker, he would accept a commitment for a vote of a member during election time by that member holding a press conference and pledging to vote for reform in the form of electing Price Daniel, Jr. speaker.  Daniel was elected and brought to the office with him several needed reforms.  Accountability of money solicited and spent in the effort to elect a speaker was required for the first time; openness in the process was required.  Unfortunately, although many of the Daniel reforms stayed, pretty much the same old system of getting written pledges became the norm after Daniel.

Allowing the Democratic or Republican caucus to select the speaker of the House would be a giant step backwards.  In fact, the current pledge system means many of the members of the House have little or no say in naming their presiding officer.  A much needed reform in the selection of speaker would require that no written commitment could be asked for or given prior to the general election which immediately preceded the regular session.   The penalty for doing so should be a small fine and a disqualification from holding public office.  It would be enough deterrent that no sane member of the House would risk forfeiting his right to hold office in order to try to get a pledge card from a member.  

This reform would also remove the specter of withholding campaign funds from a candidate for the House of Representatives unless he committed to a certain speaker.  It would also allow everyone in the House to be on equal footing and have an equal say in who their presiding officer would be during the period of time between the November elections and the January Regular Session.  

I doubt seriously if this idea will gain any more traction than it did when I introduced this reform in the late 1970's in the House of Representatives.  But as I have frequently said, being right is too often the consolation prize in politics.