Wednesday, November 28, 2012

More on the Speaker's race...

Speaker Joe Straus

As provided by the Texas Constitution, the Texas Legislature will meet in regular session at high noon on the 2nd Tuesday of the next odd-numbered year. The first order of business will be the selection of the presiding officer of the House, decided by a majority vote of the members of the Texas House of Representatives.  The Secretary of State will call the body to order, nominations and seconding speeches will be made, and, thereafter, depending on the procedure adopted by the body at the time, an election of Speaker will be had.

On occasion, decision on the speakership has been a rambunctious affair with the two sides fighting over whether there would be a secret ballot, open ballot, or no ballot at all, simply a voice vote or counting of heads on the floor of the House.  Generally, the Speaker has been selected long before the body meets in its initial meeting of the session.  Generally, the Speaker is elected by an informal process by which various members give written pledges to vote for a particular candidate. Speakers used to stay on for one or two sessions and then either run for higher office or decide to retire to a better job.  The exception to that norm came about in recent years with Bill Clayton, Gib Lewis and Tom Craddick, all of whom decided to stay for multiple terms.

Currently, a race has developed between the incumbent Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio and Bryan Hughes from East Texas.  Straus was elected when dissatisfaction arose over the heavy-handed tactics of Tom Craddick of Midland.  Straus was supported by a large number of Democrats and subsequently has attempted to preside over the House in a fairly even-handed way, appointing a representative mix of Democrats and Republicans to key positions. 

As you may recall from an earlier blog post, during his second term--which was the last regular session of the Legislature--Speaker Straus faced some opposition led by the religious right arm of the Republican Party on the grounds the Texas House of Representatives should not be presided over by a non-Christian.  Straus is from an old Jewish family from San Antonio.  Although he’s been in the Republican Party for many years, the severe right segment of the Republican Party does not believe him to be in the spirit of true Republicanism in Texas.

Opposition to Speaker Straus has continued on the grounds that he appoints too many Democrats to positions of authority, that he is too liberal to fit within the mold of a Texas Republican, and some of the religious bigotry still exists over his religion.  The far right, particularly led by the Tea Party, has thrown their backing to Representative Hughes.  Hughes has now announced for Speaker and is going about seeking pledges to replace Speaker Straus in the coming session. 

Leaders among the Democrats in the State House have urged their fellow Democrats to remain uncommitted in hopes they can make the difference in the Speaker’s race, as well they should be able to do should they remain united.  The problem, however, is reflected in an old statement by former Congressman Bob Eckhardt, who once said organizing liberals in politics is about like organizing quail to hunt bird dogs.  Although some Democrats are disgruntled with Speaker Straus, those to whom he has awarded chairmanships and vice-chairmanships, I am certain, will be extremely reluctant to jump ship and support someone of an unknown quality.  It would be particularly surprising if Democrats found common ground and supported a candidate supported by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.  Democrats gained members of the House of Representatives in the recent election, and are expected to gain more in the next few elections due to the heavy population increase among Hispanics.  There are currently 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats.  If the two Republican candidates come near dividing the 95 Republicans anywhere close to even, the Democrats in the House will certainly be in a position to have a great deal of influence on whomever is elected Speaker. 

All Texans should watch with interest the selection process of the Speaker of the House in that the Speaker during the 140-day regular session wields enormous power--some say even more power than that of the Governor, at least for the period of time the Legislature is in session.  The person chosen to be Speaker will have a direct impact on the lives of all Texans when major decisions are made concerning health, public safety and education.  We should all watch with interest the actions of our elected state representatives and with whom they cast their lot in the coming session.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

You can make a difference...

Years ago while I was campaigning to be re-elected to the Legislature, I ran into an older gentleman. As I attempted to hand him a card and give him my spiel, he interrupted me by saying, “Forget it, son, I don’t vote.”  It was frankly a reaction I had not expected, not having heard such a jaded view of the election process in my young career as a politician.  I attempted to convince the older fellow that he was wrong, and it could make a difference.  He was unpersuaded and replied it didn’t make a damn who he voted for, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
I wish at the time I had the experience which followed a couple of years later to relate to him about why he was wrong.  It had to do with the fact that a 14-year old girl took the time to speak to her elected representative and made a significant change in the laws in Texas related to the public schools.  It is a perfect case in point that citizens can make a difference, and the Legislature can be responsive to an everyday citizen.
While serving in the House of Representatives, I was approached by a young lady of the Jewish faith who was a close friend to my daughter.  They were the same age and in the same grade in school.  My daughter’s friend pointed out to me the unfairness of the school situation whereby people of the Christian faith were not required to deal with unexcused absences for their religious holidays such as Christmas or Easter whereas, on the other hand, if she took off for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur she would be given an unexcused absence possibly affecting her grade and class standing.  She wanted to know why that was true.  Frankly, I had no answer for her, but promised to check into it.
I promptly made a call to the Texas Education Agency and asked why it was that people of a religious faith other than Christian received unexcused absences for participating in their religious events.  The answer I received was fairly straightforward.  It was simply the way the law was and had been for some time.  

Armed with my new knowledge about the situation, I proceeded to enlist the assistance of the Texas Legislative Council and drafted a bill providing that the law be changed to accommodate absences related to legitimate religious celebrations such as the primary Jewish holidays.  To my delight I was quickly approached by Senator Babe Schwartz who volunteered to be the Senate sponsor of the measure.
To my further delight and surprise the measure sailed through the House process, went to the Senate, was passed there and was eventually signed by the governor.  Since that time there have been several amendments to the bill to accommodate other substantial religious beliefs existing in Texas.
The point of the story is that by a 14-year old merely pointing out what she believed to be unfair about the Texas law led to a significant change in a public education system probably affecting  thousands of students over the years.  So, anytime someone says they can’t make a difference in what happens in government at the state, or even the federal level, then tell them the story of the so-called Jewish school bill.  Hopefully, it could renew their interest in citizenship and participation in our democratic form of government.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Trending to Gridlock

Unfortunately, there are signs that our Texas Legislature is headed in the wrong direction.  Controlling members of the Republican Party appear to want it to become more and more like Congress.  In Congress, the “winner take all” attitude seems to prevail, which has produced gridlock for the American people.  

The majority party in the Congress is generally ruled by the partisan party caucus, which happens to be the Republicans at this time.  Committee chairs are selected by the caucus and are members of the majority party only.  It seems those who desire to implement such a system in our Legislature should take note that the current approval rating of our Congress is the lowest in the history of the United States--below 20%.

A recent indicator that things are about to change in our Legislature of Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst’s primary defeat by Ted Cruz.  It seems Governor Dewhurst, who has been fairly evenhanded and bi-partisan in running the Senate, now intends to take a sharp right turn to satisfy the Texas Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.  Heretofore, chairmanships in the Senate were passed out generally on ability and interest in particular areas of government.  Even in earlier times when only 2-4 members of the Senate were Republicans, there were Republicans who chaired major committees of the Senate.  Recently, Governor Dewhurst removed Democrat Senator Zaffirini of Laredo--second in seniority in the Senate--from chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee.  She has been replaced by an ultra-conservative radio host who now happens to be a member of the Texas Senate.  For several sessions the right wing of the Republican Party has advocated that a “winner take all” policy should prevail.  As a result, since Republicans have run the table on elections for the last several cycles, we may expect every chairmanship to be awarded to a Republican both in the House and Senate. 

As even more evidence of his attempt to veer to the right, Gov. Dewhurst's recent appearance was reported by the Associated Press at Ted Cruz’ victory party in Austin.  It seems Governor Dewhurst made an additional pledge to be more conservative in his approach to leadership of the Texas Senate.

The right-wing of the Republican Party has also expressed its dissatisfaction with the current Speaker of the House.  Speaker Joe Straus was elected at a time when the House was almost evenly divided with a slight Republican majority. Straus helped to oust then-Speaker Craddick, whose heavy-handed rule over the House drew dissatisfaction not only from most Democrats but also many moderate Republicans.  Speaker Straus was elected with almost as many Democrats voting for him as Republicans.  Naturally, thereafter, committee chairmanships were pretty well divided among both parties. 

In his first Speaker re-election effort, Straus faced opposition from the religious fundamentalist wing of the party on the grounds that Texas deserved to have a “good” Christian to preside over the House.  This is in view of the fact that Speaker Straus is of the Jewish faith.  Fortunately for Texas, the effort to oust Speaker Straus on this premise failed miserably.

However, currently, a new effort is being mounted and Straus has an opponent in his effort to retain the speakership of the House.  Among the battle cries of those in opposition to the Speaker are those who object to his appointing any Democrats to chairmanships or positions of power within the House structure.

The Texas Legislature, for many long years, has been divided among progressive and conservative lines.  But fortunately for Texas, a collegial atmosphere has prevailed in which members of the Legislature of all political ilks have managed for the most part to work together on major challenges which face the Legislature.  As it was put to me early in my career in the House by a dear friend--whose political philosophy was pretty much opposite mine--the longer you serve in the Legislature, the less important it becomes whether you are a conservative or liberal, but rather whether or not you can be trusted and your word relied on.  Such an attitude in the Texas Legislature has allowed us to avoid the stifling gridlock which now possesses Congress in Washington.

The recent election has increased the number of Democrats who will serve in the next session of the Legislature to the extent that Republicans no longer have a super majority, which constitutionally is required sometimes in an effort to move serious legislation quickly.  A highly partisan system would not be conducive whatsoever to cooperation when such needs arise to deal with matters critical to all of the citizens of Texas.

In the Senate, as well, such an attitude of total control by the prevailing party could lead to major changes in the way the Senate has been run for almost 100 years.  For example, although government teachers will tell you the Lieutenant Governor of Texas possesses great power, his power does not stem from the Constitution or the fact the lieutenant governor is elected by the entire population of the state.  Generally, the lieutenant  governor’s power stems only from rules of the Senate, which can be changed by a simple majority vote of the members of the body.

The current rules, which have been in existence for a long time, provide that the lieutenant governor shall appoint members of each committee and generally control the calendar of action for bills pending before the entire body.  This rules provision makes Texas somewhat unique among most of the states of the union.  In other states, such as Louisiana, committee chairs and committee members are determined by party caucus, and the lieutenant  governor’s role is reduced to pretty much a figurehead who only presides over the Senate and can only vote in the event of a tie. 

Members of the Legislature should strongly resist an effort to fashion our Texas Legislature after the ways of Congress.  Texas has many challenges facing it in the coming few years, none of which would be helped by gridlock.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Myths can become Realities

Long ago I faced the stark reality that I would never be a professional singer.  I do, however, love to sing.  One of my favorite diversions is to participate in what is sometimes known as  “pick-n-grinnin” sessions wherein musicians get together, play their instruments and sing.  On numerous occasions I have sung at such events and I have enjoyed it to the fullest. 

Many of my friends have witnessed these sessions as well as when I have been invited to sing with country and western groups in public places.  There are friends of mine who in all honesty would be willing to take the stand in a court of law and under oath testify they have witnessed me playing a guitar. 

Now, I would pay a substantial amount of money if I had the ability to play a guitar--I would love to be able to do so.  Unfortunately, I cannot play one lick. 

That’s a good example of a myth which has become reality in the minds of some people.  There are numerous other myths which have grown up politically.  One which comes to mind, and in which I have participated, is the occasion of legalizing the lottery.  Thousands of people took a paralyzed oath that the public had been promised all of the money from the lottery would go to finance public education.  However, no statewide official or anyone else made that promise.  There was not even the promise that all of the funds from the lottery would be dedicated to public education.  The fact of the matter is, at the time the lottery was passed, it would not have furnished more than 1/14th of the amount bi-annually appropriated to education.

Another political myth was one perpetrated by the George Bush campaign ridiculing Al Gore, claiming he represented he had invented the internet.  Al Gore made no such claim.  It was Mr. Gore’s claim that he supported and assisted in the creation of the internet.  In fact, the internet was invented by a government laboratory and developed over a long period of time with federal funding.  Nonetheless, the Bush campaign went on to make this one of the central talking points of the campaign, proceeding to ridicule Gore for taking credit and being braggadocios about accomplishments he had not fostered.

Yet another myth which was created by money and advertisement was the belief John Kerry was not a legitimate war hero of the Vietnam War.  A group known as the Swift Boat group was able, through massive expenditures, to persuade a significant part of the American population that John Kerry had not in fact been in a fire fight and wounded in Vietnam.  Unfortunately, no mention was ever made of the fact in such ads that the other fellow, Mr. Bush, managed through the connections of his father, to avoid even having to go to Vietnam. 

A recent myth put forth by the Romney campaign is that the president said “You didn't build that”-- referring to businesses.  Reading the full text of Obama's remarks one sees that he was referring to the American system of government and the infrastructure created by our national government which helps to create an environment for business.

Almost every great fortune made in the U.S. was helped by our government.  Check your history.

One of the earliest great fortunes in our country was created by the group who laid the Trans-Continental Rail Road.  They capitalized for one million dollars.  Not a cent of the million was spent on rails or cross ties, however.  Rather, the entire million was spent persuading Congress to authorize one section of government land be gifted for each mile of rail laid.  The project made the group rich and brought great economic prosperity to our nation.

Mr. Jobs could never have created the I-Pad and related technology without the internet--which, of course, was the same internet that was created through years of government research in a government lab.

Former President George W. Bush managed to borrow $200,000 from some of his dad’s friends and invested in the Texas Rangers.  They gave him a great title--and thereafter the citizens of the city of Arlington voted a massive bond issue to create a state-of-the-art baseball stadium known as Ranger Stadium.  This fact immediately boosted the value of the Texas Rangers, allowing former President Bush to reap multiple millions from his $200,000 investment.  Based on this gratuitous situation, he was lauded as an outstanding businessman—yet another myth.

Generally, most political myths are not deep, dark secrets--nor are they deeply buried and relatively easy to disprove.  If only thinking participants in our Democratic system of government would take the time to study, research or even read a daily newspaper, they would be able to find out the truth for themselves.  I don’t know if others enjoy “play-like government” --as for myself, I prefer reality.

Friday, November 2, 2012

November Won't Bring Santa Claus

My oldest grandson, being a very precocious child, had it figured out about Santa Claus at about age 6.  He also figured out that along with belief in this fictitious character came some nice perks. It was obvious, at least to me, that he didn’t want to rock the boat and upset a good thing, so he went along with the deal.

Unfortunately, too many voters would rather ignore myths emanating from politicians’ rhetoric than face cold, hard facts. Rare as a hen’s teeth are admissions by those seeking office that they would ever consider levying taxes of any kind.

Most politicians, when confronted with questions of how promises of new roads, better pay for teachers and vast improvements in education could be accomplished without increasing revenue, have several favorite dodges. One of the foremost popular methods of avoiding admitting new taxes might be necessary is by promising to provide for all of the new government services by eliminating waste and increasing efficiency. Probably the runner-up to this dodge is the optimistic hope that by creating a new set of officeholders a vibrant and growing economy would result. Taxation and revenue would naturally flow into the coffers at a greater rate than in the past.

We are currently faced with such a Santa Claus scenario in the presidential race.  Mr. Romney proclaims non-stop that he can lower everyone’s taxes while at the same time maintain the same level of income for the federal government. Unfortunately for all of us, Mr. Romney will not tell us exactly how he intends to do this trick, other than to say he intends to close loopholes. We only need to apply common sense to this political promise to measure its accuracy. 

A whole host of so-called loopholes or tax write-offs are available to most of middle Americans making less than $200,000. These write-offs include a dependent deduction for each child, taxes paid locally, tax paid on your homestead, interest payments on your home mortgage--and, for those unfortunate enough to have high medical bills, a portion of those may be written off. We know from past statements made by Mr. Romney that he would not ever consider doing away with the massive loopholes, write-offs or perks given to corporations--such as the multi-billion dollar give away to oil companies as a subsidy. Using simple arithmetic, one can determine the promise of reducing taxes and raising the same amount of revenue is an empty political promise. 

Reducing the tax to 20% across the board, as Mr. Romney would like to do, would reduce the current revenue flowing to the public coffers by 5 trillion dollars. You add the $2 trillion the Republican nominee for president has pledged to give to the military, and we are looking at a 7 trillion dollar hole before the process gets started.  One reason Mr. Romney is able to pay only 14% of his income in taxes--about half what the average working stiff in America pays--is because of the capital gain provision of the Internal Revenue Code. I can’t imagine Mr. Romney doing away with the capital gain provision in that it would cost him and his supporters millions and millions of dollars.  

Additionally, it would be breaking his nationwide promise to not raise taxes on anyone--including the billionaires in the United States. Even the Congressional Budget Office and numerous other experts tell us that if you eliminated all of the deductions used by ordinary Americans making $200,000 a year, or less, there would not be enough savings to make up for the 5 trillion dollars lost by reducing the tax rate across the board to 20%.

The choice of Mr. Ryan as the Republican vice-presidential candidate gives us a good insight on what sort of things might be on the chopping block when we start trying to make up for the multi-trillion dollar hole created by the Romney tax plan, or to assist in balancing the budget. Mr. Ryan has repeatedly advocated privatizing social security, as well as converting Medicare to a voucher system, which would in effect put most of us at the mercy of the insurance industry.

As former President Clinton urged in a recent televised speech, all we need to do to figure out who is trying to “bamboozle” us is to do the arithmetic. When we do, it is easy to see the Romney/Ryan plan does not add up.