Monday, November 24, 2014

The Legislature is Upon Us

As provided for by our Texas Constitution, the Legislature will convene in regular session at high
noon on the second Tuesday of January in the coming odd-numbered year.  The Secretary of State will open the session.  The House will then proceed to select a Speaker, and we're off on another legislative adventure.

The Tea Party and far right-wing members of the House have threatened to try to overturn speaker Straus.  It appears, however, that Straus' reelection as Speaker of the House is safe. Numerous conservative Republicans have denounced the effort to field a Tea Party candidate against him on the grounds there is not enough support to do so, and they do not want to alienate the Speaker the first thing in a session.  Speaker Straus will proceed then, after his election, to name committees and committee chairs.  The power of the Speaker, once elected, is statutory--and he is given the right to control the flow of legislation through his committees and committee chairs.

Straus has a reputation for an evenhanded method of presiding over the House and is expected to continue in that posture.  The unusual thing about this session, however, is that, normally, the Senate is the more pliable body, softening often radical views. This time it appears there will be a role reversal in this respect.

On the Senate side this session things will be somewhat delayed.  The incoming Lt. Governor-elect will not be sworn in until 10 days after the session begins.  Out-going Lt. Governor Dewhurst will preside opening day.  The Senate will probably adopt rules early, but committee assignments will wait on the new Lt. Governor.

The Lt. Governor traditionally presides over the Texas Senate.  Texas is somewhat different from most other states in that the office of Lt. Governor in most states is generally ceremonial.  There is no statutory provision that the Lt. Governor will preside, name committees, or control the flow of legislation.  In most states the presiding officer is the person who is leader of the majority.  Texas' Lt. Governor fills this position only as a result of the rules of the Senate which can be changed at any time by a majority vote. There is some talk that if Dan Patrick, incoming Lt. Governor-elect, gets too heavy handed, there are those who would propose relegating him to the ceremonial role of Lt. Governor and hand the power of a presiding officer to some senator representing the majority party in the Senate.

One big fight which for a while seemed to be brewing was a fight over whether or not to abolish the two-thirds rule which has been prevalent in the Senate for almost 100 years.  This rule simply provides that some nominal bill is placed at the head of the calendar and any other bill must survive a motion to take it up out of the regular order which requires a 2/3 vote.  In the past the Senate has departed from this tradition, but only one or two times.  Lately, the observers in Austin feel that the incoming Lt. Governor has backed off from his position about abolishing this rule.  Although I once believed the two-thirds rule to be somewhat un-democratic, after serving in the Senate for a few years, I deemed it a good and workable provision in that it requires rational and cooperative conduct among the members of that body.

Education is always one of the hot issues in the Legislature because of it being a big-money issue.  The Legislature will be particularly focused on it this session in lieu of the court decision finding the Texas system of funding public education unconstitutional.  While the Legislature will meet for the first time in recent years with a surplus, the surplus will not be near enough to cure the funding problems of public education.

Water and highways will be two other huge issues.  In order to keep the pledge of no new taxes, recent legislators have conned the people into voting for a constitutional amendment allowing the state to go in debt for highways.  We currently owe about $29 billion for bonds issued for highways in Texas.  Although a recent constitutional amendment, Proposition One, has passed which would provide about a $1.5 billion dollars be placed into the highway fund from the Rainy Day Fund, it is not nearly enough money to even keep up with maintenance of the Texas highway system, let alone provide money for new projects.

This will keep the Legislature in somewhat of a bind in view of a public dissatisfaction with construction of toll roads--not the least of which is the fact that Texas law currently gives the right of eminent domain (taking your property whether you want to sell it or not) to foreign corporations to build profitable toll roads throughout Texas.

Legislation about guns is always a headline grabber in the state Legislature.  The big battle this session will be whether or not there can be open carry of guns.  Most police forces oppose the measure.  The NRA and other gun groups are somewhat less than united behind the measure--but it would be surprising if the measure did not pass the gun-conscious Texas Legislature.

For those of us who are political junkies, the coming legislative session will offer interesting reading in the newspaper and sometimes even amusing scenarios.  There have been over 1,500 bills introduced and more to come. Some bills are serious and need consideration.  Others are frivolous, and many are introduced merely for publicity.  Representative Four Price from West Texas has introduced 31 measures, most of which do little or nothing for the state.  A good example of bad legislation is Price's resolution to create a commemorative Ronald Reagan Day in Texas.

There are numerous ways the average Texas citizen can keep informed of what is happening in the Legislature.  All of us should take full advantage of these resources.  Just remember.  While the Legislature is in session what you don't know can certainly hurt you.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Fortunately or unfortunately I’m cursed with a long memory.  I remember growing up as a child in Port Arthur, Texas, at a time when newcomers to our town were repelled by the awful smell emanating from the various plants around Port Arthur.  Most grownups would simply pass it off as saying it’s the smell of money.  Some odors were intolerable such as that drifting in from the pogie plant near Sabine Pass.  It was literally so bad it would make you throw up if you had to endure it for very long.  

Also, in the early history of Port Arthur, we were the cancer capitol of Texas. And, there were more children's leukemia cases in Jefferson County than any other county in the state. 

I have a vivid recollection of two of my first cousins, who lived in the shadow of one of our major refineries, suffering asthma attacks.  As a young child, it was horrifying to me because at times it appeared that my cousins would die before my very eyes.  It is hard for me to believe that any parent who would witness such an attack in one of his or her children could favor deregulation of industry.  Eventually, my cousins moved away from Port Arthur to the country where one of them enjoyed such good health that he became an all-state basketball player.

When I listen to politicians complaining about governmental regulations, I wonder how many of them would rather have cancer than regulatory mechanisms which wouldhelp clean up our atmosphere.  I wonder how many of our hourly workers, who have voted Republican, would like to do away with the regulations which forced many of the industries to keep them safe on their jobs.  Perhaps had strict regulations been adhered to, the people who recently died of the gas exposure at the DuPont plant here in Texas would not have died.

I had a close relative die of leukemia from exposure to Benzine at one of the plants.  Another uncle died needlessly in an explosion which easily could have been prevented by a few regulations.  My father died of cancer after 40 years in one of the refineries.  I would like to ask these politicians who carp about regulations and wanting to deregulate various industries whether or not they would like to go back to the good old days.  

I’m sure being able to dispose industrial waste by simply dumping it into our rivers was quite profitable for the companies at that time--but it also made the fish in the Neches and Sabine inedible.  It killed the oyster beds which had been growing on the North end of Sabine Lake for many, many years.  Now, because of regulations, the Neches and Sabine are fairly poison free, and the oyster beds in Lake Sabine have returned.

I doubt seriously if the average Texan has ever been intimately acquainted with the air quality permitting process of an industry.  Many environmentalists in Texas refer to the process as licensing pollutants.  The air quality permits in fact determine the number of tons of harmful material which can be released into the atmosphere.  Most of the Republican squawking about over-regulation relates to environmental quality and workplace safety.

Opposition to government regulation in most cases is simply about money.  Unfortunately, too many money-hungry folks would pay no heed whatsoever to a clean environment--nor to what a dirty one does to us all--if it meant making a bigger profit.  So most of the squawking about over-regulation is not about bad government; it’s really about money. 

Were I completely in charge of the world, I would allow some companies to operate wholly without any environmental regulation whatsoever, but I would require their owners and managers to live within the perimeters of the company workplace.  I wonder why more big-wigs of national companies do not choose to live next door to their plants?  

In fact, if the truth be known, I would bet few, if any, of the local plant mangers live next door to the plants they manage. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Money Talks

If according to the United States Supreme Court, money is speech, it speaks very loudly.  In fact, it probably speaks at a greater volume than any human voice can muster.  Tip O'Neill, a former Speaker of the United States Congress, once said that money is the mother's milk of politics.  If anyone doubts that money is a large factor in elections, and growing, one only needs to view the most recent election, both nationally and statewide. 

When I ran for office in 1962, I ran a primary election, a run-off election in the primary and a general election and spent less than $5,000 in a county-wide race in Jefferson County.  Even at that time, I was outspent about three to one by my opponents.  Luckily for me, I could muster about 100 volunteers on short notice to go out and put up signs and campaign for me.  Apparently the role of volunteers is diminishing and the role of money is increasing.  If you examine the recent Governor's race in Texas, Democrats allegedly had about 3,400 volunteers on the ground working diligently, attempting to get out the vote.  Wendy Davis, Democratic nominee, although able to raise a considerable amount of money, was outspent more than two to one and was defeated by a rather large margin.

 Nationally, many pundits attribute the drubbing of the Democrats to the fact that billions of dollars was spent on behalf of Republican candidates who created an incessant television and radio message that all the ills of American Democracy should be laid at the foot of Barack Obama--along with the cry that the Democratic nominee for the Senate or House of Representatives was simply a clone for Obama.  Unlimited spending unleashed by the United States Supreme Court has made campaign spending obscene.  In some areas, so many TV spots were purchased that ordinary advertisers could not get their business advertising aired on local television stations.

Unlimited spending coupled with voter apathy in my opinion is a real danger to the democratic process.  In Texas, less than a third of the registered voters have decided who will make the laws which we will all be subject to in the next two to four years.  The vast majority of the winners in this election were supported with contributions in the millions.  What is worse, due to the Republican United States Supreme Court, we have no idea who donated most of this money. 

If you really believe that money does not make a difference, and if you have never given a contribution to a candidate for the US Senate, try picking up the phone and calling your United States senator and ask for a call back.  It will amaze me if you are able to speak to that official.  On the other hand, I would wager the fellow who gave a $100,000 contribution in the recent election to support that U.S. Senator, either Cruz or Cornyn, would get a call back before the sun goes down.  The point is--money makes a difference and unfortunately, of late, money seems to mean more than volunteer political operatives on the ground.

I believe it to be a pending tragedy for our Republic that 60% of registered voters in the State of Texas fail to vote.  Even fewer of our concerned citizens took the time to get out and campaign for a candidate of their choice.  There are two things we, as citizens, should do.  First we should shame our fellow citizens who didn't vote, and who are apparently contemptuous of the precious right to vote and select our leaders.  Second, we should demand our elected officials to provide at least transparency in political contributions.  If, because of the Citizens United decision of our US Supreme Court, we cannot limit the amount of money that the ultra-rich contribute to buy the election, at least we could have a provision which provides the names of the purchasers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

No New Taxes Is Not Working For Texas

The top priorities of state government, at least in Texas, are education, medical care for children, medical care for the elderly and poor, highways and law enforcement.

The no new tax strategy in place in Texas since the early 90's is not serving us well. Education in Texas has suffered, along with taxpayers, as a result of our state leadership’s aversion to even discussing taxes. One of the biggest pieces of evidence of how Texans have been hurt was the recent reduction in funding of education by $5.4 billion dollars. This cut, to avoid even discussing taxes, cost us the loss of thousands of teachers, creation of crowded classrooms for our children, and the second worst scores on college entrance exams by Texans in a decade. Tuition, paid by students and their parents in Texas, has more than tripled in the last few years preventing many talented Texans from reaching their potential.

Obstinacy in the health care field is costing Texas taxpayers in many ways. A prime example of how ignoring health care in Texas costs taxpayers can be demonstrated by the effects of diabetes. An aggressive program of examination, recognition and care could have many years ago saved Texas untold millions. Ignoring the effects of diabetes alone has caused taxpayers to pay for blindness, amputations, and kidney dialysis to the point that the cost for these items has more than quadrupled in the past two decades. To make matters worse, our governor has caused us to leave billions for health care on the table, probably only to burnish his credentials as a leading conservative on which to run for governor. The use of emergency rooms by uninsured poor continues to drive up our hospital costs.

Before Republicans took the helm of our ship of state under its control, Texas had highways among the best in the nation and no debt. Now, about two decades later, under the no new tax mantra, Texas has highway infrastructure which can’t be maintained, bridges that are in danger of falling, Texans wasting millions if not billions sitting in traffic jams throughout the state and about $30 billion in debt. Adding insult to injury, Texas now has hundreds of miles of highways for which Texans must pay to travel while foreign corporations reap financial rewards for the Texas toll roads brought about by no new taxes. The proposed proposition on the ballot will help, but it is about like putting a band aid on a bleeding artery.

Even law enforcement has taken the hickey because of our legislature’s desperate attempts to avoid the subject of taxes and yet make provision for essential services of state government. At one time, retired state troopers had an adequately funded retirement by the use of the funds earned by placing a new kind of sticker on your windshield. Those funds now have been swallowed up by the general fund, leaving inadequate retirement benefits for many of our state law enforcement.

We should remember lessons of history. I remember a time when tuberculosis was epidemic in the United States. At that time the subject of tuberculosis could not be discussed in polite company. The word was taboo just as any discussion of taxes is now taboo for Texas politicians. Tuberculosis was only conquered once it was brought from the shadows for a reasonable and rational discussion. The same problem persists in Texas. No new taxes has become such a mantra for some segments of our population that we can’t even talk about taxes during election time. It seems that so long as you stick taxpayers without calling it a tax, it’s okay. There have been increases in almost every fee that exists in our state from hunting licenses to court costs.

By ignoring the state’s responsibility to form an efficient system of public education, our legislature has pushed off on homeowners and business owners higher and higher property taxes. Our property tax has gone from near the bottom in the 1960's to second from the top today. We are faced with a court decision that our system of funding public education is unconstitutional, and we lead the nation in citizens without adequate medical insurance.

Essential services cannot be delivered without tax support. It is about time in Texas we had a frank public discussion about what type of tax would serve Texas best. As I have said before, while no new taxes may be a great political slogan, it says nothing about the bad old taxes that don't work anymore.