It’s tempting, at a moment when Republicans are falling just short of the votes they need to accomplish even a mild reform of Obamacare, to imagine what they could do if we just sent a few more of them to Congress.
Texas offers a case study of why that just isn’t the case.
The Texas legislature is reconvening this week for a 30-day special session to fight over 20 things it didn’t get done during the regular 140-day session it holds every other year.
Most of my conservative friends here are going into cheerleading mode, but I remain unenthused. The best I can say about the local Republicans is that at least they’re not Democrats.
The headline issue will be a bill telling transsexuals where to go potty. It’s likely doomed, as are the few worthwhile bills Governor Greg Abbott has proposed. There’s some stuff and nonsense that might get through, though.
Consider, in Texas, Republicans have near super-majorities in both chambers of the legislature, not to mention all statewide offices, and what do they do with all that power?
They pass bills like HB 3287, which requires certain craft brewers with on-site taprooms to pay politically influential beer distributors to move their kegs 12 yards. On the one hand, who cares about the travails of ale-mongers? They’re not going to affect you.
But consider how utterly without merit this legislation is.
Texas regulates liquor sales and wholesale alcohol distribution so severely that if you are fortunate enough to get permission to engage in either business, you will become spectacularly wealthy. The health and safety justifications for the restrictions date back to Prohibition, but the arrangement is pure rent-seeking crony capitalism.
State law requires brewers to use state-approved distributors to get their product to market, but four years ago, the Legislature loosened this requirement in response to the booming demand for craft brews and taprooms. It worked, business took off, but now the distributors are demanding a cut.
Real conservatives would dismantle the system. Texas conservatives profit off it.
According to public data compiled by Texans for Public Justice, beer distributors and executives have paid out $8.8 million in contributions between 2013 and 2016, with the lion’s share going to the triumvirate that runs Texas: Abbott, Speaker Joe Straus, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the state Senate.
Abbott collected $1.4 million, Patrick got $688,000, and Straus collected $508,000, thanks to Texas’s lack of campaign contribution limits. (Our backwardness in campaign finance is unreal; politicians can take all the cash they want, but a tea party group that volunteers for poll-watching gets dragged into court on the grounds that it’s making unreported in-kind contributions.)
You can try to take some cynical realist position, and accept that politicians do favors, but it’s the very pettiness of this bill that reflects so poorly on the trio.
Abbott, Patrick, and Straus could all simply refuse to do this nasty little favor for their benefactors. They’re not going to lose money. After all, these three are running the only game in town.
The distributors’ bill flew through both houses, with a particularly spectacular margin of 115-30 in the House. The opposition there: four Democrats, the 12-member House Freedom Caucus, and a few stray conservatives.
In Texas, apparently, refusing to go along with shameless crony capitalism makes you some sort of extremist.
That sort of talk is what gets my friends excited. Straus, you see, is an assassin of sorts, who kills conservative bills without leaving any fingerprints.
In Texas’s peculiar system, there’s a two-month window for getting anywhere from a thousand to two thousand bills over to the governor. If your bill never makes it out of committee, insiders will all understand why, but it’s not going to make a headline or hurt Straus.
Now surely, the conservatives figure, that won’t be the case. Straus will be forced, they say, either to pass some real conservative legislation or be exposed to all as a de facto Democrat.
Only he won’t. The only reason we’re having a session is that Patrick took the state medical board hostage. Abbott is waiting for the Senate to approve the board’s renewal before he even puts the other items on the agenda.
Afterwards, if Patrick’s bathroom bill creates too much heat, Straus can close up shop at any time, and that’s if the Democrats don’t flee across state lines to deny one of the chambers a quorum, as they’ve done before.
The bathroom bill will dominate the headlines, and nobody is going to care about the fate of… let’s see, what were those conservative priorities again? There’s the one about local tree-trimming ordinances, and then an unfunded mandate telling school districts to give all their teachers a raise (which most of them couldn’t swing anyways, as they’ve almost all hit their property tax caps for operations expenditures).
We’ve got a bill creating a $7,000 voucher program for special needs students, which is a fraction of the cost to educate the severely handicapped, but might create a nice incentive for ADD and autism spectrum diagnoses.
There are, I should admit, some decent pieces of conservative legislation on the governor’s agenda, bills that might yet grab some attention and embarrass Straus. Heck, it’s even possible they’ll accomplish something.
But it’s a bit rich to hear Abbott talking about holding the government accountable.
Texas used to have a great public records law, one that made it possible for reporters, activists, and other assorted troublemakers to do their jobs, but it’s been shredded by a number of indefensible rulings by the state Supreme Court, and by Abbott himself when he was attorney general.
There were a few bills this session to fix some of the worst problems, such as a ruling that made almost all government contracting secret. That bill never cleared the House. When you’re the party in power, open government laws become a vulnerability.
But one bill made it to Abbott’s desk. It would have penalized government agencies that filed meritless lawsuits to avoid turning over public records. I’m technically engaged in one of those now, marooned on the wrong side of $50,000 worth of lawyering, with no way compete against the institutional resources available to any government agency.
When sunshine laws got started, the idea was to be able to walk into any agency and request whatever you wanted. The reality now, is that at best you’re going to get charged a lot just to take a peek, and if you’ve actually found some corruption, you can expect to go to court.
Abbott, ever on the side of his government, vetoed the bill, expressing concern that citizens would rush off to start filing lawsuits instead of waiting patiently to be denied.
No one gets to hide? They all do.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (World Travel & Tourism Council/Creative Commons)