Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

July 8th, 2017:

Saturday video break: Saved

Here’s Bob Dylan during his Christian phase:

Gotta say, that meets my criteria for a good gospel song: It’s not doctrinally objectionable, and it has an excellent beat that you can dance to. Thumbs up. Now here with a similar these are The Commitments:

That’s from Volume 2 of the soundtrack, which is why it’s less familiar. It’s also not the Dylan song, but it too meets my standards. And for a third take on the concept, here’s Khalid:

That’s an Olivia song, and it shows a different meaning of the word “saved”. It also has over 14 million plays on YouTube, so make of that what you will. Not something that I would have come across, much less downloaded, on my own, but still pretty good.

“America’s future is Texas”

Here’s that long story in the New Yorker that everyone is talking about. It covers basically the entire legislative session with a bunch of preliminary background info, most of which is very familiar to all of us, so I’m just going to focus on a couple of bits relating to Speaker Joe Straus and the bathroom bill battle.

Rep. Joe Straus

I met Straus in his office. He switched on a closed-circuit TV to watch a press conference by a new group of a dozen cultural conservatives, the Texas Freedom Caucus, which is led by Matt Schaefer, a state representative from Tyler, in East Texas. The group, which models itself on the similarly named body of far-right House Republicans in Washington, had formed, in part, because the term “Tea Party” had lost its meaning—in Texas, at least—as nearly every Republican in the legislature claimed to be unimpeachably conservative. What distinguished this group was that the members were all vociferously anti-Straus. The declared mission of the group is to “amplify the voice of liberty-minded grassroots Texans who want bold action to protect life, strengthen families, defend the Bill of Rights, restrain government, and revitalize personal and economic freedoms in Texas.”

As he watched the conference, Straus shot me a weary look.

We moved to the dining room, which had Audubon bird prints on the wall. “The thing that concerns me is the near-total loss of influence of the business community, which allows really bad ideas like the bathroom bill to fill the void,” Straus said, as we sat down to plates of delicious crab cakes. “C.E.O.s have stopped coming to the capitol to engage directly,” he continued. “They now work only through lobbyists.”

Straus comes from a longtime Republican family in San Antonio. One of his ancestors founded the L. Frank Saddlery Company, which made saddles, harnesses, and whips. Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders stopped in San Antonio in 1898 to equip themselves with L. Frank gear on their way to fight in the Spanish-American War. The company’s slogan was “The horse—next to woman, God’s greatest gift to man.”
When Joe Straus is not in Austin, he is an executive in the insurance and investment business. He entered that industry after a spell in Washington, where his wife, Julie Brink, worked in the Reagan White House and on George H. W. Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign. During that period, Straus served in the Commerce Department.

He is trim and dapper, like an account executive on “Mad Men,” and is the most prominent Jewish politician in Texas history. In campaigns, his opponents have mentioned his religion, to little effect. This is his fifth term as speaker, which ties the record. It’s a surprise to many observers that the laconic and even-tempered Straus has persevered. Evan Smith told me, “All the things they said about him—‘He’d show up at a gunfight with a butter knife,’ ‘He can’t make a fist’—they were all wrong. Joe Straus is so much tougher than he appears.”

His speakership has focused on providing the workforce and the infrastructure that Texas businesses need, by protecting public education, building roads, establishing more top-tier universities, and expanding job training. Perhaps his biggest victory was in 2013: in the middle of a devastating drought, he ushered through a two-billion-dollar revolving loan fund for state water projects.

With each session, Straus has watched the Republican Party drift farther away from the “compassionate conservatism” of the Governor Bush era and become increasingly dominated by Christian ideologues, such as Patrick, for whom economic issues are secondary. Although Democrats and non-Tea Party Republicans alike see Straus as a brake on the controversial cultural agenda being pushed by Abbott and Patrick, he worries that his supporters have unreasonable expectations. “I can only do so much to keep the focus on fiscal issues and away from the divisive stuff,” he told me. “A few loud and fanatical people occasionally unsettle the majority of Republicans, who are really mainstream.”

Unlike Patrick, who decides which bills come to the floor in the Senate, Straus has to exercise influence by artfully appointing committee members, who can dull the fangs of fearsome bills (or let them languish until there’s no time to consider them). Sometimes he thinks that his moderation, along with the relative centrism of the Texas House, is being used as a foil for the Senate radicals. “The confidence that people seem to have in the House to serve as a stopper only enables the Senate to run hotter than it ever has before,” he said.

Straus believed that most Republicans in the House didn’t want to vote for the bathroom bill, but, like their conservative colleagues in Washington, they worried about being challenged from the right in primaries. “If it gets to the floor, it could be a close vote,” Straus observed. “I can’t imagine anyone really wanting to follow North Carolina’s example, but I can’t guarantee that’s not going to happen.” Meanwhile, he was pressing his own legislative agenda, which included securing additional funds for public schools, improving Child Protective Services, and devoting more resources to mental health—even though the state budget had been hit because of the fall in oil and gas revenues.

Before the session began, Straus spoke out against the bathroom bill. “I’ve become more blunt than ever,” he told me. He frequently urges business leaders to remain firm in their opposition to such legislation. “I try to be diplomatic but clear—that if you give in on the bathroom bill to preserve a tax break, there’s another equally awful idea right behind it.”

[…]

Speaker Straus was waiting in his chambers, seated on the couch in his shirtsleeves, under a painting of Hereford cattle. He looked far more relaxed than I thought was warranted, given that Governor Abbott was poised to call a special session that would likely focus on Patrick’s must-pass bills. But Straus seemed satisfied. He boasted that the priorities of the House—his priorities—had mostly been accomplished. “We did the Child Protective Services reforms, adding fourteen hundred new caseworkers,” he said. “We made tremendous progress on mental-health reforms and funding.” Texas’s decrepit hospitals were going to be upgraded. A health-care plan for retired teachers had been saved. Enormous cuts to higher education had been averted. “These were issues a little bit under the radar, because they’re not sensational, but they’re issues that are going to make a big difference in Texas lives,” Straus said. “What we didn’t achieve was to begin fixing the school-finance system, which everybody knows is a disaster.”

Straus said that some schools in districts that had been strongly affected by the downturn in the oil and gas economy might have to be closed. “We had a plan to bridge that,” he noted. “Unfortunately, the Senate had other priorities.” He attributed the failure to Patrick’s “fixation on vouchers.”

I asked Straus about the clash between business and cultural conservatives. He quoted William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, who described the forthcoming Civil War as “an irrepressible conflict.” The prejudices unleashed by the election of Donald Trump had poured kerosene on the already volatile world of Texas politics. Straus, referring to the bathroom bill, said, “We came very close this session to passing a sweepingly discriminatory policy. It would have sent a very negative message around the country.”

“That’s still possible, right?” I asked. Couldn’t Abbott put forward his own bill in the special session and threaten to veto any amendments?

Straus agreed, but noted, “The legislature is not obligated to act upon his agenda items within the thirty-day period. And the Governor would have the option to call as many thirty-day sessions as he would like.”

“So the bill could stay in committee and not get voted out?”

Straus smiled.

The first quoted section is from March 2, the second from late in the session, right after the Matt Rinaldi/ICE kerfuffle. In between is a quote from Straus that has been widely shared about him not wanting to have “the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.” (The Trib has a brief audio clip with the story author talking about that quote.) You can take all of this for what it’s worth, and I’m not sure if one should feel more or less dread about the special session based on a story like this. I would point out that while the House has been a bit of a moderating force it’s still a place where SB4 and all kinds of unconstitutional anti-abortion bills get passed, so there’s a limit to how “mainstream” Straus’ Republican allies are. The Senate is the way it is in part because of Dan Patrick, but also in part because in every Republican primary for the Senate since maybe 2010, a Patrick acolyte has won and steadily replaced the more Straussian business-friendly types. Democrats have a couple of opportunities for gains next year, which would go a long way towards restoring some sanity, but it would be nice of the Straus wing of the party could do better in some March races as well. Anyway, read the (very long) whole thing and see what you think.

Denton County returns to paper ballots

I hadn’t realized this.

Denton has been using a hybrid voting system that employs both electronic and paper ballots for about a decade. But county officials recently approved spending just shy of $9 million to buy new voting equipment from Austin-based Hart InterCivic that will return to an entirely paper-based system in time for this year’s November elections. Even disabled voters, who will cast their votes on touch-screen machines, will have their ballots printed out and tallied through a print scanner.

The move comes months after a disastrous election day for Denton County in November, with machines inadvertently set to “test mode” instead of “election mode,” long lines, problems with scanning paper ballots, and, ultimately, incorrect tabulations. [Frank Phillips, Denton County’s elections administrator] — who was working in nearby Tarrant County at the time — said it was the personnel, not the machines, that caused chaos last fall. But voters in town, as well as leaders with the local Democratic and Republican parties, called for a return to paper ballots in the months following election day.

“The question always comes: ‘How do I know that when I cast my ballot it’s recorded electronically?’” Phillips said. “We know it’s recorded correctly because of our testing methods, but that question has persisted ever since we started using electronic voting. With the political climate these days, it’s even more heightened right now.”

And these aren’t just any paper ballots, Phillips emphasized. The new Hart system Denton purchased allows election administrators to print ballots on demand, eliminating the waste and cost of over-printing paper ballots in advance of an election and then having to expend resources storing those unused ballots afterward to comply with state regulations. It also prevents the problem of under-printing paper ballots — an issue that emerged last year when Titus County saw a higher-than-expected turnout for the presidential primary, and officials were forced to create and hand-count ballots on election day.

I gather what this means is that when you show up, you will get a printed-for-you ballot, then (I presume) fill it out with a pen or pencil. It will then be read by an optical scanner to tally the votes. Which is fine, but it’s not the way I’d prefer it. The system they have for disabled voters, where you vote on a touch screen then have your ballot printed out, would be better. Frankly, having the vote recorded electronically then having a paper ballot that serves as your receipt is better still. This is basically what the STAR voter system that Travis County has been working on does.

The main problem with filling out a paper ballot is that some people will fill it out incorrectly. Have you ever looked at the election returns on the Harris County Clerk website and wondered how there could possibly be overvotes in a race? It happens with the paper-based absentee ballots, where one can accidentally or purposefully select more than one candidate in a contest. Electronic voting machines don’t allow for this to happen. While this will almost always spoil a ballot for that race, some of the time with these overvotes, the voter’s intent is clear. In the infamous 2000 Florida election, some counties used a paper ballot with optical scan system, and there were documented instances of a person filling in the bubble for a specific candidate, then also putting that same candidate’s name in the write-in space. This is hardly an insurmountable problem, but it would help to have clear policies in place for when a ballot is truly spoiled and when a voter’s intent can be inferred.

There are other potential issues here – do we have any idea if it will take people longer to vote on paper than on a screen, for instance – but again, I don’t think they’re insurmountable. I don’t care for the fearfulness behind the “how do I know that when I cast my ballot it’s recorded electronically?” premise – the same way you know that when you buy something from Amazon it will arrive on your doorstep and your credit card will get charged – but whatever. If this is what the people of Denton County want, then so be it. The Lewisville Texan has more.

Trumpcare would be a hospital killer

This is hardly a new problem, but it’s yet another aspect of Trumpcare that gets too little attention.

Texas hospitals stand to lose billions under the Republican-backed health plan, as federal Medicaid dollars shrink, leading to a rise in uncompensated care, according to a new analysis by the Commonwealth Fund, a national health policy foundation.

The study looked only at the U.S. House plan passed last month. It has not yet examined the impact of the U.S. Senate’s version unveiled late last week, which experts have predicted will bring even deeper cuts to Medicaid.

In Texas, uncompensated costs in the state’s 304 acute care hospitals could increase by 7 percent, rising to $38.4 billion over the next decade, the study found.

That compares with an estimated $35.8 billion over the next decade under the current Affordable Care Act.

At issue is a spike in the number of the nation’s uninsured whose care is often absorbed by hospitals. As many as 23 million Americans could become uninsured over the next decade under the House bill because of cuts to Medicaid, and the recalculation of insurance plans and how people afford them, the Congressional Budget Office estimated late last month.

[…]

Texas already leads the nation in the number of uninsured and hospital executives have cautioned that their institutions would be hard pressed to take a bigger hit should the uninsured rate go higher.

“If people think Harris Health can absorb this, that is a miscalculation,” said George Masi, president and CEO of Harris Health System, in a January interview with the Chronicle.

This is basically what the world was like before the Affordable Care Act. People who had no insurance would use hospital emergency rooms for care when they really needed it, which is inefficient and dangerous and super expensive and many other negative things, all of which get picked up by local taxpayers. There are so many things that are wrong with and bad about the GOP’s “health care” plan that it’s hard to focus on any one thing and even harder to prioritize, but this one is really big. And it will hurt rural areas at least as much as urban areas. Not that the Republicans who represent rural areas care, and it’s not clear that the voters who would be affected have figured it out, or if they have if they’re capable of getting past their faith in the Charlatan in Chief. But the facts are stubborn things. The Rivard Report has more.