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Jerry Patterson

Remember the (gross mismanagement by George P. Bush’s Land Office at the) Alamo

Maybe remember this in November.

As the election season rolls on, keep this in mind when Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush opens his mouth: The officeholder from the state’s best-known political family certainly knows how to spin a story.

Back in February, Bush was in a noisy Republican primary fight with his predecessor, Jerry Patterson. Among other things, Patterson is an Alamo buff. He has made it abundantly clear that he thinks Bush has mismanaged things at that monument. And he got some support of that view from a draft of an internal audit critical of the “structure and funding model” at the Alamo put in place by the General Land Office.

“Internal” is an important word in the previous sentence. That draft audit — along with the final version that came out this week — was issued by the internal auditor in Bush’s own agency. That’s what internal auditors are supposed to do, to tell you when there’s spinach on your teeth, toilet paper stuck to your shoe, oddities in your accounting and so on.

They point things out to management. Management is supposed to clean things up.

The draft audit was first revealed by the Austin American-Statesman in early February, and other reporters caught up with the land commissioner to see what he thought about it. “I can’t really comment on the document,” Bush said at the time. “I cannot disclose, but we do have evidence that it was a doctored memo.”

Here’s the lead paragraph from the draft audit — also the lead paragraph of the final audit:

“GLO should reconsider the structure and funding model it uses for operating the Alamo. A contractor performs the daily operations, but it uses state resources to do this, as it does not have its own funds or other assets. This is an unusual situation that has created complexity and a lack of clarity regarding the nature and the use of the funds used for Alamo operations. It is also the root cause of several of the observations in this report.”

[…]

Auditors typically give space to the people and organizations under the microscope, a place to make arguments, to disagree or to point out things the auditors might have missed. In this audit, the top line sort of slams the door: “Management concurs with the recommendations.”

Here’s a copy of the audit report, with more recent news coverage from the Statesman and the Chron. You have to admire the gall it takes to claim that an audit report by his own agency, signed off by his own management, is “fake news”, but that’s how stupid Baby Bush thinks you are. Here’s the key takeaway:

Bush faces Democrat Miguel Suazo in the fall. Suazo said Thursday the audit “clearly demonstrates that George P. Bush is in over his head and lacks the competence to manage our state’s most historic landmark.”

There’s a reason why Jerry Patterson came out of retirement to try to win his old job back. I hope you’re still committed to bringing change to the GLO this November, Jerry.

UT/TT poll: Trump approval more or less the same as before

A tad bit more positive than last time, but still nothing to write home about.

With the usual disclaimers about partisan imbalance, President Donald Trump’s job approval ratings are holding steady, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Overall, equal numbers of Texas voters approve and disapprove of the job Trump is doing. Beneath that, the poll found, Republicans are highly supportive, with 83 percent saying they approve, while 84 percent of Democrats say they disapprove. The president’s numbers are remarkably similar to those in last February’s UT/TT Poll — the first survey after Trump took office. Then, as now, Republicans were solidly behind him and Democrats were solidly against him, making the blended numbers appear balanced.

[…]

The contrasting voter impressions of the state’s two Republican U.S. senators continue. John Cornyn had approving marks from 29 percent of all voters, 47 percent of Republicans and 10 percent of Democrats. Overall, 38 percent of voters disapprove of the job Cornyn’s doing as the second-highest-ranking member of the Senate majority’s leadership. That’s driven by the disapproval of 59 percent of Texas Democrats.

Ted Cruz, who is up for re-election this year, gets about the same number of good grades — 40 percent — and bad ones — 41 percent. As with other officeholders, it’s about party, but only Trump’s numbers are as strongly divided on those lines. Cruz’s high grades from 72 percent of Republicans are offset by his bad grades from 73 percent of Democrats.

In another question, voters were asked their opinion of Cruz, which yielded similar results. Overall, 40 percent said they have a favorable impression of him and 42 percent have an unfavorable one. It’s a party thing, with 71 percent of Democrats holding negative opinions and 70 percent of Republicans holding positive ones. Fewer than one in five said they had no opinion at all.

Contrast that with his likely general election opponent, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke. The El Paso Democrat has never been on a statewide ballot, and it shows, with 58 percent of all voters saying they have neither a favorable nor an unfavorable opinion of him. Among Democrats, 52 percent have a favorable opinion of O’Rourke, 4 percent have an unfavorable opinion and 44 percent have no opinion at all. Among Republicans, 8 percent were favorable, 22 percent were unfavorable and 70 percent were neither positive nor negative.

Gov. Greg Abbott remains the most popular elected state official, if job assessments are the measure. Overall, 46 percent said he’s doing a good job and 31 percent said he’s not. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s numbers almost break into three equal parts: 36 percent approval, 33 percent disapproval and 31 percent neutral. And House Speaker Joe Straus, who is not seeking another term, remains the least well-known high official in Austin: 27 percent approve of the job he’s doing, 24 percent disapprove and 48 percent remain neutral.

For comparison purposes:

UT/Trib, February 2017, 46 approve/44 disapprove
UT/Trib, June 2017, 43 approve/51 disapprove
UT/Trib, October 2017, 45 approve/49 disapprove
UT/Trib, February 2018, 46 approve/46 disapprove

There are other pollsters that have shown poorer results for Trump in the past year. For apples to apples purposes, the numbers above all come from the UT/Trib poll. This was Trump’s best showing since last February, and it may represent the passage of the tax bill, the onset of primary season and the partisan stirrings that brings, random variations, some combination of the above, or something else entirely. I think his numbers are more likely to sag a big going forward than improve, and there’s always the chance that some factor like the Mueller investigation could cause him to crater. Overall, though, I think this is more or less what we should expect.

What does it mean? Well, overall probably not much. Not because of anything having to do with this poll or any other poll, but because for November purposes I don’t think the right questions are being asked, or more to the point I don’t think the right people are being asked. We all know this election is about who will turn out, so why not focus on the voters who are the biggest variables in that? What I’d love to see are surveys of 1) Democratic voters who turned out in 2016 and 2012 and 2008 but not 2010 or 2014; 2) people who voted for someone other than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in 2016 and who have a history of voting in the off years; and 3) Republicans who voted for Clinton in 2016. Ask them what their plans are for this year, and maybe you’ll get a better idea of what to expect in 8.5 months.

And on a related note:

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are far ahead of their Republican primary opponents in the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, but the Democrats running for those two high offices face more difficult paths to their party’s nomination.

Two other statewide Republican incumbents — Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — have the support of a majority of likely primary voters, but with a caveat. When those voters had the option of saying they weren’t ready to make a choice, 44 percent listed no preference in the land race and 60 percent said the same in the agriculture race.

With high numbers of undecided voters, Bush led his primary with 36 percent of the vote, and Miller led his with 27 percent. Only when they were asked how they’d vote if they had to make a choice now did the majorities appear for the incumbents.

[…]

The Democratic primary for governor is a muddle, with two clear frontrunners and no candidate close to enough votes to win without a runoff. Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez had the support of 43 percent of likely primary voters responding to the poll, while Andrew White of Houston had 24 percent. If no candidate gets a majority, the top two finishers will go to a May runoff. Grady Yarbrough and Tom Wakely each got 7 percent in that primary poll, Adrian Ocegueda and Jeffrey Payne got 5 percent, and Cedric Davis Sr., Joe Mumbach and James Jolly Clark each got 4 percent or less.

The Democratic race for lieutenant governor won’t end in a runoff — there are only two candidates. But their names are similar — Mike Collier and Michael Cooper — and their numbers are close. Collier, whose name was on the statewide ballot four years ago when he ran for comptroller, got 55 percent in the latest UT/TT Poll. Cooper got 45 percent.

“You have two lieutenant governor candidates whose names are very similar to one another, who have received very little public attention and who are not very well known,” Henson said.

The Trib’s primary polls from 2014 were, in a word, trash. They were worse than useless, and they didn’t have a strong track record in Democratic primary polls before that. Their November polling has been good, but I emphatically advise you to take any and all of their March numbers as being strictly for entertainment purposes only. You have been warned.

Endorsement watch: A veritable plethora, part 1

Whoa, all of a sudden the Chron is chock full of endorsements. Let’s run through ’em. Actually, let’s start to run through them. So many appeared all at once that I’m going to need to break this into more than one post.

For Lite Guv: Anyone but Dan.

Lieutenant governor: Scott Milder

Scott Milder has become the tip of the spear in this statewide effort to fight back against Patrick, and we endorse his run to unseat the incumbent as the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. A former City Council member in Rockwall, a Dallas suburb, Milder, 50, is aligned with the schools, business interests and pastors who are hoping to restore the conservative values of local control and pro-growth that for decades sat at the core of Texas politics. It is a movement that wants to put an end to the potty-bill politics that have dominated our state Legislature under Patrick.

From El Paso to Texarkana, Brownsville to Canadian, local cities and counties are starting to stand together against a state government obsessed with the political minutiae that excites the partisan wings but does little to make our state a better place to live. A vote for Milder will be a vote to fix school funding and return Texas to normalcy.

Democratic Lieutenant governor: Mike Collier

In the Democratic primary for this important post, the Chronicle recommends Mike Collier, the more experienced, better qualified of the two candidates vying to face off against the Republican winner in the November general election.

A graduate of the University of Texas with a bachelor’s degree and MBA, Collier wants to see more state money directed to public schools, arguing that overtaxed homeowners cannot afford to carry what ought to be the state’s share of education funding. An accountant by training, Collier held high-level positions in auditing and finance during his career at a global accounting firm, giving weight to his proposal to close a corporate tax loophole as a means of raising revenue for public education and property tax relief.

Collier, 56, is well-versed in this region’s need for storm surge protection and Harvey recovery, and he’s ready to tap the state’s substantial rainy day fund to pay for it. “Let’s crack it open and stimulate recovery as fast as we can,” he told the editorial board.

Collier supports expanding Medicaid to improve health for poor children, and he wants to improve care for rural Texans dealing with local hospital closures and few physicians wanting to practice outside large cities.

I count myself lucky that I have not yet been subjected to Dan Patrick’s TV ad barrage. I’m all in for Mike Collier, but for sure Scott Milder would be a step away from the dystopia that Patrick is determined to drag us all to.

Land Commissioner: Not Baby Bush.

Four years ago, this editorial page enthusiastically supported Bush in his first bid for elected office. We were mightily impressed with his command of the complex issues facing the General Land Office. Anybody who thought this guy was just coasting on his family name was wrong. “George P. Bush is the real deal,” we wrote.

Now the real deal has become a real disappointment.

Bush has repeatedly stumbled during his first term in his first elected office. He directed the General Land Office to spend nearly $1 million in taxpayer money to keep at least 40 employees on the payroll for as long as five months after they’d actually quit their jobs, but only if they promised they wouldn’t sue Bush or the agency. Three days after a contractor scored a $13.5 million hurricane cleanup contract, Bush’s campaign accepted almost $30,000 in contributions from the company’s executives.

But his highest profile problem has been his plan to “reimagine” the Alamo. It’s an ongoing mess criticized not only by Texas history buffs but also by Republican lawmakers irate about the way it’s being managed. Among other problems, Bush played a cynical shell game with state employees, shifting about 60 people over to a taxpayer-funded nonprofit so he could brag that he cut his agency’s staff. As one incredulous GOP fundraiser put it, “How do you screw up the Alamo?”

To his credit, months before Hurricane Harvey, Bush wrote President Donald Trump a detailed letter requesting funding for a coastal storm surge barrier. Unfortunately, since then we haven’t seen him do much to advance the cause of this critical infrastructure project.

Losing faith in a man who once looked like a rising political star is disillusioning, but voters in the Republican primary for Texas land commissioner should bypass Bush and cast their ballots for Jerry Patterson.

I feel reasonably confident that Jerry Patterson will not buy any secret mansions with secret money. He was a perfectly decent Land Commissioner whose service I respect as you know, but just clearing that bar would have been enough to prefer him. I only wish the Chron had expressed an opinion on the Democratic side, as that’s a race where I don’t feel like I know much about the candidates. Maybe we’ll get that later.

For County Treasurer – Dylan Osborne

Dylan Osborne

Three Democrats are running in this friendly race. All seem to be self-starters, and all recognize that taxpayers need to get more for their dollar than a mere office figure head who oversees routine financial operations conducted by professional staff. All want to increase efficiencies and cost savings, and improve service through better use of technology.

Our choice, Dylan Osborne, 36, is the candidate with the background in customer relations and experience in community service needed to elevate this job from one of sinecure to public service.

Osborne, who holds a Master’s in Public Administration, currently works in the city of Houston Planning and Development Department. The University of Houston graduate got his start as the manager of a restaurant and an auto parts store and has risen his way through city ranks. While employed by two city council members, the personable Osborne organized events with civic clubs and super neighborhoods to educate citizens about local issues.

My interview with Dylan Osborne is here and with Nile Copeland is here; Cosme Garcia never replied to my email. The Chron has endorsed Orlando Sanchez in the last couple of general elections. Maybe this year they’ll break that habit.

And for HCDE: Josh Wallenstein and Danny Norris.

County School Trustee Position 3, At large: Josh Wallenstein

This Democratic primary is a coin toss between Josh Wallenstein and Richard Cantu.

The HCDE has come under political fire in recent years, and it needs to achieve two goals to stay on course. The department needs to avoid conflicts of interest and maximize its use of the public dollar. Wallenstein was chief compliance officer of a major corporation before starting his own law firm and could bring to the board the skill of contract review and analysis including, minimizing waste, fraud and abuse, conflict of interest and self-dealing and maximizing efficiencies for schools. He graduated from Stanford Law School.

The department does a good job of offering school districts services at a much reduced rate, but it does a poor of job of communicating to voters how it saves taxpayer money. Cantu, who holds a masters in public administration from St. Thomas University, would be in the best position to develop partnerships and collaborations around the city and to help the department get the word out. He’s held management positions with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, Baker Ripley, the Mayor’s Citizens Assistance Office and currently he’s deputy executive director of the East Aldine Management District.

It was a tough choice but choose we must, and we endorse Wallenstein.

County School Trustee, Position 6, Precinct 1: Danyahel (Danny) Norris

There is no Republican running for this seat vacated by Democratic incumbent Erica Lee Carter, which stretches from the portion of Friendswood in Harris County to near Galena Park in the south. The winner of this primary will become a trustee on the HCDE board. Two candidates — John F. Miller and Danyahel “Danny” Norris — stand out in this three person race. We tip our hat to the only candidate with experience in education policy: Norris.

Norris, 37, holds the distinction of being a chemical engineer, a former teacher and tutor for math students, a lawyer with a degree from Thurgood Marshall School of Law, a law professor, and a librarian with a masters of library science from the University of North Texas.

Miller, who is also a chemical engineer, demonstrated an admirable commitment to the board position, having attended all of its meetings since September. However, he didn’t convince us that his budgeting or hiring skills would fill a gap in the board’s expertise.

Interviews:

Josh Wallenstein
Richard Cantu
Elvonte Patton
Danny Norris
John Miller

Prince Bryant did reply to my email request for an interview a week ago, but then never followed up when I suggested some possible times to talk. I agree with the Chron that the choices we have in these races are good ones.

The Land Office in the news

Please enjoy this coverage of a downballot statewide race, which is not something we get all that much of.

Jerry Patterson

Incumbent George P. Bush, the 41-year-old grandson and nephew of U.S. presidents, is facing off against his outspoken predecessor Jerry Patterson, 71, who wants his old job back after leaving it to unsuccessfully run for lieutenant governor.

Despite its low profile, the land commissioner has one of the state’s most critical jobs, especially now as hundreds of communities, including Houston, continue to recover in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

“The (governor), the lieutenant governor and other statewide elected officials, including the land commissioner, are important positions because they touch so many lives,” said David Dewhurst, who served as the land commissioner from 1999 to 2003.

The Texas land commissioner is responsible for cleaning up oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, raising money for schools, preserving the state’s most iconic landmark, doling out benefits to veterans and helping communities recover from a natural disaster.

“Our land commissioner oversees extensive programs that benefit our veterans, and our oil and gas activities, which are important to provide more funding for public education, particularly when the Legislature has not been as aggressive as it has in the past to provide funding for public schools,” Dewhurst said.

[…]

Tex Morgan, who is running as a Democrat, said that if elected he’ll work to increase awareness about the land office’s duties.

“Too few Texans know the scope or depth of the GLO’s responsibilities, programs and opportunities,” Morgan, 31, said.

[…]

Miguel Suazo, a Democrat on the primary ballot, has repeatedly called out Bush for not demanding that the state tap its rainy day fund, which has about $10 billion available for budget emergencies.

In a January interview with the Bryan-College Station Eagle, Bush expressed support for calling a special session so that the state could provide more money for Harvey relief. A few days after the interview was published, Bush walked back the statement saying he “misspoke.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has said calling a special session is unnecessary.

“I agree that calling a special session is not necessary,” Bush said. “I will continue to work under Gov. Abbott’s leadership as we help Texans throughout the hurricane recovery process.”

Since recovery efforts began, Bush has said the land office is at the mercy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which determines eligibility for the recovery programs and distributes the funds.

Bush has three primary opponents, of whom his predecessor Jerry Patterson would appear to be his biggest threat. I feel like he’ll probably win, but let’s remember, Baby Bush was the top votegetter in the state among Republicans with Democratic opponents in 2014. He toyed with the idea of running for Governor before “settling” on the Land Office while he built his resume and bided his time till the old farts got out of his way and he could ascend to the throne vie for the top spot. He was a rising star, the half-Latino face of the Republican future, and now he could actually fail to win re-nomination. The fact that he has non-token opposition at all is remarkable.

(Oh, and also, too: Secret mansions financed by undisclosed loans. I mean, seriously?)

On the Democratic side, Suazo was the first candidate in, while Morgan filed at the last minute. They both look all right, though at this point I don’t know enough about them to make a choice yet. This is one of those races where I’ll probably let myself be guided by endorsements more than anything else. If you have a strong feeling about either Suazo or Morgan, leave a comment and let us know.

Filing news: Jerry’s back

Former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson would like his office back, please.

Jerry Patterson

Patterson, who was first elected as the state’s land commissioner in 2003, wants to head the agency that manages state-owned lands and the Alamo. He gave up the job to run for lieutenant governor in 2014, but came in last in a four-way GOP primary race.

Patterson has long been critical of Bush, including the office’s response to Hurricane Harvey. Since 2011 the office has also overseen housing recovery efforts after natural disasters.

“If your headline is that Jerry Patterson wants his old job back, that would be wrong,” Patterson told the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t need this job and I would prefer to be praising George P. Bush.”

He decided to run himself — after looking for someone else to make the race against Bush — because he believed he was “watching this agency crater for the past three years.” That criticism comes after watching the agency refuse to disclose details about the Alamo restoration project that the Land Office is overseeing and after seeing tens of thousands of Texas homeless after Hurricane Harvey while just two homes have been rebuilt so far.

“This morning, Harvey victims who have been sleeping in tents awakened to the snow,” Patterson said.

I’ll say this about Jerry Patterson: I disagree with him on many things, but he was without a doubt one of the more honorable people serving in government while he was there. He took the job of Land Commissioner seriously, he was a stalwart defender of the Texas Open Beaches Act, and in my view he always acted with the best interests of the state at heart. He’s not going to be my first choice, but I’d take him over Baby Bush in a heartbeat.

Land Commissioner was one of two statewide offices for which there had not been a Democratic candidate, but as the story note, that is no longer the case:

[Miguel] Suazo, an attorney from Austin, announced Friday he would run for the post as a Democrat.

No stranger to politics, Suazo worked as an aid to U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, in Washington D.C. and has also worked as an energy and environment associate for Wellford Energy Advisors, a manager for regulatory affairs for the the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. He has also worked as an oil and gas attorney in Houston.

“I am running for Land Commissioner because I am qualified for the office and eager to bring new leadership to Texas,” Suazo in a statement declaring his candidacy. “I represent small and large companies and also regular folks who need a job done. I know business and I know people . . . I’m self-made, nothing’s been handed to me. I intend to bring that approach to the General Land Office.”

Suazo, a proponent of block-chain technology, said he may be the first candidate in Texas to launch his campaign using proceeds from Bitcoin investments.

Here’s his campaign Facebook page. I’m so glad there will be a choice in November.

Other news:

– The other statewide office that was lacking a Democratic candidate was Comptroller. That too is no longer the case as Tim Mahoney has filed. I don’t know anything about him as yet beyond what you can see on that website.

– Someone named Edward Kimbrough has filed in the Democratic primary for Senate. Sema Hernandez had previously shown up on the SOS candidate filings page, but hasn’t been there for several days. Not sure what’s up with that, but be that as it may, it’s a reminder that Beto O’Rourke needs to keep running hard all the way through. On the Republican side, someone named Mary Miller has filed. As yet, neither Bruce Jacobson nor Stefano de Stefano has appeared on that list. It will break my heart if Stefano de Stefano backs out on this.

– Scott Milder’s campaign sent out a press release touting an endorsement he received for his primary campaign against Dan Patrick from former Education Commissioner Dr. Shirley J. (Neeley) Richardson, but as yet he has not filed. He did have a chat with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune the other day, so there’s that.

– Believe it or not, Democrats now have at least one candidate for all 36 Congressional offices. CD04 was the last holdout. Among other things, this means that every county in Texas will have the opportunity to vote in March for at least one non-statewide candidate. Very well done, y’all. Republicans are currently skipping a couple of the bluer Congressional districts. They also have nine candidates for CD21, which is the biggest pileup so far.

– Here in Harris County, in addition to the now-contested race for County Judge, there are a couple of challenges to incumbent legislators. Damien LaCroix is once again running against Sen. John Whitmire in SD15, and Richard A. Bonton has filed in HD142 against longtime State Rep. Harold Dutton. Also, there is now a Democrat running in SD07, the district formerly held by Dan Patrick and now held by his mini-me Paul Bettencourt, David Romero, and a candidate in HD129, Alexander Karjeker. Still need someone to file in HD135.

The filing deadline is Monday, and that’s when any real surprises will happen. Enjoy the weekend and be ready for something crazy to happen on the 11th, as it usually does.

More on severance pay and the Land Commissioner’s office

The law doesn’t apply here.

BagOfMoney

After reports of state agencies keeping former employees on the payroll after they stopped working, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other agency heads have taken heat for stretching the rules on paid “emergency leave” to keep the ex-workers on the books.

But when 26 employees were paid for an additional one to two months after they quit working for the General Land Office, Land Commissioner George P. Bush didn’t use emergency leave or any other type of paid leave established in law to compensate them. Instead, Bush’s agency treated the former employees as if they were still working, sending time sheets to the comptroller’s office indicating they had shown up to work.

The arrangement raises questions about whether the agency properly awarded and reported the paid leave, which amounted to at least $383,000 for the 26 employees let go during Bush’s “reboot” of the agency after he took office in January 2015.

An additional 14 employees signed separation agreements when they left the agency after Bush was elected in November 2014 but before he was sworn in. Bush’s predecessor, Jerry Patterson, said those terminations should also be included as part of Bush’s agency reorganization because Patterson allowed Bush and his interim team to decide who should be hired and fired during that period.

[…]

State law spells out several types of paid leave — for such events as illnesses, vacation and deaths in the family — and the comptroller’s office requires agencies to indicate what type of leave an absent employee is getting by selecting a time sheet code that matches a leave category established in law.

The General Land Office, however, didn’t select any type of leave for the 26 employees with separation agreements, and the agency has since said it left the leave field blank because there was no leave category that corresponded to their circumstance. “Because there was not a more accurate code, we used what was readily available to us, and we didn’t want to miscategorize it as something that is not accurate,” agency spokeswoman Brittany Eck said.

For Buck Wood, a former deputy comptroller and expert on Texas government and ethics law, that omission is proof that the leave wasn’t authorized by state law.

“There’s got to be an appropriation, and there’s also got to be a law behind an appropriation that authorizes it,” Wood said. “In this case, neither exists. There is no such thing as severance pay (in state law), and there’s no appropriation for it, so it’s just totally and completely illegal.”

Also, Wood said, any time sheets approved by the General Land Office that indicated employees were still working after they had left the agency might constitute falsification of government records, a felony offense.

Bush’s staff said such payments are standard practice in the business world because they are efficient. Noting that none of the 100 employees who left the agency under Bush have sued for discrimination, Eck said the agreements save taxpayer money by reducing potential litigation risks and legal fees.

See here for the background. You almost have to admire their tenacity with the “it’s totally legit in the private sector” defense. Who cares that this is the public sector, or that knowing how our money is spent and how our public offices are being run are things we are supposed to value? Not George P. Bush, that’s for sure. You won’t get that kind of clarity of vision from just anyone. Ross Ramsey has more.

You get a severance! And you get a severance!

Everybody gets a severance package!

BagOfMoney

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush has spent nearly $1 million in taxpayer money to entice dozens of people fired by his administration to agree not to sue him or the agency, a practice that may run afoul of a ban on severance pay for state workers.

Bush, a first-term Republican, has directed the General Land Office to keep at least 40 people on the payroll for as long as five months after ending their employment, according to an analysis of records obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The ex-staffers did not have to use vacation time, and, in fact, continued to accrue more time for as long as they were on the payroll. In return, they agreed in writing not to sue the agency or discuss the deal.

Many of the recipients were top aides to former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson who were fired during an agency “reboot” in which Bush replaced more than 100 employees.

Such separation arrangements are made frequently in the corporate world, but are not allowed in Texas government, where there is no severance and staffers generally are required to work to be paid, according to employment lawyers, union leaders and former state officials.

“I can understand the thinking of an agency head who wants to get rid of someone and thinks that this is an easy way to do it, but this is not the way to do it,” said Buck Wood, an ethics expert and former deputy state comptroller, noting the detailed rules that govern how agencies can spend money do not authorize that purpose. “Keeping someone on the payroll when they’re not coming to work so you can avoid the hassle of a lawsuit is just illegal.”

Malinda Gaul, a San Antonio employment lawyer who has represented state workers for 33 years, said she had never heard of such an arrangement.

[…]

Steve Aragon, a former general counsel for the Health and Human Services Commission, said he thinks there are justifiable reasons to pay employees for not working, including to prevent litigation in cases in which it was clear that a staffer likely would not come back. However, he said, it is not something that state agencies should do frequently.

“These situations should be exceptional and would not be expected as a matter of routine,” Aragon said.

Others objected to any use of the practice, including Seth Hutchinson, a spokesman for the Texas State Employees Union.

“It’s not an appropriate use of state funds,” Hutchinson said. “If people are being wrongfully fired, they’re being wrongfully fired, and they shouldn’t be using state funds to cover it up.”

After being told that it is not uncommon in the corporate world, Hutchinson scoffed.

“State government should be held to a higher standard of accountability,” he said.

This is getting to be quite the pattern, isn’t it? It’s almost like Baby Bush and Ken Paxton and Sid Miller have no regard for the law but only care about their own interests. I presume someone will file a complaint about this, thus providing Greg Abbott another opportunity to profess ignorance about what’s happening in his government. Keep it up, fellas.

Ken who? Sid who?

Whatever you do, don’t mention the indicted Republican officeholders!

The Texas attorney general has been indicted for allegedly duping investors in a tech startup, and the agriculture commissioner reportedly used tax dollars to travel to obtain a so-called Jesus shot supposedly offering long-term relief from pain.

So far, fellow Republicans are all but ignoring the troubles.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has been charged with two felonies, and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who last year unapologetically shared a Facebook post that suggested using a nuclear bomb on the Muslim population, coasted to election in 2014 as part of a new slate of GOP leaders. Other Republicans who won that year included Gov. Greg Abbott and Land Commissioner George P. Bush, son of Jeb Bush.

Democrats, who have called on Paxton to resign, lament what they call the pitfall of a politically one-sided state. Republicans seem content to stay quiet.

[…]

At least one former GOP state official said the lack of competitive elections in Texas has made current officeholders less responsive to voters and more focused on not alienating their base.

“They’re good guys, but they’ve been kind of leading with their chins,” said Jerry Patterson, who led the Texas General Land Office for more than a decade before being replaced by Bush. “Whether the allegations are right or wrong, it does negatively impact the Republican brand.”

Not exactly sure what Patterson means by that, but it’s kind of weak tea for a normally blunt guy. It’s entirely possible to believe that Paxton and Miller are good guys, as I believe Ron Reynolds is a good guy, and also believe that they did some shady things, for which they at least may need to suffer some consequences. But if the best you can do is fret about damaging the brand, then you surely can appreciate that the brand isn’t going to fix itself. Someone is going to have to be the grownup.

In that spirit, I must note that Greg Abbott has finally said something about all this.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott believes allegations that Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller misused state funds when he took two out-of-state trips a year ago should be investigated, a spokesman for the governor said on Thursday.

“The governor believes these allegations of misuse of taxpayer dollars warrant a thorough investigation by the Texas Rangers,” said the spokesman, John Wittman.

As a partisan Democrat, of course, I’d have preferred to see something stronger. As a political realist, I recognize that this is about as strong as it gets in this kind of situation. The fact that he actually mentioned “allegations” of “misuse” of state funds puts it in another class than the wishy-washy “let the system run its course” pablum he issued when Ken Paxton was first indicted. Someone in the Governor’s office recognizes a rotten egg when they smell it, so kudos to them for that. Anyone else got anything to say, about Miller or Paxton? Again, it’s fine by me if they don’t. Go ahead, whistle past the graveyard all you want. Tomorrow may never come. In the meantime, Texas Monthly has put together a couple of helpful overviews and FAQs about the Paxton and Miller situations. Who knows what the next chapter will be.

David Porter not running for re-election to RRC

Another open seat.

David Porter

Texas Railroad Commission Chairman David Porter will not be running for re-election after all.

Thursday’s surprise announcement from Porter, who was first elected in 2010, unleashed a flood of interest from Republicans pondering bids for his seat.

Former Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, and former state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, all confirmed they are weighing their options. And rumors were swirling around Austin that others might jump in.

[…]

Porter, who formerly ran a Midland accounting firm that catered to oil and gas companies, was elected to the three-member commission in 2010. And he took over as chairman in June.

At the agency (which also regulates mining, pipeline safety and natural gas utilities, but not railroads), Porter launched the Eagle Ford Shale Task Force, a collection of public officials, industry leaders, landowners and environmentalists who discussed issues surrounding oil and gas development in Texas’ drilling country. He also pushed Texas to find new uses for natural gas — particularly as a fuel for automobiles.

Last year, as Denton was preparing to vote on a hydraulic fracturing ban that the Legislature has since outlawed, Porter drew mocking from activists after he and another commissioner claimed — without evidence — that Russians were trying to shape the anti-fracking message in the North Texas town.

In recent weeks, Porter appeared to be gearing up for a major primary battle, sending out press releases blasting “radical environmentalist ideology” related to climate change and speaking of terror threats to power plants and pipelines posed by The Islamic State, or ISIS.

Porter is kind of an accidental Commissioner – he came out of nowhere to knock off then-Commissioner Victor Carrillo in the 2010 GOP primary, which no one saw coming. No great loss when he leaves, though as always the next person in line could be worse. Patterson or Keffer would be okay, the rest probably not. I figure this nomination will be decided in the runoff. It would of course be much better to have a good Democrat in the race, and as of Sunday, we have one:

Former state Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat, said Sunday that he has filed to run for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that regulates oil and gas development.

“I think it’s really important that we have a progressive voice in this Railroad Commission race, and I think it’s very important we end one party rule in this state,” Burnam said.

Burnam represented House District 90 beginning in 1997; he ran for reelection in 2014 but was defeated in the Democratic primary by the current occupant of the seat, state Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth.

Burnam would certainly be a fresh voice on the RRC, which isn’t used to having non-industry shills. He’s clearly a longshot to win, but given how crazy things are in the GOP Presidential primary, who knows what could happen. This is the only non-judicial statewide office on the ballot, and according to the Star-Telegram, Burnam will face 2014 Senate candidate Grady Yarbrough in the primary. We know what kind of random results we can get in these low-profile races, so I hope Burnam can raise a few bucks and get his name out. FuelFix has more.

More on the Denton fracking referendum

I think everyone agrees the Denton anti-fracking referendum will wind up in court if it passes. It’s just a question of how wired the courts will be for the plaintiffs.

Voters will decide whether the city will become the state’s first to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – the method of oil and gas extraction that has led to a domestic energy boom. But passage of a ban would probably trigger another fracking fight: a legal clash over a city’s power to regulate for health and safety and the rights of mineral owners to develop their resources. The outcome could reshape Texas law at a time when drilling is causing tension in some of its urban areas.

“It’s going to be one of those first-time tests, and I don’t think there’s a clear answer out there in Texas law,” said Jim Bradbury, a Fort Worth-based lawyer who focuses on environmental and energy issues.

The Denton measure would not prohibit drilling outright; it would apply only to fracking, which involves blasting apart rock with millions of gallons of chemical-laced water hauled in by trucks. After gathering nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition calling for a ban on fracking, opponents forced the City Council to vote on it. Council members rejected the proposal last week, leaving the decision to voters.

Denton, a city of 121,000 with more than 270 gas wells scattered among its neighborhoods, is one of several cities that has tried to ban fracking. That includes towns in New York, whose highest court last month upheld local ordinances banning the practice. The state of Colorado has sued its cities that have banned fracking and is pushing back against ballot measures that would toughen regulations. The prospect of such a ban in Texas – a leading oil and natural gas producer — has put Denton in a bright spotlight, rankling industry leaders and the state”s Republican leadership.

“If one community after another continues to say ‘Not in my backyard,’ then before long, a tsunami of exclusion will jeopardize our freedom as a country profits as a corporate entity,” said Chris Faulkner, the chief executive of Breitling Energy in Dallas, one of many industry representatives who spoke at City Hall before the Council”s vote.

I fixed your quote for you, Chris. The debasement of the word “freedom” is one of the great travesties of the 21st century so far.

Though Texas courts have occasionally considered cities’ drilling regulations, they have yet to see a case of such size and scope, legal experts say.

Texas law says the state intends its mineral resources to be “fully and effectively exploited,” but courts have said the power is not absolute. The Railroad Commission has jurisdiction over all oil and gas wells in the state, with authority to adopt “all necessary rules for governing and regulating persons and their operations.” Local governments have the right to impose reasonable health and safety restrictions, and the Legislature has granted most Texas cities, including Denton, the power to “regulate exploration and development of mineral interests.”

The state has long regulated most aspects of drilling, including well integrity, pipeline safety, and air and water impact, while cities have typically controlled noise and authorized the location of wells or related facilities like compressor stations. Now, a key question is where fracking falls in that spectrum.

Tom Phillips, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court from 1988 to 2004, said he would expect courts to side with the energy industry — by ruling that the ban unconstitutionally supersedes state law or that it makes gas beneath the city too difficult to tap and amounts to a taking.

Phillips, now a lawyer with the firm of Baker Botts, who was asked to review the proposal for the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said state law gave cities less stringent options for protecting health and safety at well sites, and that Denton “can’t just say no” to fracking.

Other legal experts acknowledge that state high courts tend to favor oil and gas interests, but say that Denton could make a compelling argument that a fracking ban would not wipe out all options to drill.

“To say that this is a slam dunk, it’s a taking, I think that’s painting with an overly broad brush,” said Terrence Welch, a lawyer who has helped write drilling ordinances in several Texas cities. “The property — the mineral estate isn’t left valueless. You can drill, but you just can’t frack.”

See here for the background. It’s hard to be optimistic about how the courts might rule if you’re a ban supporter, but I suppose anything is possible. And I’ll say again, if the Railroad Commission wasn’t such an utter lapdog for the industry and people in places like Denton had any reason to believe that true regulatory oversight with actual enforcement was in place, this referendum would not exist. There would be no need for it.

One more thing:

Jerry Patterson, Texas’ outgoing land commissioner, warned in a letter last week that the state would “pursue any available remedy to ensure the right to develop” those minerals.

George P. Bush, the Republican nominee in this year’s election to succeed Patterson, said he supported that stance. “We don’t need a patchwork approach to drilling regulations across the state,” he said. But John Cook, Bush’s Democratic opponent, disagreed, saying that “local communities need to have a say” in quality-of-life issues.

Know who you’re voting for this fall, people of Denton.

Dewhurst admits he has no control over his campaign

I can’t think of any other way to characterize this.

So very sad

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Monday he was “appalled” by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson’s decision to publicize court filings detailing Dan Patrick’s past mental health issues and that he tried to put a stop to the initial document release as far back as two weeks ago.

In his first public comments since Patterson released documents to state media showing that Patrick was hospitalized and treated for severe depression and a suicide attempt in the 1980s, Dewhurst reiterated in an interview that his campaign had nothing to do with the attack.

Dewhurst, an 11-year incumbent reduced to the role of underdog heading into the May 27 runoff against Patrick, attempted to distance his campaign from the fallout that ensued following the release, saying he strongly advised Patterson against the dissemination of the court records weeks ago.

The rationale: Releasing sensitive documents aimed at damaging Patrick’s campaign could backfire and damage his own chances of winning re-election.

“Whatever you do could have some reflection on me,” Dewhurst said he told Patterson at the time, noting that he was not privy to the details of the documents. “I don’t want anything to do with it.”

Patterson, who initially said he could not recall the conversation with Dewhurst from two weeks ago, had a “memory recovery” later Monday that the incumbent was “unimpressed” when the two first talked about possible court documents earlier this month. He ended up bucking Dewhurst anyway, releasing hundreds of pages of documents to reporters late Thursday.

He followed with another document dump Friday, ignoring a second personal appeal from Dewhurst to refrain from releasing documents and even emailing reporters to say he “didn’t give a damn” about the lieutenant governor’s opinion.

“He was not happy about it,” Patterson said of his Friday conversation with Dewhurst.

See here for the background. All I can say is “seriously?” Dewhurst couldn’t get Patterson, who really wants him to win, to respect his opinion that this was a bad idea, and he didn’t have the cojones to make Patterson listen to him? Who’s in charge over there, anyway? All this assumes that you buy Dewhurst’s explanation that he was totally in the dark as to what Patterson had to leak out, a story that the Observer finds difficult to believe. Whatever it was that this was supposed to accomplish, it didn’t.

I shouldn’t be too surprised that this was the path taken, whether Dewhurst was directly involved or not. The problem, as I’ve noted before, is that most of the things that David Dewhurst could say about Dan Patrick that most normal people would think of as negatives, the people that will actually be voting in this runoff consider to be badges of honor. Calling someone a scum-sucking bottom feeder isn’t very effective as a line of attack if it’s what the voters want to vote for.

The editorial pages have been busy clucking their tongues over this, not that they really want to since they don’t much like Dan Patrick, either, but the DMN’s Rodger Jones raises an interesting point: Would news organizations have printed this information if they had dug it up for themselves? Almost certainly they would have. He puts it all in the context of nuance and big-picture-ness, but to me it’s simply a matter of stigmatization. Reporting that a candidate for political office had spent time in a mental health facility if that information had been part of a public record (as was the case here, since it came from a deposition in a lawsuit) is one thing. Painting it as something shameful is another. The shame belongs to Patterson and Dewhurst for their attempt to demonize Dan Patrick for one of the few things that aren’t unlovely about him. PDiddie, the Trib, and Campos have more.

The Galveston oil spill

This is just awful.

While the oil spill resulting from Saturday’s collision between a ship and barge was small by global standards – less than a third of what it would take to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool – the local impact is proving far more than a nuisance.

The heavy marine fuel oil is washing up on nearby beaches, killing or injuring waterfowl that come into contact with it, and keeping commercial traffic bound for local ports at a standstill.

The commercial ships should get relief soon as a fleet of oil-skimming vessels continues to scoop up what remains of the estimated 168,000 gallons of oil from the waters near the southern mouth of the Houston Ship Channel. Shipping operations were suspended immediately after the accident to prevent vessels from spreading the oil and getting it stuck to their hulls.

By late Monday, some of the oil could be seen floating in patches in Galveston Bay. But a large portion of the spill was driven by wind, waves and currents into the Gulf of Mexico and was headed southwest, Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer, captain of the port, said at a Monday news conference. An aerial survey will determine where and how far the oil had spread, he said.

[…]

The waterfront oil made its way from the Texas City Dike to the eastern end of Galveston Island, and a small amount reached beaches frequented by tourists on the Gulf side of the Island, said Charlie Kelly, Galveston emergency management director.

Kelly said a number of tar balls had washed ashore between 29th Street and eastern end of the island, but the amount was so small that it was easily picked up. No tar balls could be seen on the beaches Monday afternoon.

“I’m not worried about anything,” Galveston Mayor Lewis Rosen said.

Less sanguine were environmentalists who noticed oil covering a section of island beach that fronts the Ship Channel. Mort Voller, who heads the Galveston Island Tourism and Nature Council, said several oiled birds, all dead, were seen on an area near the Galveston jetty known as Big Reef.

“Big reef is hugely natural, a wonderful collection of salt water lagoons, sand flats and intertidal marsh and prairie-type uplands,” Voller said. It’s far enough away from the tourism beaches that animals are largely unmolested, he said.

The potential impact on wildlife is tremendous.

The heavy oil spilled into Galveston Bay showed signs Monday of harming one of the nation’s great natural nurseries, with biologists finding dozens of oiled birds on just one part of the Bolivar Peninsula.

Scientists found the birds on a wildlife refuge just two miles from where a partially sunken barge leaked as much as 168,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel oil after colliding with another vessel Saturday.

“We expect this to get much worse,” said Jessica Jubin, a spokeswoman for the Houston Audubon Society, which manages the Bolivar Flats preserve where the birds were found.

The concern comes as tens of thousands of birds are passing through the upper Texas coast on their annual flight north. But the worry also extends to the bay’s oyster reefs and the shrimp, crabs and fish that rely on the coastal marshes for shelter and food.

Scientists said that while the spill’s damage will be magnified by its awful timing, it could take years for a fuller picture of the ecological toll to emerge.

Galveston Bay was under stress from development, drought, pollution and storms. But its oil spills are typically small, averaging about 100 gallons per incident, according to an analysis by the Houston Advanced Research Center. The latest spill is the largest in the Ship Channel since a facility leaked 70,000 gallons of bunker fuel in 2000.

For now, the primary concern is the marshes, which have declined over decades because of sea-level rise, erosion and subsidence, a condition caused by sinking soil.

Here’s the optimistic view.

Officials believe most of the oil that spilled Saturday is drifting out of the Houston Ship Channel into the Gulf of Mexico, which should limit the impact on bird habitats around Galveston Bay as well as beaches and fisheries important to tourists.

“This spill — I think if we keep our fingers crossed — is not going to have the negative impact that it could have had,” said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, the lead state agency on the response to the spill.

The best-case scenario is for most of the slick to remain in the Gulf for at least several days and congeal into small tar balls that wash up further south on the Texas coast, where they could be picked up and removed, Patterson said. Crews from the General Land Office are monitoring water currents and the movement of the oil, he said.

Let’s hope that it’s not as bad as it could be. There’s a great irony in this happening almost exactly 25 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the effects of which are still being felt today. I pray that isn’t the case with this spill. Statements from the Environmental Defense Fund are beneath the fold.

(more…)

No love for Dan

Here’s one vote he won’t get.

“Oozing charm from every pore I oiled my way around the floor”

Whether incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst can make up for a big primary night loss to challenger Dan Patrick in a May runoff may depend on if he can successfully court the supporters of his two former opponents.

But in interviews on Tuesday, neither Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples nor Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who earned a combined 30 percent of the vote in the March GOP primary for lieutenant governor, were ready to come out in favor of Dewhurst.

Staples said outright that he had decided not to give a nod in the race.

Patterson said he was still making up his mind about whether to endorse Dewhurst, but forcefully attacked Patrick, saying the Houston state senator would take the state backward as lieutenant governor.

“He will wholly be bad for Texas, bad for the Republican Party,” Patterson said of Patrick. “We have two choices, and I will categorically tell you I’m not voting for Dan Patrick either in the primary or the general election. I’ll vote Libertarian in November if I have to.”

I’ve noted before how Democrats are rooting for Patrick to win the runoff since he is viewed as being more beatable in November. Some people have expressed skepticism of this, partly on the belief that there are no ticket-splitters any more. I get that, but there are plenty of such people left in Texas. We saw a great example of it in 2010. Bill White received over 387,000 more votes than Democratic Lt. Governor candidate Linda Chavez-Thompson, while Rick Perry collected over 311,000 fewer votes than David Dewhurst. That’s nearly a 700,000 vote swing towards White. People often don’t realize how big the swing was towards White because the Republican tidal wave of 2010 was too big for it to matter, but in a more normal year, 700,000 votes is more than enough to make a difference.

Consider this scenario: Turnout in November is 4.9 million voters – a bit less than 2010, but more than any other off year. The average statewide Republican wins with a 57-43 margin, which I think we can agree is healthy enough to invite plenty of post-electoral scoffing at Battleground Texas and any thought of a blue state in the foreseeable future. Well, in this scenario a Bill White-sized swing is just about what it would take to tip an election, since the average vote tally would be 2.8 million to 2.1 million. If there’s any Republican candidate capable of inspiring that kind of disloyalty among his fellow Republicans, it’s Dan Patrick.

Maybe you think my scenario is too optimistic, maybe you think Leticia Van de Putte won’t have the resources to compete the way White did (you know you have the power to help with that, right?), or maybe you have some other reason to be skeptical. I’m just saying we’ve seen the kind of crossover voting needed to make a VdP win happen in very recent memory, so don’t say it can’t happen because it already has.

What will The Dew do this time?

Go negative or go home is the strategy the pundits have selected for him.

The Sad Dewhurst picture never gets old

Political experts have a bit of advice for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s re-election campaign: go negative or go home.

The incumbent Senate president was crushed in Tuesday’s Republican primary by Houston Sen. Dan Patrick.

In all, more than 72 percent of the roughly 1.3 million Texans who cast ballots in the GOP lieutenant governor’s race voted against Dewhurst, an 11-year incumbent who out-raised and outspent his three competitors in the field.

Now Dewhurst, who pulled just 27 percent of the primary vote, faces much more than an uphill climb in the May runoff.

To even stand a chance, Dewhurst will need to convert hundreds of thousands of voters who backed Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples or Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson – no easy task in itself, and neither Staples nor Patterson has lined up behind Dewhurst yet.

Political experts say the multimillionaire Dewhurst will need to unleash a barrage of attacks aimed at loosening Patrick’s stranglehold on the base of Texas’ most conservative voters, the same group that will decide the May runoff.

The good news for Dewhurst is that there’s no shortage of negative things to say about Dan Patrick. The bad news is that for many if not most Republican primary voters, and especially Republican primary runoff voters, they tend to see those negatives as positives. The one thing Dewhurst might be able to hit him with successfully is the charge that Patrick might actually lose the election in November to Sen. Leticia Van de Putte because enough non-Republican primary voters think he’s a big scary jerk. The problem for him here is 1) the only polling data out there so far is that one Trib poll, which shows Patrick leading LVdP albeit by slightly less than Dewhurst; 2) Republican primary voters don’t think they’re in any danger of losing in November even with a huge jerk like Patrick on the ticket, and it’s hard to argue with them about that right now; and 3) nobody really likes David Dewhurst, either. But hey, what are ya gonna do? Go ahead and spend your million attacking Dan Patrick, Dew. It’ll make you feel better, if nothing else.

As the Trib noted yesterday, there’s an effort among the powers that be (i.e., big money donors) to get Dewhurst to drop out, along with Dan Branch and Harvey Hilderbran. Hilderbran has already acceded. Of the three, I think Branch has the best hope of winning in May, but the pressure on him and Dewhurst could be great. There will still be runoffs in the Ag Commissioner and Railroad Commissioner races regardless, but needless to say the turnout level would be much less if Dewhurst and Patrick aren’t slinging around millions of dollars in attack ads. We’ll see how it goes.

How extreme is too extreme?

The GOP candidates for Lite Guv are doing their best to test the hypothesis that having an R next to your name is all you need to get elected statewide in Texas, regardless of your stated positions on issues.

Lord Voldemort approves this message

The Republican candidates for lieutenant governor do not seem worried about Democratic challengers and independent voters, or particularly concerned about whether their public conversations and debates fuel the Democrats’ election-year motif of a war on women.

If they were, they would not be talking like this. You would not have seen what you saw during the debate early this week as they all raced to the conservative end of the pool, hoping to win the hearts of the Republican voters they will face in the primary election in March.

Instead, you would have seen a quartet of Republicans trying to win a primary without blowing their chances of winning over the more moderate voters who will come out in November.

If this election goes the way of other recent Republican primaries, the candidates’ first encounter will be with a small and conservative bunch. Fewer than two of every 25 Texans will be voting in the primary. General elections draw larger turnouts with different voters. The Democrats will be there, of course, along with political moderates, independents and the sometimes-engaged voters who might be drawn out by a noisy race for governor.

Judging from their responses, the Republican candidates are thinking about the first cohort and not the second. All believe, with varied degrees of enthusiasm, that creationism should be taught in public schools. All four, talking about a recent case in Fort Worth that got national attention, said state law should be rewritten to override a family’s desire to remove life support from a clinically dead woman until her child can be delivered. And each underscored his position on the issues by saying that abortions should not be allowed except when the life of the mother is in danger; that is a break from a more conventional Republican position that would allow exceptions in cases of rape and incest.

Indeed, an earlier Trib story showed just how out of touch these positions on abortion are with even their own voters.

Though it’s hard to envision given the tone of the Texas Republican Party’s primary contests so far, the GOP candidates for lieutenant governor lurched even farther right in Monday night’s debate in their collective rejection of access to abortion in instances of rape.

While defenders of abortion rights might be tempted to dismiss the candidates’ support for childbirth after rape as another sign of alleged misogyny in the Texas GOP, a plurality of Republicans surveyed in the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll have consistently supported permitting abortion in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the woman’s life — 41 percent in the October 2013 poll, and this after a summer of highly partisan public conflict over abortion legislation.

In that same survey, only 16 percent of Republicans (compared with 12 percent of Texans overall) said that abortion should never be permitted. This was on the low end of the typical GOP embrace of the prohibitionist position, which has fluctuated between 14 and 27 percent over the life of the poll, with the usual reading in the low 20s.

Allowing abortion only in the case of rape, incest or threat to the woman’s life has consistently been the most common GOP position, typically supported by just over 40 percent of Republicans. Support for the most permissive position on abortion was 19 percent among Republican voters in the October 2013 poll, also in a range consistent with previous results.

Overall, 78 percent of Texas Republicans believed that there were some situations in which abortion should be accessible. Each and every candidate dismissed even the most restrictive version of this position in Monday night’s debate. (Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst seemed to suggest he would have concerns about the life of the mother if she were his wife in such a situation, though he was unclear how these feelings translate into his policy position.)

The belief that pregnant rape victims should be required to bring their pregnancies to term, evident on the debate stage, seems to be more about positioning in the Republican primary than a careful reading of public opinion. And while the Tea Party remains the easy scapegoat for the GOP’s rightward push, in this case at least, our polling shows that only 13 percent of Tea Party Republicans support a complete prohibition on the procedure.

They’re pandering to a minority of a minority within their own party. I only wish someone had asked them during the debate if they’d support the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions and women who receive them. I mean, if it’s murder and all, why wouldn’t they? Clearly, there’s still space for them to move further to the right on this.

The bigger question is whether November voters are paying attention. The Observer has video of the debate in case you have the stomach for it. Jacquielynn Floyd was watching.

Monday’s televised four-candidate debate — which I bravely tied myself to a chair to watch in its entirety — seemed less like a political forum than a tribal pageant to be crowned the Truest Conservative in All the Land.

Voters hoping to be illuminated on the issues facing Texas were surely disappointed in what they got from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his three GOP challengers: Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and state Sen. Dan Patrick.

Their joint performance brought to mind a flock of talking myna birds — or perhaps a single monster parrot with four heads — that kept shouting out the same disjointed phrases: “Conservative leader!” “Secure the border!” “Protect life!”

All four of these candidates voiced wholehearted agreement that the corpse of a legally dead pregnant woman, Marlise Muñoz, should have been forced to continue incubating a malformed fetus — despite her own stated wishes, the pleas of her family and ultimately the decision of a state district court judge.

Each in turn agreed that creationism, an anti-science, biblical literalist explanation for the origin of life, should be routine curriculum for all Texas students — even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that teaching it in public schools violates the Constitution.

They declared in perfect four-part harmony that rape victims or girls molested by their own fathers should be forced to carry pregnancies to term.

They spoke darkly about the dire threat posed by alien hordes pouring across our undefended border — and they didn’t mean Canadians.

To a lot of people, this all transcends so-called extremism. It’s crazy talk.

Funny how respect for the Constitution only extends to things they agree with, isn’t it? Lisa Falkenberg was also watching.

As I watched that debate among four Republican lieutenant governor candidates earlier this week, I couldn’t help but wonder: How on Earth did we get here? And at this rate, where in the hell are we going?

Actually, the first question isn’t a mystery. We’re here because relatively few Texans vote, thereby surrendering the political fate of our great state to the whim of Republican primary voters who make up only 5 to 7 percent of the voting-age population.

The farther right that sliver of the electorate slides, the farther out to la-la land the candidates have to go to reach them. So you get what we had in Dallas the other night.

The candidates – Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, state Sen. Dan Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, all but the last from Houston – provided political theater at its best, policy at its worst. They seem to operate in a kind of alternate universe where pragmatism is a sin, moderation is a slur and the word “conservative,” which used to stand for fiscal responsibility, personal freedom and limited government, is farce.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Take the horrifying case of Erick Muñoz, the anguished father and husband who had to fight a Fort Worth hospital in court after it refused to remove his 14-week-pregnant, brain-dead wife from machines that kept her lungs and heart going.

The hospital cited a state law that denies life-sustaining treatment from a pregnant patient; the husband cited his wife’s wishes never to be kept breathing by machines.

The fetus itself had been deprived of oxygen after the mother’s collapse and family attorneys said the child suffered severe deformities, fluid on the brain and possible heart problems. So-called pro-lifers talk about fetal pain. This seemed more like fetal torture. It compounded the agony of Muñoz, his toddler son, and the rest of the family. That agony went on for two months before a mercifully sane judge finally ended it this week, ruling what had been obvious to many from the beginning: Marlise Muñoz was already dead.

That fact didn’t seem to matter to the Texas lieutenant governor candidates. Only Patterson even acknowledged it. Everybody seemed to agree the judge erred and the fetus should have been kept alive at all costs.

“If I had been in that judge’s shoes, I would have ruled differently,” Dewhurst said. Thank the Lord he wasn’t.

But he could be re-elected Lt. Governor, and if he’s not it will be at least in part because these extreme voters he’s desperately trying to please didn’t think he was extreme enough. The Texas Democratic Party cheekily congratulated Sen. Leticia Van de Putte for winning the debate by virtue of not being one of the crazy people on stage, but she can’t win if people don’t pay attention. Sen. Van de Putte won’t drive us into the ditch like these guys are promising to do. We need to do our part.

Why some polls are less accurate than others

The local GOP had a rally Monday night that among other things featured a “straw poll” of the faithful to see who their preferences were in the upcoming primary election.

Harris County Republicans worked to energize their base on Monday night with a rally at the Galleria, where a parade of statewide candidates pitched voters for support in next year’s primary.

After nearly two hours of speeches, about 300 people participated in a straw poll that showed the party faithful support current Attorney General Greg Abbott for governor and picked state Sen. Dan Patrick almost 4-to-1 for lieutenant governor over the incumbent, David Dewhurst.

With Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson also running for lieutenant governor, that leaves those races open in the Republican primary next March.

Presidential grandson and nephew George P. Bush was the overwhelming favorite to replace Patterson. The crowd nearly split its preference for a new attorney general: Ken Paxton received 157 votes to Barry Smitherman’s 133 votes.

Among the candidates for agriculture commissioner who spoke, voters favored Sid Miller – who joined the race a week ago and has rocker Ted Nugent on his campaign leadership team – with 150 votes over rancher Eric Opiela with 106 votes and J. Allen Carnes with 42 votes.

The group favored Wayne Christian among a half-dozen candidates for railroad commissioner and state Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy, the author of the abortion restriction law that had certain provisions struck down Monday by a federal court, was the overwhelming choice for comptroller.

As it happens, one of the attendees at this event sent me screenshots of the straw poll from his smartphone. Here are a couple of those images. See if you can spot the problem with the poll’s methodology that my correspondent was unhappy about:

Where's Jerry?

Where’s Jerry?

Where's Debra? Glenn who?

Where’s Debra? Glenn who?

You can see the results of the “poll” here if you’re curious. My correspondent tells me that Jerry Patterson had a table at this event. I’d want a refund if I were him. I’ve noted before that the HCDP generally bends over backwards to avoid favoring one candidate over another in contested primaries, while the Harris County Republican Party often takes sides, so this is somewhat less shocking than it would be for a Democratic event, but still. To me, this is just disrespectful. Here’s another screenshot, with some of the candidates for Ag Commissioner and Railroad Commissioner. Malachi Boyuls, the top fundraiser in the race and who has a big ad in the Texas Conservative Review, was snubbed. It would be interesting to know who made the decisions about which candidates to include or not include in this straw poll, and whether the local GOP leadership knew about and approved of them.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m happy to lob spitballs from the sidelines. I just don’t understand the thinking. Why piss off the supporters of so many viable candidates, at a time when you’re trying to rally the faithful ahead of a tough election? Harris County Republicans face the same problems with demography that have helped defeat them in 2008 and 2012, and they face a fired up Democratic Party thanks to Wendy Davis’ candidacy. They do have the advantage of their huge turnout from 2010, and if a decent fraction of the new-to-off-years voters make a habit of their participation in non-Presidential contests, they could have the numbers to stay ahead of that demographic wave, at least for one more cycle. It surely wouldn’t have cost them anything to design a straw poll that included all of the relevant candidates. I have no idea why they chose not to do so.

Once again with Wendy and the odds

Ross Ramsey in The Trib has his turn with the “what office should Sen. Wendy Davis run for?” question.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Abbott, the Republican attorney general, is his party’s favored candidate at the moment, in spite of the presence of Tom Pauken, a former state party chairman, in the race. Abbott has scads of money in his political account and seems, for now, to be in the spot Arthur was in when he pulled Excalibur out of that legendary boulder: everything is in place but the crown.

That has some insiders talking about the next race down — the one for lieutenant governor. Instead of taking on Abbott, the best-financed Republican candidate in years, Davis, D-Fort Worth, would face one of a quartet of Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, a group that includes a politically vulnerable incumbent and a conservative state senator who might give moderate Republican voters pause.

That race does not have a pre-emptive favorite, and two of the candidates could be attractive foils for Davis. David Dewhurst, the incumbent, has been looking for his mojo since his loss a year ago to Ted Cruz in a Republican runoff for the U.S. Senate. One of his three challengers is that conservative senator, Dan Patrick, R-Houston.

[…]

However the Republicans decide, the contrast between general election candidates would be simple to make.

The contrast would be simple to make in almost every race on the ballot. But a statewide race at or near the top of the ticket — even a losing one — could build a foundation for future campaigns.

And if Abbott doesn’t have a tough challenge, voters looking for a debate will go to the next race.

It’s not like Davis has a cakewalk waiting at home. If she runs for re-election to her Tarrant County Senate seat in 2014, she’ll face a headwind.

Her district was drawn to favor a Republican candidate. But she defied that in 2008 and 2012, years when the ballot was headed by a Democratic presidential candidate who helped draw her voters to the polls. Her team is surprisingly confident she will do it again next year, if that’s the route she goes.

The headwind could be stronger now, however, and it is the candidate’s fault. Davis got the attention of the Republicans, too, and they will come after her whether she runs for re-election or for something higher on the ballot.

The lieutenant governor’s race might be the one to run. It will almost certainly go to the Republicans, but “almost” is a big word in politics. Losing a re-election bid could put her out of circulation.

Might as well go big.

Robert Miller explored this same possibility last week; I blogged about it here. That post got a lot of reaction on Facebook, with the main concern being that the Lite Guv race would not be as high profile as the Governor’s race, which negates the advantages Davis has made for herself. It’s a legitimate question, but I think Davis’ presence on the ballot, especially if paired against either Dewhurst or Patrick, automatically ensures a minimum level of attention. I’d feel better about this if I knew the Dems were also going to have a good candidate for Governor as well – Cecile Richards, Rodney Ellis, Henry Cisneros, Leticia Van de Putte, you know the drill – but there’s no guarantee of that. I guess what it comes down to for me is that a full ticket of decent candidates is better than relying on Wendy Davis to carry the whole thing, whatever office she chooses.

Couple other points: Ramsey suggests that either Todd Staples or Jerry Patterson could be tougher competition for Davis, if either can win the Republican nomination for Lite Guv. That’s primarily because neither was directly involved in the abortion debate and the famous filibuster. I can buy that – I particularly think Patterson, who has the best record of actual accomplishment among GOP candidates, and who has a straightforward style that is likely to be appealing, would be a strong competitor – but Davis starts out ahead of Patterson in cash on hand, and can likely catch up to Staples by March. Plus, at this point I’d say she has better name ID than either of them – heck, she might have higher name ID than Greg Abbott right now – and that helps offset any advantage they may have.

Ramsey also suggests that Davis might have a hard time being re-elected in SD10 next year, as it is not a Presidential year. I’ve already dealt with that question, and I stand by my assertion that it’s not clear that the Presidential year was an asset for Davis. More Republicans come out in Presidential years, too, after all.

Finally, some people are now suggesting that maybe David Dewhurst should switch races. Like many other GOPers blocked by Rick Perry, what he’s always really wanted to be is Governor, and he alone has the financial resources to challenge Abbott on that score. His run for Senate in 2012 showed that he’s ready to be something other than Lite Guv. If not 2014 for Governor, then when? Just a thought.

How about Wendy for Lite Guv?

Robert Miller makes a pretty good case.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Governor General Abbott appears unbeatable by Democrat or Republican. Sen. Davis, as a Harvard-trained lawyer, could run for the open office of Texas Attorney General. However, that does not appear to be a particularly exciting, nor necessarily winnable, down ballot matchup.

The marquee matchup would be to run for Lieutenant Governor, who serves as Presiding Officer of the Texas Senate. A fierce contest has commenced for the Republican nomination, with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst being challenged by Sen. Dan Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. Polling shows that today Lt. Gov. Dewhurst is headed towards a Republican primary runoff.

Harris County is the largest bloc of Republican voters in the state, and Sen. Patrick is well-known and very popular with these voters. The margins Sen. Patrick will roll up in Harris County arguably could give him a spot in the runoff. The purest of the pure partisans show up for primary runoffs, and those are more likely to be Sen. Patrick radio listeners (in Harris County) and voters.

This would bring us a Davis vs. Patrick contest for Lt. Governor in November 2014, a stark contrast indeed. One of the most liberal senators vs. one of the most conservative; pro-choice vs. pro-life; woman vs. man; and, at this point, woman vs. a possibly all male Republican statewide slate. One mistake by Sen. Patrick and Sen. Davis has a shot.

The irony is she would then preside over a Senate probably comprised of 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats – the Republicans would have an excellent opportunity to pick up Davis’ senate seat. All of the Lt. Governor’s powers are derived from the rules of the Senate, which are adopted by a simple majority vote (16 out of 31). Wouldn’t the Republicans simply strip her of these powers?

My crystal ball gets cloudy that far out. But it wouldn’t matter from Davis’ perspective. If they stripped her of the traditional powers of the office, it would simply magnify her prominence and amplify her voice.

My thinking has evolved. I now believe it makes political sense for Sen. Davis to run statewide for Lt. Governor in 2014. As she hits the newsstands in August, look for #Wendymania to continue trending.

It should be noted that there’s probably as great a chance that the Senate would strip the Lite Guv of its traditional powers if Dan Patrick wins as there is if Davis wins. As we know, Patrick has made his share of enemies among his Republican colleagues. It wouldn’t take too many more to dislike or distrust him to make that a real possibility.

Another thing to consider is that Davis would be much closer to parity with the Republican Lite Guv hopefuls on the fundraising end. She has over $1 million in the bank after her latest haul, all of which came in the last two weeks of June. Patrick has $2.1 million on hand, Jerry Patterson has $1.3 million, Todd Staples claims $3 million, and Dewhurst has $1.7 million, though of course he can write his own check. All of them will have to spend a chunk of their money in a sure-to-be-nasty-and-substance-free primary.

It’s an interesting possibility to consider. This would still leave the question of who runs for Governor unsettled. Robert’s observation about the potentially all-male Republican slate – Debra Medina is one of the candidates for Comptroller, and Stefani Carter is a candidate for Railroad Commissioner, but beyond that it’s a big sausage-fest – is further evidence to me that Cecile Richards ought to jump in. I hope Davis and Richards have at least had a conversation or two about who might want to do what. EoW makes an eloquent case for Davis as gubernatorial candidate that you should read as well, but as things stand right now I’m leaning in Miller’s direction. (William McKinzie also thinks Sen. Davis should run for Governor, though he comes at it from a different angle.)

One last thing: If Sen. Davis does run statewide, whether for Governor or Lt. Governor, the person I want to see run to succeed her in the Senate is the same person that succeeded her on Fort Worth City Council, and that’s Joel Burns. Holding her seat would indeed be very difficult, but Burns would be the kind of candidate that would inspire enthusiasm and generate fundraising. Who’s with me on this?

Patrick and Williams keep squabbling

Just as a reminder that Senate Republicans don’t need Democrats to stir up trouble, here’s a flare-up of an earlier kerfuffle. Fire one.

In this corner…

In a recent interview with The Texas Tribune, my colleague, state Sen. Dan Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, attempted to explain his vote against our no-new-tax balanced state budget that was approved by a supermajority of Republicans.

In part, Patrick, R-Houston, said he opposed the budget due to his concerns about specific public education programs not being funded.

The problem with these comments is that Patrick was directly responsible for these same education programs not being funded. Such revisionism cannot go unchallenged.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I appointed Patrick to lead the committee’s public education workgroup. The full committee adopted, in whole, his public education budget recommendations. These recommendations did not include funding for PSAT/SAT/ACT tests. Supplemental pre-K funding of $40 million was included in the adopted recommendations. Conference committee actions reduced the supplemental pre-K funding by $10 million, which was partially offset by an overall increase in public education formula funding.

Additionally, Patrick lamented in his Tribune interview that the new state budget lacked sufficient Career and Technical Education (CTE) funding. But he failed to acknowledge that he offered the Senate floor amendment that eliminated new CTE funding in House Bill 5.

Patrick was the Senate’s lead negotiator on that bill’s conference committee. I also served on the HB 5 conference committee, along with Sens. Robert Duncan, Kel Seliger and Leticia Van de Putte. I specifically told Patrick I would fund eighth-grade CTE (at a cost of $36.1 million) in the budget if he could get the House to agree. Ultimately, he asked me and the other conferees to sign a Conference Committee report which did not include new CTE funding.

[…]

Every member of the Legislature has the right and the duty to vote the interests of their district and their conscience. Patrick consistently supported virtually every decision made during the process of writing the appropriations bill. His unannounced opposition to the final version of Senate Bill 1 was a betrayal of every member of the finance committee who worked in good faith to prepare this budget.

I can only conclude he was looking for an excuse to distance himself from our good work to advance his own political interests.

Fire two.

And in this corner...

Patrick said Friday that he read Williams’ column “with amusement.”

“His attack on me is a classic example of a politician who has forgotten that we represent the people first and foremost,” Patrick said in a statement. “I don’t have to explain my vote to Tommy Williams. I have to explain my vote to the people and I’m happy to do that.”

Patrick described Williams’ arguments in his column as “wrong … or disingenuous at best.” He specifically refuted Williams’ suggestion that Patrick’s vote on the budget was unexpected.

“He had no reason to be surprised by my ‘no’ vote,” Patrick said. “I told him I would be a ‘no’ vote on the budget several days before the bill came to the floor.”

Patrick said Williams’ column is in line with the Senate finance chairman’s recent “attacks” on groups that have criticized the budget, including the Wall Street Journal editorial board. Following the regular session, Williams also tried to strip Patrick of his chairmanship of the education committee.

“His attacks have been personal in nature and offensive,” Patrick said.

See here for the opening salvo. I have two thoughts about this. One, Dan Patrick is probably going to run for Lite Guv – he has a press conference scheduled for today to discuss his 2014 electoral plans – and in a field with David Dewhurst, Todd Staples, and Jerry Patterson he’s got to have a decent chance to make a runoff. Given how many intramural fights he’s gotten into lately, I have to wonder if stuff like this helps him or hurts him with the seething masses of the GOP primary electorate. Being “anti-establishment”, even as a multi-term incumbent, is generally a positive in those races, and that’s been his brand. Do these quarrels help fire up his base or does it drive people who might otherwise agree with him away? I have no idea, but perhaps the reaction to Patrick’s announcement, if it is what we think it might be, will give us a clue.

Two, I wonder if these high-profile personality clashes between people who have little ideological distance between them is a sign of healthy debate for a party that hasn’t been greatly challenged at the state level, or a sign of an impending fall by a longstanding hegemon that may be getting a tad stale because it hasn’t needed for years to talk to voters who don’t participate in their increasingly parochial primary elections? In other words, is this further evidence that the Texas GOP of 2013 looks a lot like the Texas Democrats of 1983? (This is the flip side of Colin Strother’s thesis.) I wasn’t around for much of the Texas Dems’ fall, and I wasn’t paying close attention for the time that I was here, but I do remember how nasty the Jim Mattox/Ann Richards primary of 1990 was, and as I recall it went beyond the usual nastiness of politics. Williams/Patrick is on a smaller scale than that – among other things, they’re not both running for the same office – but it’s still pretty similar. They’re also not the only ones talking to a small subset of the electorate to the exclusion of anyone else – everyone from empty suits like Barry Smitherman and longstanding ideologues like Greg Abbott to people with more balanced records of policy and engagement like Dan Branch and Jerry Patterson are doing it. I know, everyone has a primary to win, but does anyone expect anything different after the nominations are settled? I don’t. Like the Dems of the late 80s and early 90s, the inability to talk to voters who aren’t already on your side – and may not be if someone else manages to get through to them – will come back to bite these guys. The question is when. Harold makes a similar point in discussing the SB5 debate, and Burka has more on Patrick v Williams.

Baby Bush ready to claim his birthright

Perhaps we should just skip straight to the coronation once George P. Bush figures out what office he wants.

George Prescott Bush is gearing up to run for a little-known but powerful office in a state where his family already is a political dynasty and where his Hispanic roots could help extend a stranglehold on power Republicans have enjoyed for two decades.

The 36-year-old Fort Worth attorney says he is close to settling on campaigning for Texas land commissioner next year. He doesn’t expect to make up his mind until he knows what Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a fellow Republican, decides to do.

“We for sure are running, the question is the office,” Bush told The Associated Press during the first interview about his political future since filing paperwork in November to seek elected office in Texas.

Bush’s father is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his grandfather is former President George H.W. Bush and his uncle is former President and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Perry has been governor since George W. left for the White House.

Land commissioner traditionally has been a steppingstone to higher office, but Bush said little about any plans to eventually become a national political force.

His grandfather Prescott Bush was a US Senator, too. The past four years have been a rare period in American history where a member of the Bush family has not held some office. It will be interesting to see how he handles the inevitable tea party opponent he gets for Land Commissioner or whatever else he runs for. Will he adopt their positions, or will he remain blandly Bushy and presume that his name, money, and connections will suffice to handle it? The Trib has an interview with our future overlord if you want to better prepare yourself for the inevitable.

School Land Board votes to transfer $300 million to Available School Fund

From the Trib:

The School Land Board voted Tuesday to release $300 million into the Available School Fund for public schools.

The money will be released in two $150 million installments, one in February and the other on June. The funds had been caught in a standoff between the Legislature and the School Land Board, which operates out of the General Land Office and oversees the state’s public school land.

A constitutional amendment proposed in 2011 by state Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, allowed the board to put a portion of earnings from investments on real estate assets into the Available School Fund, which along with property and sales taxes helps pay for public education.

Voters passed the amendment last November, but the little-watched School Land Board decided not to distribute the money in July. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who sits on the three-member board, said it wanted to protect the funds for upcoming investment opportunities.

“It’s the age-old question of whether you save the money to send your kids to college or borrowing when they do,” he said at a House appropriations meeting in December.

Usually the proceeds from the sale and management of public school lands would go into a $26 billion trust whose revenue feeds into the Available School Fund. Proposition 6 made it so that the School Land Board, if it chose, could bypass that step and put money directly into the fund.

Background here. Given Commissioner Patterson’s previous opposition to the transfer of these funds, I was curious how he voted, since the story didn’t specify. I sent an inquiry to his office to check, and was told that he did vote no. You can read Commissioner Patterson’s statement here, the crux of which is as follows:

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, chairman of the board, cast the lone vote against the payment. He said the decision was frustrating because lawmakers passed a flawed budget last session that addressed short-term problems without providing a coherent long-term vision.

“We need to strive to do better,” Patterson said. “Spending down our kid’s trust fund to pay today’s bills is a path I don’t want to go down any further. Fortunately, the fund is healthy enough to protect Texas schools from one year of bad budgeting.”

I sympathize with that, but I don’t have a whole lot of optimism about better budgeting. Anyway, the money that the Lege assumed would be there after the constitutional amendment passed is now in fact there, so that’s one thing less to worry about.

Responding the only way they know how

That’s our Legislature.

In response to last week’s Connecticut school shooting, state Rep.-elect Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, says he will file legislation to allow public school teachers to carry concealed weapons while on campus.

The bill, which Villalba is calling the Protection of Texas Children Act, would permit Texas schools to appoint a member of their faculty as a “school marshal.” The marshal, with training and certification, would be able to “use lethal force upon the occurrence of an attack in the classroom or elsewhere on campus,” according to a press release from Villalba, a newly elected state representative.

“Unfortunately, law enforcement personnel cannot be everywhere at all times,” Villalba said in a statement. “We need to talk very frankly about how we can protect our children if the unthinkable should occur.”

So, to recap:

Will the state of Texas do anything to increase access to mental health services? Well, we’re not going to expand Medicaid, which will put a large burden on counties because of the loss of funding for uncompensated care at public hospitals, and counties are the largest providers of mental health services, so that would be a “no”.

Will the state of Texas do anything to restrict access to the kind of weaponry whose only use is to hunt humans? Please. Don’t you know that the right to high-capacity magazines is protected by the Constitution?

And we haven’t even gotten to the best part:

Villalba’s proposal would create a training system for potential concealed-weapon holding employees of public schools, which would be paid for either by school districts or the employees themselves. Under his plan, there would be one armed employee for every 400 students, marshals who would be unidentifiable except to the school principal, law enforcement and school district administrators. The employees would purchase and maintain their own weapons.

So these “school marshals”, who will presumably be expected to put themselves in the line of fire in the event there ever is an armed intrusion of a school, will be volunteers using their own equipment, and they may have to pay for their own training, because the state of Texas won’t be providing any funding for it. How will principals ever be able to choose from the flood of applicants they’ll surely get for this plum assignment? I’m hard pressed to think of a “solution” to a problem that more thoroughly embodies the current philosophy of the Republican Party than this. Bravo, Rep. Villalba.

To be fair, Land Commissioner/Lite Guv candidate Jerry Patterson has a sensible suggestion for closing the gun show loophole, which ought to help keep a few guns away from bad guys. Obviously, no single solution will cover all contingencies, and ultimately there’s only so much that can be done to deter a determined criminal. But there are simple and obvious things we can and should do to try and prevent gun-related tragedies, and if there’s ever a time to be seeking those answers, it’s now. Kudos to Patterson for taking it seriously. I just hope he has some company.

UPDATE: The following press release just hit my inbox:

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and AFT President Randi Weingarten react to proposals by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, and William Bennett to arm teachers as a way to prevent school violence.

“Our duty to every child is to provide safe and secure public schools. That is the vow we take as educators. It is both astounding and disturbing that following this tragedy, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, Bill Bennett, and other politicians and pundits have taken to the airwaves to call for arming our teachers. As the rest of the country debates how to keep guns out of schools, some are actually proposing bringing more guns in, turning our educators into objects of fear and increasing the danger in our schools.

“Guns have no place in our schools. Period. We must do everything we can to reduce the possibility of any gunfire in schools, and concentrate on ways to keep all guns off school property and ensure the safety of children and school employees.

“But this is not just about guns. Long-term and sustainable school safety also requires a commitment to preventive measures. We must continue to do more to prevent bullying in our schools. And we must dramatically expand our investment in mental health services. Proper diagnosis can and often starts in our schools, yet we continue to cut funding for school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists. States have cut at least $4.35 billion in public mental health spending from 2009 to 2012, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. It is well past time to reverse this trend and ensure that these services are available and accessible to those who need our support.

“Greater access to mental health services, bullying prevention, and meaningful action on gun control—this is where we need to focus our efforts, not on staggeringly misguided ideas about filling our schools with firearms. Lawmakers at every level of government should dismiss this dangerous idea and instead focus on measures that will create the safe and supportive learning environments our children deserve.”

I completely agree.

On school shootings

I have four things to say about this.

In the national collective grief rising from Friday’s mass shooting in Connecticut, one apparent trust seems to have completely shattered: that an elementary school was sacred and safe ground.

Left in the wake of 20 children and eight adults massacred by a lone gunman is a renewed debate over how secure should schools be and at what cost. Closer to home at least one teacher’s union is now calling for more armed guards on Houston school campuses.

Several local school districts acknowledged they focus their full-time security staff on high school and middle school campuses and only send patrols to elementary schools. They said it was too early to say if that strategy would be changed or if there was money to pay for it.

Other officials and experts questioned the expense of providing enough security – the kind that could turn a school into a virtual fortress – to repel a heavily-armed intruder.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers union, said she favors placing more armed police officers in schools, even on elementary campuses. It’s a proposition she recognizes would be “very expensive.”

“We really need more security,” she said. “You never know what nutcase is suddenly going to decide that shooting up the local school is a good idea.”

Fallon, however, said she does not support arming teachers with pistols, as a small school district in Harrold, Texas, did in 2008, drawing national attention.

[…]

HISD spokesman Jason Spencer noted HISD has 279 campuses, and only 200 full-time officers who are assigned to high schools, middle schools and secondary school campuses. HISD officers patrol the elementary schools.

“We don’t have enough officers to have one stationed full time at each campus,” Spencer said. “We do the best we can with the resources we have.”

1. What does it say about us as a society that we are talking about the benefits of having armed guards stand over our children? I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s not what I want for my kids.

2. For those like Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who do believe that having armed guards in place is the key to preventing this kind of violence, I’d like for you to please explain the Fort Hood shooting to me. (Patterson conveniently omitted that tragedy from the list he gave in support of his argument.) Surely the problem there was not the lack of armed and trained personnel in the vicinity.

3. After cutting $5.4 billion from public education in 2011 and causing the layoff of thousands of teachers, librarians, counselors, nurses, support staff, bus drivers, and God knows who else, we’re going to find the money to hire thousands of armed security guards? Seriously?

4. If we really want to do something constructive, and spend our money in a way that might actually help the problem, then let’s finally get serious about mental health in this country. Right now, it’s far easier to buy an assault weapon than it is to access mental health services, and the latter is much more expensive if you can get it. I hope we can all agree this is a problem.

Actually, I have five things to say: Screw Mike Huckabee. That is all.

Dewhurst says he’s running for re-election in 2014

Peggy Fikac was first to report that David Dewhurst is not planning to fade away just yet.

Sad Dewhurst is sad

The last time we asked Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst what he plans to do in 2014, it was soon after he lost the U.S. Senate nomination to Ted Cruz. He asked if reporters minded giving him a couple of days.

It looks like he has thought about it long enough.

Someone shared with me an invitation to a “reception to re-elect Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst” that went out on letterhead that says, “David Dewhurst Lt. Governor 2014.”

The reception is scheduled for Sept. 19 at the Headliners Club.

Its top fund-raising requests are for people to give or raise $50,000 or $25,000 by Dec. 8.

They can also choose to give $10,000, $5,000, $2,500 or the always-popular “other.”

You can see the invitation at that link. The Trib confirms what this means.

Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, after getting a standing ovation by the Texas Republican delegation in Florida, announced Tuesday that he plans to run for re-election.

“I fully expect to be running for re-election in March of 2014,” Dewhurst said. “As long as the people of Texas want me to continue serving to help move this state forward, then I’m honored.”

He wouldn’t be alone. Three statewide elected Republicans — Comptroller Susan Combs, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — have all expressed some interest in running for lieutenant governor. On the evening of the runoff elections last month, Patterson said he will run in 2014 whether Dewhurst is on the ticket or not.

Staples is also now saying that he’s in for Lite Guv; we’ll see about Combs. Dewhurst could of course just be doing this as a show of bravado to help keep the jackals at bay, but as with Rick Perry I think it’s best to assume he means it until proven otherwise. Since we’ve been discussing fantasy candidates for Governor, let me say here that my fantasy candidate for Lite Guv is State Sen. Wendy Davis. Ideally, she’ll win re-election this fall, then win the draw to not have to run for re-election again till 2016, thus allowing her to make a run for something else in 2014 without having to give up her seat. Regardless, she’s my first choice to go against Dewhurst or anyone else in 2014. We’ll see who that winds up being. BOR has more.

Forget the Alamo

At least, forget about using it in a slogan.

Even if it’s possible to get too drunk to remember the Alamo, the state agency that oversees the shrine says that’s nothing to brag about on a T-shirt or frilly undergarment.

A word play on the slogan “Remember the Alamo” has set off a fight between a local businessman and the Texas General Land Office, which assumed custodianship of the shrine nearly a year ago.

Through his company, Qwercky Ltd., Christopher Erck, owner of Swig Martini Bar and The Worm Tequila and Mescal Bar downtown, is seeking a trademark from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the phrase, “I Can’t Remember the Alamo.”

The Land Office, in its first formal action to protect a state trademark on the phrase “The Alamo,” has argued the proposal is disparaging.

In a notice of opposition filed Wednesday, the Land Office argued the slogan dilutes the state’s trademark and denigrates the Alamo and men on both sides who died in the 1836 battle.

The “applicant’s mark disparages the deceased combatants of the Battle of the Alamo by communicating that their sacrifice was not worthy of memory or esteem,” the Land Office said in its opposition notice.

I don’t have a strong opinion on this. If we’re going to trademark “The Alamo”, it’s appropriate to protect that trademark. Seems a bit strange to me to have a trademark on “The Alamo”, but maybe that’s just my not-native-Texan-ness not understanding these things.

You weren’t supposed to be mad at me!

Oh, the humanity!

Sad Dewhurst is sad

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Friday continued to fight a battle that he had lost three days before when Ted Cruz defeated him for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.

Cruz and his allies had effectively cast Dewhurst as a tax-and-spend moderate, a criticism that Dewhurst was still eager to rebut during a rare meeting of the Legislative Budget Board at the Texas Capitol.

“There are a lot of Texans who are so mad and angry at Washington — and I’m mad and angry at Washington, too — (they) have a hard time understanding how any other form of government, such as state government, could actually cut taxes, which we did, and cut spending, which we did,” Dewhurst said.

Allow me to translate that: “All that anger and fear and hatred and mistrust we’ve been stirring up with our lies and disinformation and propaganda – that was supposed to help me, not be used against me! Why can’t you people act rationally when we appeal to your basest instincts? Don’t you understand how government really works?”

On a more serious note, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has been saying since last Tuesday that he was going to run for Lite Guv in 2014 regardless of what The Dew does. That’s a long way away and anything can happen, but I tend to believe him. Given that Patterson is not a culture warrior, it’ll be interesting to see how a Dewhurst-Patterson primary would shape up. Will Dewhurst play with fire again, or will he learn from his experience?

What will The Dew do next?

David Dewhurst

So Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst isn’t going anywhere next January. I’m going to put aside the questions of what happened for now and ask instead what happens in 2014? As we know, there are three people running for what they originally thought would be an open seat race for Lite Guv in 2014. What happens if Dewhurst decides, as Rick Perry may have also done, to run for re-election again? Do the dominoes stand or fall?

Whatever you may think about Dewhurst and his campaign, the fact that he got his butt handed to him on Tuesday doesn’t mean he’d be easy to beat in a 2014 primary. For one thing, it’s unlikely that there will be millions of dollars spent by outside agitators in the service of calling Dewhurst names. For another thing, three candidates who have each been elected statewide at least twice and have held office for a lot longer than that are hardly the insurgent fresh-faced outsider that Ted Cruz managed to portray himself as. I’m not saying that Dewhurst would be a lock – he might have to learn how to campaign, for one thing – but he’s hardly a dead man walking, either. The conditions that led to his defeat here will not be in play in two years’ time.

So as I said before, we could have a situation where there are no open non-judicial statewide offices in 2014. It’s too early to know what Combs, Staples, and Patterson might do, but here’s something that occurred to me in the waning days of the Senate primary: As far as I could tell, Greg Abbott stayed on the sidelines in that race. If he was supporting either Cruz or Dewhurst, he was mighty low key about it. I bring this up because it seems to me that Abbott had a low cost, low risk way of test driving opposition to Rick Perry by supporting Cruz. I mean, Cruz used to work for Abbott, so surely it wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise for Abbott to announce that as much as he liked Dewhurst he’s going to support his former employee. With a little savvy, he could have worked that into some conversations with media folks in the days leading up to the runoff, as Cruz’s chances looked better and better, perhaps appearing with Perry’s former BFF Sarah Palin at that Cruz rally in the Woodlands, all the while pooh-poohing the idea that this was somehow a proxy for a future gubernatorial primary. But hey, what do I know? For more thoughts on Tuesday’s runoffs, see Robert Miller, Harold Cook, and Forrest Wilder.

Land Board throws the Lege a curveball on school finance

Oops.

In the waning days of the 82nd Legislature, state lawmakers came up with a plan to help cushion the blow of $5.4 billion in cuts to public education.

State Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, proposed a constitutional amendment that he said could bring an additional $300 million to public schools. It unanimously cleared both the House and Senate. Orr’s measure became Proposition 6, which voters passed in November.

But that money has hit a roadblock on its way to public schools — and what looked like an easy fix for hard-pressed budget writers last May has turned into a headache that awaits their return in January.

The amendment allowed the School Land Board, which operates out of the General Land Office, to put a portion of earnings from investments on real estate assets into the Available School Fund, which along with property and sales taxes helps pay for public education. Last week, the little-watched board that oversees the state’s public school lands decided not to distribute the money. Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who sits on the three-member board, said it wanted to protect the funds for upcoming investment opportunities.

Usually the proceeds from the sale and management of public school lands would go into a $26 billion trust whose revenue feeds into what’s called the Available School Fund. Proposition 6 made it so the School Land Board, if it chose, could bypass that step and put money directly into the fund.

“We anticipated this funding for public education,” said Jason Embry, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. “We’re evaluating the impact on the budget and working with Commissioner Patterson to ensure there is no impact to public schools.”

Whether lawmakers should have expected the money is a matter of dispute. But the $300 million made it into the budget as part of general funds used to support school operations, contingent upon the constitutional amendment’s passage in November and the School Land Board’s approval of the transfer. During the special session last June, the Legislature added a provision to the appropriations bill that reduced general revenue funding to public education by $300 million if the amendment passed. It was to be replaced with the same amount from the Available School Fund with the board’s approval — but there was no provision to add that money back in if that didn’t happen.

“I was told that there would be $300 million going into the Available School Fund. Everything was put in place to allow to that to happen,” said Orr, who said the General Land Office agreed to transfer the money if the amendment passed. “I believe it needed to happen, so I’m not sure why it didn’t.”

Patterson said he did not recall committing to a transfer of the money and that his office had been unable to find “any evidence or documents or memos or testimony” that he did.

“I don’t have any control over what was written into the budget or what was made contingent. I don’t know who wrote that in there or why,” he said. “Somebody wrote a contingency rider assuming the answer would be yes.”

See here, here, and here for some background. If you look in the comments on those posts, you will see that Commissioner Patterson was never on board with this idea, so if the Lege was assuming that the School Land Board was going to go along with this idea, well, you know what they say about those who assume. I don’t think I realized till I read this story that the Lege had actually appropriated the $300 million based on that assumption; I must have been assuming that they would have made a supplemental appropriation at a later date once the Land Board signed off on it. Let that be a lesson to me. They’ll have to make a supplemental appropriation now, so you can add another $300 million to the Lege’s tab of unmet obligations from 2011. Good thing the Rainy Day Fund is full, because we’re really going to need it next year.

“Rather than trying a real solution to school finance they keep doing the little gimmicks and sleight of hands,” said David Bradley, the Beaumont Republican who chairs the Board of Education’s finance committee. “The Legislature is the problem. It’s totally improper for them to be pulling that kind of money out of these trust funds to use for general revenue funding.”

I hate having to agree with David Bradley, but he’s right. It’s on the Lege to fund school finance, and with the job they’ve been doing it’s no wonder we’re back in court a mere seven years after the last lawsuit was decided. I’m sure this seemed like free money to them – I admit, my first reaction was along those lines – and maybe that helped salve a bit of the guilt from having slashed $5.4 billion (and having voted to slash over $10 billion) from public education. But it was never a solution even if it did work.

Waiting for Rick (and Greg, and David)

Ross Ramsey breaks out his crystal ball and looks ahead to the 2014 election.

Remember this: In his long history in state politics — closing in on three decades — [Rick] Perry has run for everything he said he was going to run for.

Given his history, the safest assumption is that Perry will be on the ballot again in 2014, running for governor. And if the Republicans lose the presidential election this year, he might really and truly be angling for the party’s nomination in 2016.

This makes a lot of Texans — and not just Democrats — slap their foreheads. They cannot believe anyone has been governor for this long, and some of them cannot believe Perry is the guy who is setting the record.

[…]

Perry is on the verge of serving as Texas governor longer than Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as president — a 12-year, 42-day run that the Texas governor will match at the beginning of February.

He attracts the same sort of grumbles that Roosevelt did, with opponents mumbling that he has been there for too long, that it is time for fresh ideas, that maybe the state should limit its chief executive’s time in office after all.

Others have lined up, gently. Attorney General Greg Abbott, by all accounts on good terms with Perry, has more than $12 million in his political account and has made it clear he would like to be the next governor. He does not want to repeat Hutchison’s mistake, but he is ambitious. Others are sniffing around, too, looking at jobs that might open up if Perry moves on. Like Abbott’s post.

None of those dreams come true unless the governor is bluffing about his plans.

Right now, as I look ahead to 2014, there are four things I think about that could dramatically affect what that election looks like.

1. Who’s running for what, GOP edition – A few months ago it was possible to imagine that every non-judicial state office up for election in 2014 would be open. Now, with Perry talking about another run for Governor and David Dewhurst potentially losing the Senate runoff, it’s possible to imagine that every non-judicial state office up for election in 2014 could once again have the incumbent running for it. Will any of the three Lite Guv wannabees that hold statewide office – Susan Combs, Todd Staples, Jerry Patterson – stay the course and take on Dewhurst if he loses in two weeks and decides he wants to stay where he is for another term? I think if Perry and Dewhurst stay put, then everyone else just might do the same. If nothing else, that ought to make the case for change in the 2014 election that much clearer.

2. Who’s running for what, Democratic edition – Where the GOP has more candidates than available offices, the Democrats have a nearly non-existent bench, and also have to scrape up a candidate to take on Big John Cornyn. It starts with the Governor’s office, where if San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro isn’t ready to take the plunge yet perhaps one of his predecessors could be persuaded. For Lite Guv, I’d love to see Sen. Wendy Davis take a crack at it, if she’s not in a position of having to run for re-election for her Senate seat. Beyond that, I got nothing. We’re potentially electing some exiting young members of Congress this year, but they’ll want to serve more than one term before thinking about moving up. I hope someone besides me is thinking about this.

3. Lawsuitpalooza – Redistricting preclearance. Voter ID preclearance. School finance. Down the line, possibly a SCOTUS challenge to the Voting Rights Act. In the next few months, courts will have the opportunity to wield an inordinate amount of influence over the 2014 elections. Really, we can’t begin to talk about how the 2014 elections may go until we have resolutions for these items, and one other.

4. The 2013 Legislative session – Regardless of how the school finance lawsuits shake out – ultimately, that will be up to the Supreme Court, and it won’t rule till some time in 2014, with action needed in 2015 – the Lege will have some big tasks to tackle. At its most basic, the revenue crisis is over, so the Lege will have to decide whether to restore some of the spending it so savagely cut in 2011 or sock it all away for a future crisis and fritter the rest away on tax cuts. Needless to say, what they do will shape the 2014 campaigns.

So anyway. You can keep an eye on what Perry and Abbott are up to and try to guess their next moves, for whatever good it might do. There’s a lot more to 2014 than that, and we’re still a long way off from having a clearer picture than we do right now.

Making open beaches a campaign issue

This is great.

Michele Petty

The Texas Supreme Court’s decision weakening the state Open Beaches Act has become a key issue in the race for one of the two contested Supreme Court seats in the Nov. 6 election.

San Antonio attorney Michele Petty stood in front of a battered beach home in Surfside last weekend to criticize her opponent, Justice Nathan Hecht, for siding with the majority in Severance v. Patterson, the case that led to the controversial decision.

“Texans have shown their love for their beach and they want access to the beach, and the Texas Supreme Court has ignored that,” said Petty, who would be the only Democrat on the court if she defeated Hecht. Hecht did not respond to a request for comment.

The Open Beaches Act historically has been interpreted to allow the public beach to move landward with erosion, a concept known as a “rolling easement.” The court said the rolling easement does not apply if the erosion is sudden, as in the case of a storm. Although the decision applied only to West Galveston Island, it potentially could affect other areas of the coast.

“We now have private beaches in Texas where the public can be excluded,” Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said after court issued its 5-3 decision in April. The ninth justice, Chief Judge Wallace Jefferson, did not participate.

Patterson, a Republican, would not go as far as supporting Petty, but said, “It’s an issue and the voters need to be aware of it.”

Patterson has been making an issue of this for awhile now. I’ll give him a pass on not going all the way – he does want to be the Republican candidate for Lite Guv in 2014, after all. Supreme Court races are generally low profile and the issues that usually get brought up don’t often resonate with voters. This time it may be different. Here we have the confluence of a longtime incumbent, a ruling that has been criticized across the political spectrum, a newsworthy issue, and a candidate who appears to be savvy about earned media. Michele Petty may not win this fall, but if she doesn’t it won’t be because the stars refused to align in her favor for her.

Fifth Circuit sends open beaches lawsuit back to district court

Unfortunately, the headline makes it sound like better news than it is.

A federal appeals court Monday ruled that the Texas Open Beaches Act is unconstitutional in the case of a Galveston Island property, a ruling that puts the fate of Texas public beaches in doubt.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Houston federal district court for retrial, but said that few issues were left to be decided.

“What issues must now be determined, aside from attorneys’ fees accruing to the appellant, is unclear,” the three-judge panel said in a three-paragraph opinion.

Chief Circuit Judge Edith Jones and Circuit Judge Edith Clement relied on an April advisory opinion by the Texas Supreme Court that essentially said the Open Beaches Act does not apply on West Galveston Island if the beach is rapidly eroded by storms, known as avulsion, rather than slowly eroded.

I was a little confused when I first read this, but after exchanging emails with the General Land Office, I got straightened out. A succinct explanation is in this 2010 Chron story about the original Supreme Court ruling.

[Plaintiff Carol] Severance initially filed suit in federal district court, which dismissed the case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal but sent some questions to the Texas Supreme Court for answers, prompting Friday’s ruling.

And then the Supreme Court ruling prompted the Fifth Court to finish its task, which came back to them after the Supremes affirmed their ruling in April. As the Tuesday story says, there’s not much left for the district court to sort out, but there are sure to be more lawsuits filed by other beachfront property owners. One possible outcome of that, as former Land Commissioner Garry Mauro wrote in the Trib is that this could lead the Supreme Court to limit the scope of its ruling to lots on Galveston’s West Beach. Before that happens, voters will have a chance to take Commissioner Patterson’s advice and give a verdict of their own on the judges who voted against open beaches. Assuming he doesn’t get booted off the ballot, Justice Nathan Hecht faces Democrat Michele Petty in November. Remember that race when it’s time to vote.

Patterson wants to vote out anti-open beach Supreme Court justices

Fine by me.

Lex Luthor does not approve this message

Voters should replace the five members of the Texas Supreme Court who issued an opinion weakening the state Open Beaches Act, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said Monday.

“We now have private beaches in Texas where the public can be excluded,” Patterson said. “I think folks should remember this when it’s time to vote.”

[…]

In an 5-3 decision, Justice Dale Wainwright wrote that the Open Beaches Act “does not create easements for public use along Texas Gulf-front beaches.” Public access exists only where established by long-term use, the opinion said.

Public access continues as gradual erosion moves the beach landward, but it ends if the beach is eroded by an “evulsive” event, such as a storm, according to the opinion. Justices Nathan L. Hecht, Paul W. Green, Phil Johnson and Don R. Willett joined Wainwright.

See here for some background. For the record, Justices Hecht and Willett are on the ballot this year. Willett has a primary opponent, while Hecht will be challenged in November by Democrat Michele Petty. (Justice David Medina, who dissented, is also on the ballot and has two GOP primary challengers, one of whom is the ever persistent John Devine.) When you go to vote in these races this year, just remember what Jerry Patterson said and you’ll be fine. Burka has more.

Comptroller Combs’ slush fund

It took me longer than usual to read this story because I kept having to stop to say “Seriously? Seriously?”

This guy knows something about free government money, too

When lawmakers gave Comptroller Susan Combs more power to spend tax money to attract sporting events and conventions to the state, the idea was to generate economic development in Texas that might go somewhere else.

But in recent years Combs has used that power to approve millions of dollars in expenditures on events that originated here and don’t appear to be leaving Texas anytime soon.

Over the last two years, Combs, a Republican, has signed off on spending $2 million in state tax money to help defray the costs of the Cotton Bowl, a postseason college football game held in the Dallas-Fort Worth area since 1937; $1.5 million to help finance the Alamo Bowl college football games, played in San Antonio since its inception in 1993; and $2 million to stage two NASCAR auto races — the AAA Texas 500 and the Samsung Mobile 500 — that were specifically designed for Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

Several horse associations in Fort Worth and Amarillo have also used such funds to defray costs of events held in those cities year after year — funds that went directly to the private associations hosting the shows, officials say.

Combs’ office says the event fund expenditures, which hit an all-time high of $78 million last year, are authorized by the Legislature and supported by the cities in which events are being held. The cities also say the fund has been an invaluable tool in attracting and retaining marquee events.

[…]

“Looking at some of those events, clearly they already would have been here already, so why are we spending tax dollars to bring them here?” said Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a Republican who has repeatedly questioned Combs’ oversight of the tax incentive funding. “Is this Susan Combs’ slush fund? We need to know that. And who is doing the oversight?”

Well, the Legislature, obviously. Clearly, they need to rewrite the law that created this loophole so as to tighten it up. You almost have to admire Combs’ brazenness here. So many of the examples cited don’t come within a mile of passing the laugh test. I mean, by the logic being employed, Combs should be cutting a check every year to all of the state’s pro sports franchises as insurance that they don’t relocate. You would think that this sort of unfettered largesse would offend some conservatives’ principles, and frankly I won’t be surprised if someone other than Patterson, who may be Combs’ rival for the Lite Guv nomination in 2014, piles on. If nothing else, I’d say we’ve identified a source of money for Governor Perry to use on his state-funded replacement for the Women’s Health Program, if he actually is sincere about that. In the meantime, may I suggest that the Comptroller throw a few bucks at Harris County to ensure that no one drives off with the Astrodome in the middle of the night? Thanks.

Can ban lawsuit moves to Travis County

Some new plaintiffs, too.

A group of river-related businesses has sued the City of New Braunfels, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Mark Vickery , executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, over a ban on disposable containers on rivers within New Braunfels city limits that went into effect this year.

The suit, filed [last] Monday in a Travis County District Court, seeks a permanent injunction against the ordinance, claiming it is unconstitutional and effectively bans alcohol on the river. An attempted alcohol prohibition on the rivers was tossed out in 2000, in part because of a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission letter saying the city didn’t have the authority to ban alcohol.

[…]

Patterson is among the parties in this latest suit because he is the effective trustee of state-owned public waterways, the suit said. It said Vickery is named because the so-called can ban “unlawfully seeks to regulate and control municipal solid waste management activities that are within TCEQ’s jurisdiction.”

The story says that a “nonsuit” was filed by plaintiffs on Wednesday, which I presume means that the earlier litigation is no longer active. I welcome feedback on that from the lawyers out there.