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Endorsement watch: DMN goes Kinky

Since pretty much every newspaper endorsed Hugh Fiztsimons for the Democratic nomination for Ag Commissioner in the primary, they now have the choice of picking a new candidate for the runoff or ignoring it and hoping it goes away. The Dallas Morning News chose the former by endorsing Kinky Friedman.

Kinky Friedman

Kinky Friedman

Richard “Kinky” Friedman’s run for agriculture commissioner revolves around one issue, or more precisely, one crop. The comedian and author was carrying the flag for marijuana long before Colorado legalized it and Gov. Rick Perry softened his stance on the wacky weed. In politics, he’s mostly a one-song act.

But at least we know what Friedman, 69, stands for. And, when pressed, he is able to discuss the importance of water conservation and the need for immigration reform.

Jim Hogan, his opponent in the May 27 runoff, is basically a mystery. The Johnson County insurance salesman surprised everyone by finishing first in the March primary without really running any campaign at all. He spent a few thousand dollars and did some social networking from the Cleburne library.

In the handful of interviews he’s granted, he revels more in the fact that he managed to win without running than focusing on what he would do if elected. His message seems to be that he’ll figure it out when he gets there. That’s not good enough. The agriculture commissioner has to be a strong voice for policy that will help the state face important challenges. Hogan, 63, doesn’t offer that.

Even though Friedman is mostly about smoke, at least his positions are clear. That makes him the better choice for the nomination.

That’s pretty much how I see it, and kudos to the DMN for getting Kinky to talk about more than just pot. Lord knows, I tried when I interviewed him, but I was no match for his message discipline. I totally get it if you find this choice distasteful, but it works for me.

On a related note, in the Republican runoff, the DMN went for Tommy Merritt on the grounds that his opponent is much worse.

[Sid] Miller, on the other hand, lacks the disposition or even the willingness to work with those who don’t see eye to eye with him. The Stephenville rancher has aligned himself with flame-throwing rocker Ted Nugent and insists on calling the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.” We gave Miller, 58, the opportunity to explain, revise or downplay his position on both matters. He declined.

Miller either doesn’t understand the divisiveness of those relationships and words, or, even more disconcerting, doesn’t care.

“Both” is always an option with choices like this. I suspect it’s mostly the latter in this case. I’ll say this much, a Kinky versus Miller matchup would not be boring.

Endorsement watch: None of the above

The Texas Farm Bureau is unhappy with its choices in the Ag Commissioner runoffs.

The political arm of the Texas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farming organization, will refrain from endorsing a candidate in the GOP runoff for agriculture commissioner after the group’s preferred candidate lost in the March 4 primary.

For the first time in its 25-year-plus history, the board of the Texas Farm Bureau Friends of Agriculture Fund voted Tuesday not to back a candidate.

“Our board and our members feel strongly that all remaining candidates in both primaries should address the serious issues concerning Texas agriculture’s uncertain future,” Kenneth Dierschke, Texas Farm Bureau and AGFUND president, said in a press release. “We will leave this decision in the hands of the voters of Texas.

I’m a little surprised they didn’t go for Tommy Merritt, who unlike Sid Miller wasn’t a complete tool while in the Legislature. I’ll be voting for Kinky Friedman in the Democratic runoff, but I can understand why the Farm Bureau is sitting this one out. As long as they do the right thing in the Lt. Governor’s race, it’s all good by me.

The case for Kinky

The Trib sums up the reasons for voting for the Kinkster in the runoff.

Kinky Friedman

Kinky Friedman

The race for agriculture commissioner is far down the list, both in terms of voter interest and the interest of people who write checks to political campaigns. It is the backwater of state politics, which makes it a great place for a candidate who is well known and doesn’t need the help of the financial people to get the attention of voters.

Miller and Merritt have never run statewide races. Friedman ran for governor in 2006 in a pack that included Republican Rick Perry, Democrat Chris Bell and Republican-turned-independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn (who has since divorced and changed her last name back to Rylander). Friedman finished fourth.

Let us argue the case on behalf of the Republican candidates.

One, Friedman got decimated in the 2006 race even though — and perhaps because — the voters knew who he was.

Two, it’s a Republican state, and the Democrats are unlikely to win, especially with a candidate who can be difficult to take seriously.

Three, Friedman’s idea of legalizing marijuana and making it a cash crop in Texas is out of the mainstream and cannot possibly be a winning issue in a Texas election.

The other side? He is better known than either Miller or Merritt. They, like Friedman himself, have been rejected by voters, and the deficiencies that made their opponents successful are there for new opponents — like Friedman — to exploit.

It will be hard for all of the candidates to raise money — an advantage for the best-known candidate, as long as it’s not a bank robber.

Marijuana — if it doesn’t turn off the voters — sets Friedman’s campaign apart. It’s something for voters who are not otherwise interested in the Texas Department of Agriculture to talk about. Public opinion is shifting; the governor recently talked about decriminalizing pot. Perry is not for legalization, but decriminalization is a long way from the zero-tolerance policies that were in vogue a few years ago.

We’ve covered this before. Other than the Trib’s mention that Kinky could highlight his differences with the state Democratic Party as a general campaign theme, there’s nothing new there. Either you buy into the idea of Kinky as a viable and potentially successful candidate, or you’d sooner French kiss an electric outlet. I can’t say either of these views are wrong, but if you vote in the runoff – and you should come out to vote for David Alameel, because Kesha Rogers must be stopped – then you’ll have to decide how you feel about this.

Primary results: Statewide

So Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott won easily.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

They never had to sweat their primaries, so on Tuesday night Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis turned their attention to a fall election that is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested and closely watched Texas governor’s races in decades.

Davis, who was winning almost 80 percent of the vote in early returns, and Abbott, who was pulling in more than 90 percent at last count, both gave early victory speeches on a night when uncertainty and surprise shook up candidates in several other key state races.

Davis went first, focusing her remarks on job creation and education, saying Texas badly needed new leadership after years of uninterrupted Republican rule.

“I want you to know this: I am ready to fight for you and to fight for every hardworking Texan across this state,” Davis said at her campaign headquarters in Fort Worth. “Now is the time to fight for our future. This is not a time to stand still.”

But Davis’ remarks quickly turned into an attack on Abbott. She criticized him for defending in court steep cuts made by the Legislature to public education in 2011 in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of school districts that say the state’s education system is flawed and doesn’t appropriately fund schools.

“He’s defending those cuts,” Davis said. “Cuts that laid off teachers and forced our kids into overcrowded classrooms.”

She also mentioned the ongoing abortion debate in Texas — the issue that helped turn her into an overnight sensation last summer when she filibustered a restrictive abortion bill. Davis bashed Abbott for his stance on abortion, saying that he wants to “dictate for all women, including victims of rape and incest.” Abbott has said he believes abortion should be legal only when the mother’s life is in danger.

“I will be the governor who fights for the future of Texas,” Davis said, adding that “Greg Abbott is a defender of the status quo.”

There were a lot of uncounted ballots at the time I called it a night last night, but turnout on the Dem side will probably be around 600,000, or about what we had in 2012. A bit more than half the votes were cast early, which strongly suggests yesterday’s rotten weather had some effect. Republicans also had more than half their turnout come in early, so it affected both sides. This is why I always vote early, y’all.

John Cornyn easily won his primary, but with a not-terribly-impressive 58% or so of the vote. Barring any late surge, David Alameel will finish with about 47% and will face (sigh) Kesha Rogers in the runoff, as she finished second with about 22%. I expect he’ll win easily in a low turnout race, and I have to wonder if this is the reason he got those early endorsements from Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte, and a whole passel of Dem officeholders. Maybe someone in the hive mind had the foresight to think that he had the best shot at solving the Kesha problem, hopefully in March but surely in May if it comes to it. Be that as it may, let me take this opportunity once again to spit on that crappy Trib primary poll. Use a dartboard next time, fellas.

Anyway. Alameel will be joined in the runoff by Kinky Friedman and Jim Hogan, who led the field for Ag Commissioner for no apparent reason. At least Steve Brown won the Railroad Commissioner nomination, so there was just one random result.

On the Republican side, Baby Bush collected 73% in the Land Commissioner race, so he joins Abbott in getting to start running for November. Glenn Hegar was within an eyelash of 50% at the time I closed up shop; if he falls back, Harvey Hilderbran will get another shot at him. All Supreme Court incumbents won, and all Court of Criminal Appeals races had clear winners. Otherwise, here are your runoff lineups:

Lite Guv – Dan Patrick versus David Dewhurst. Sure looks like The Dew is going down.

Attorney General – Ken Paxton versus Dan Branch. Back to the Railroad Commission for you, Barry Smitherman.

Ag Commissioner – Sid Miller versus Tommy Merritt. If things hold to form, Ted Nugent will have had quite the successful primary himself.

Railroad Commissioner – Wayne Christian versus Ryan Sitton. Yeah, I know, who?

That’s all I got. What are your thoughts about the primaries?

Texas Farm Bureau unhappy with anti-immigrant Republicans

It’s an opportunity for Democrats, assuming they actually mean what they’re saying.

When Republican agriculture commissioner candidate Eric Opiela appeared on television sets across Texas recently to declare “No amnesty under any circumstances,” he was no doubt attempting to appeal to the conservative constituency that is expected to turn out in next week’s primary election.

So are his major primary opponents, former state Reps. Sid Miller and Tommy Merritt, and Uvalde Mayor J Allen Carnes, who oppose any pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Current Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor, is also blasting one of his Republican opponents, state Sen. Dan Patrick, over reports that he hired undocumented workers and supported amnesty for one of them decades ago.

But all of the candidates also happen to disagree with one of the country’s most powerful agricultural lobbying groups, which boasts some half a million members in Texas. The American Farm Bureau Federation and its local arm, the Texas Farm Bureau, are strong supporters of a major immigration reform bill the U.S. Senate passed last year that offers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The bill has been heavily criticized by many conservative politicians, both nationwide and in Texas, highlighting a rift between the Republican Party and the agricultural lobby that widened recently during debate over the farm bill.

“Let’s just cut to the chase on this thing: Eighty-five percent of the agricultural labor that goes on in the state of Texas … is done by either undocumented or illegally documented people,” said Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau. “If and when that labor supply is not there, that production simply goes out of business.”

[…]

For Pringle, the Republican Party’s shift to the right in recent years means that the Texas farm lobby may be looking for friends in places that would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago. In the 2012 election cycle, the Texas Farm Bureau donated $10,000 to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“Let’s just put it this way,” Pringle said. “We are finding conservative Republicans less and less supportive of agriculture.”

Like I said, a potential opportunity for Democrats to steal a bit of support from some typically unfavorably places, and not just in the Ag Commissioner race. The TFB has endorsed Carnes, but it’s not clear they’d transfer that support to, say, Eric Opiela or Sid Miller if one of them became the nominee. We’ve heard this sort of talk before, from typically pro-Republican business groups that support immigration reform, such as the Texas Association of Business, but it generally doesn’t translate into any tangible action. TAB in particular has a history of getting good press for saying pro-immigrant things and occasionally calling out some of the worst offenders among the Republicans, but they never follow it up by actively opposing the legislators they identify as the problem, even as the rhetoric has gotten more and more strident. If the TFB wants to be seen as more than just an empty voice for immigration reform, the place they can and should start is in the Lt. Governor’s race. If they fail to support Leticia Van de Putte, especially over Dan Patrick or Todd Staples, we’ll know they didn’t intend to be taken seriously. Just walk the walk, fellas, that’s all I’m asking.

Chron overview of Ag Commissioner race

It’s mostly about Kinky and pot, because what else is there to talk about?

Democrat Kinky Friedman is attempting to add a little spice to the crowded agriculture commissioner race by being the lone candidate to advocate legalizing marijuana and tapping it as a new state cash crop.

Of the eight candidates jostling to replace Republican Todd Staples as agriculture commissioner, only Friedman of Kerrville supports legalizing marijuana and taxing it for state revenue. He wants Texas to move quickly before other states follow Washington and Colorado’s lead and legalize the drug for recreational use, which could deprive the Lone Star State of potential revenue, like the $578 million in tax revenue that Colorado expects from first-year sales.

“Texas will be the dinosaur dragged in by the tail,” Friedman said. “We will be the caboose on the train.”

Friedman’s comments on legalizing marijuana follow those voiced by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who called for legalizing the drug for medical use and possibly decriminalizing it.

And Republican Gov. Rick Perry who told the World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he signed laws putting the state on the path to decriminalization, and suggested that all states, under the 10th Amendment, have the right to decide how to handle the herb.

But other agricultural commissioner candidates from both major political parties were reluctant to voice those types of sentiments, preferring to focus on top priorities like illegal immigration and improved water infrastructure.

“Pot doesn’t really matter,” said Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III, another Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner. “What matters is if you have any water.”

Cleburne farmer Jim Hogan, also seeking the Democratic primary nod, said he understands the arguments for legalization, and he said he could favor a shift in emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation for Texas drug users.

“If I was a judge and a woman (charged with possession of marijuana) had three kids, I couldn’t send her to prison,” Hogan said. “I could have her rehabilitated, maybe.”

None of the five Republicans in the race gave support to Perry’s comments or bucked their party’s hard line stance against drug possession or legalization.

I ran interviews last week with Friedman and Fitzsimons. Pot is a worthwhile issue to discuss, and I support Friedman’s position on it, but as Fitzsimons says it’s all secondary to water. Sure would have been nice to have seen what some of the Republican candidates have to say about that in a story like this. It also might have been worthwhile to mention the Republican candidates’ self-interested hypocrisy on receiving federal agriculture subsidies. But hey, no one’s really paying attention to a race like this anyway, am I right?

Cut education now, pay later?

That’s the question for Republican legislators, isn’t it?

GOP legislators didn’t budge this session from their commitment to reduce Texas’ education spending even in the face of protests, negative ad campaigns and reams of criticism.

The outcry didn’t faze them because it wasn’t coming from within their party.

That might change, some Republicans say, once parents see the aftermath in their child’s school of the state’s $4 billion — or 5.6 percent — reduction in what is owed to local school districts. The fallout could include teacher layoffs, school closures and elimination of extra programs or higher property taxes.

Republican incumbents “are going to be sent home by Republican primary voters because what they’re doing in public education is not in any way conservative,” said State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant. “Our version of conservative is mainstream conservative, not extreme conservative.”

Of course, there’s more to it than just the Republican primary, which is what this story focuses on. Republicans voted as a unified bloc all session, so legislators in swing districts will be running on the same record as legislators in safe R seats. There will be a lot more voters who don’t vote in Republican primaries to persuade that this was the wrong thing to do. If it really is the case that education is seen as the most important issue, then that will help. Right now it’s anybody’s guess, and there are too many factors that can influence things to have any clear idea about what will happen. It’s just too early to say.

I will say this much: The Tea Party influence on Republican legislative primaries may be a tad bit overstated. A grand total of three Republican incumbents fell to primary challenges. Two of them – Tommy Merritt and Delwyn Jones – were longtime targets of the more radical elements. The third – well, let me ask: Can you name the third Republican incumbent to lose in a 2010 primary? Off the top of your head, without using the Internet? I’ll tell you that I had either never realized this particular legislator had lost, or I’d forgotten it because the winner of that race has been completely invisible (to me, anyway). I’ll put the answer beneath the fold. Other targeted legislators like Charlie Geren and Todd Smith survived. Some of the noisier teabaggers, like James White, Jason Isaac, and Jose Aliseda, were unopposed in their primaries. The teabaggers did do well in primaries for open seats, and Bill Birdwell’s victory in the SD22 special election against the establishment candidate David Sibley was a big deal, but the overall record isn’t deep. While it’s clear that the threat of getting teabagged worked wonders for party unity this year, what will happen in 2012 if the interests of the Republicans’ monied interests diverge from the teabaggers is unknown. EoW has more.

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Election results: The Lege

There are way too many races to recap here, and since the Trib has done such a thorough job of it, I’ll leave the heavy lifting to them. A few highlights:

– Steve Ogden easily won re-nomination in SD5, and Kip Averitt was returned to the ballot in SD22. Each faced fringe opponents, so these are good results as far as maintaining a functioning Senate goes. Averitt as we know had sought to drop out. He may yet do that, at which time we’ll get appointed nominees from both parties; if he changes his mind, he’s in, as no Dem filed originally.

– Borris Miles won by a razor-thin margin over Al Edwards in HD146. The margin as of this morning was all of eleven votes. Yes, you can expect a recount, and that’s a small enough number that there’s a chance the outcome could change. Don’t carve anything into stone just yet. A statement from Miles’ campaign is beneath the fold.

– Despite some predictions that Rep. Terri Hodge, who recently pleaded guilty to lying on her tax returns and stated her intention to resign after being sentenced, would still win her primary, challenger Eric Johnson defeated her by a large margin. There is no Republican challenger, so Johnson will be sworn in next January.

– Rep. Betty Brown, best known for her inability to handle Asian names, lost. That’s good. Rep. Tommy Merritt of Longview, who had faced primary challenges every cycle this decade for his opposition to Tom Craddick and other acts of heresy, also lost. That’s not good. Rep. Delwin Jones is in a runoff. On the Democratic side, Reps. Dora Olivo of Fort Bend and Tara Rios Ybarra of South Padre Island lost, and Rep. Norma Chavez of El Paso is in a runoff. Go click those Trib links for more.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll post links to more coverage later as I see them.

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Campaign finance bill passes the House

I’ve had plenty of harsh things to say about House Elections Committee Chair Todd Smith this session, but he’s always been one of the good guys on campaign finance reform.

Texas could start regulating how political parties use corporate and union campaign contributions under a bill the Texas House passed Friday 71 to 63.

House Bill 2511 would close what author Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, has called an “absurd” loophole that enables corporations and labor unions to escape a century-old ban against political donations by funding issue ads that stop short of urging a vote for or against a candidate.

Under the bill, donations from corporations and unions could only go toward a political party’s or political action committee’s administrative costs.

You may recall that a broad definition of just what “administrative costs” are was a key part of the fight over what TAB and TRMPAC did in the 2002 elections, as they had claimed things like polling were “administrative” in nature.

The Texas Pastor Council sent an email blast urging a vote against the bill.

“HB 2511 will censor free speech and drastically change how nonprofit organizations communicate with their supporters about important policy issues,” the group wrote. “This very email could be ruled illegal under this proposed law, prohibiting nonprofits from highlighting elected officials and their bad votes on legislation affecting all Texans.”

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said he head received a letter from a host of conservative groups including Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Texas Eagle Forum and the Texas Alliance for Life that were worried about the bill.

“They are concerned that this will limit their ability to come out and talk about issues,” King said.

If all those folks are against this bill, it must be doing something right. Though HB2511 only got 71 votes to pass, six of them were Republicans – Delwin Jones, Charlie Geren, Will Hartnett, Brian McCall, Tommy Merritt, and Smith; the latter three were coauthors of the bill, along with Rafael Anchia and Mark Strama. Still, I suspect that this won’t make it through the Senate; that two-thirds rule that ol’ Dan Patrick hates so much will surely see to its demise. A previous version of this bill died a messy death in the 2005 Lege amid allegations of partisan sniping at then-Speaker Tom Craddick. I like how now-former Rep. Terry Keel basically tells Tommy Merritt he’ll never eat lunch in this town again in the aftermath of that. Karma sure is a strange thing sometimes.

UPDATE: Burka figures out the reason for the partisan split on this one.

High school registrars

We know that the Republicans like voter ID. We shouldn’t be too surprised that they don’t much like voter registration.

[The House] barely passed a bill Monday night that would allow high school principals to appoint four deputy registrars to help 18-year-old students sign up to vote.

The bill passed, 73-72, before a roll-call verification vote to make sure all members had properly voted. The verified vote was 72-70 for the bill. However, the outcome could change during a final vote on Tuesday.

All 70 opposition votes came from Republicans.

“You are taking a principal and directing them to register voters. We know in some school districts that will be done in a very partisan fashion,” Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said.

Texas ranks behind 41 other states when it comes to registering 18-to-24-year-olds.

HB 1654 would require each high school principal to designate four people as deputy registrars. The four deputies could be either employees of the high school or employees of the school district in which the high school was located and who were serving at the high school. At least three of the four would have to be classroom teachers or certified full-time counselors.

All GOP members of the Elections Committee voted for the bill in committee. But only Elections Chairman Todd Smith, R-Bedford, and Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, voted for it on the floor.

One Democrat, Rep. Tracy King of Eagle Pass, voted against it; unclear to me what his deal was with it. The bill passed yesterday on final reading 75-71, with the difference being a function of fewer absent members.

Of course, given the narrow passage and partisanized nature of this bill, it seems unlikely to get through the Senate. Add that to the failure of Rep. Vo’s measures to allow those who turn 18 between March and November to vote in the primaries to make it out of committee, and Republicans can relax. It won’t be any easier for the kids to vote in 2010 than it is now.

Smith caves in to the Browns

No surprise, really.

Rep. Todd Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Elections, confirmed today he’s intending to have the committee vote Monday on a voter ID plan.

The twist: Smith is backing off his attempts to rewrite the plan.

Bowing to a request from two GOP colleagues, Smith simply intends to seek the committee’s approval of the Senate-approved version of Senate Bill 362.

Presuming the five Republicans on the committee stick together, this means that barring unforeseen hang-ups, a clean version of the Senate plan will ultimately be taken up on the House floor.

The colleagues, Reps. Betty Brown of Terrell and Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, had resisted Smith’s attempts to rewrite the Senate bill.

Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned. If there are any unforeseen hang-ups, the bill is dead, since Monday is the deadline for passing bills out of House committees. Which doesn’t mean it couldn’t be inserted as an amendment somewhere, of course, so even if it dies one way or another – has anyone talked to Reps. Tommy Merritt or Delwin Jones lately? – it’s not truly dead until sine die and the threat of a special session passes.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, the Monday deadline is for House bills, so SB362 would be exempt from that. So I daresay the best hope is for it to not pass on the House floor.

The voter ID “compromise” bill

Here we go.

The voter identification bill likely to reach the House floor would allow Texans to cast ballots if they can show two forms of non-photo ID, despite pressure from many Republican members to require picture identification for all voters. Rep. Todd Smith’s compromise bill – circulated on the House floor this morning – also calls for increased funding for voter registration, greater acceptance of provisional ballots and a four year transition into the new voter identification system, lawmakers who received copies of it said.

The bill is expected to be considered by the House Elections Committee, which Smith chairs, this weekend, and could come up in the House as early as next week.

Smith’s current legislation is similar to the voter ID bill that passed the Senate – a bill that would allow voters to produce two non-photo IDs in lieu of a photo ID. One key difference: Smith’s bill allows for a four-year phase in of the new rules, while the bill the GOP-dominated Senate passed requires them by the 2010 elections.

Gardner Selby has more.

—Smith envisions any voter who doesn’t completely fulfill the ID requirements getting to cast a ballot that would be counted later than regular ballots, if their signature at the polling place matches their signature on the voter’s voter registration application or another public record in the possession of their county’s voter registrar.

A twist: Smith’s rewrite leaves the verification of signatures to local signature verification committees consisting of five voters or more, chosen on nomination by the local Democratic and Republican county chairs. Each board is to be chaired by a nominee from the party whose gubernatorial candidate drew the most local votes in the latest governor’s election. The committees would be appointed by the early voting ballot board, which I suspect exists now in each county.

—Smith’s version would not take effect unless the Legislature appropriates $7.5 million in 2010-11 to register voters.

I’ll say this much for Smith, he hasn’t (yet) bowed to pressure from his fellow Republicans, who seem bent on making voting a damn-near punitive experience. He still hasn’t gone far enough for me to consider his alternative acceptable – sorry, but same day voter registration is a must-have for anything to be considered – but it seems clear he’s listened to Democratic concerns and is at least making some effort to accommodate. Which isn’t to say I trust him, but he hasn’t gone over the edge and that’s something. I suspect he’s also aware of the fact that the GOP wet dream legislation almost surely doesn’t have the votes to pass the House. Keep an eye on that list of pledge signers – if Tommy Merritt and Delwyn Jones show up, then it’s a whole new ballgame, but until then I think there’s a decent chance the House won’t pass anything too horrible. Which makes me a lot more optimistic than I was in the beginning. I still want this whole thing to die a messy death amid savage Republican infighting. But if that’s not going to happen, passing something relatively toothless would be a victory, especially given how this session began.

UPDATE: Vince has more.

The Speaker speaks, and a Voter ID update

So how is Speaker Joe Straus doing?

Three months into his first term leading the 150-member chamber, Republican Speaker Joe Straus is emerging as a bipartisan compromise-seeker, rejecting much of the power that his predecessor so coveted.

Straus still faces some tough tests, but just four years after Craddick was anointed as the most powerful Texan by Texas Monthly magazine, observers say the young GOP leader has shifted power back to the House.

“Not some, probably all,” said Rep. Tommy Merritt, a Longview Republican when asked if the speaker has given up some of the office’s power. “He’s doing exactly what a good speaker should do. He’s wielding the gavel and trying to make fair rulings to make the will of the House work for Texas.”

Straus’ first big victory came last week when the normally raucous House unanimously approved the $178 billion budget. It was the first time in a decade that the usually thorny state budget came out with 149-0 approval.

In a rare sit-down, on-the-record interview with The Associated Press, Straus said the unanimous vote was the result of weeks of negotiations and compromise.

“No one, right or left, Republican or Democrat, urban or rural, is going to crush somebody by sheer force this session,” said Straus, the state’s first Jewish speaker.

I’d say that’s a fair interpretation. As I’ve said before, Straus hasn’t been exactly what I’d hoped for in a non-Tom Craddick Speaker, but he’s still a lot better than Tom Craddick. The House has been remarkably free of strife, and more importantly it’s been completely free of attempts by the Speaker to impose his will on everything in his path. That’s as much a function of the near-even split as anything else, but the point is that Craddick couldn’t have managed under those conditions; he would have been what he has always been. The House would have been a disaster area with him in charge.

Of course, there’s still a lot of time left, and at least one big stinking partisan blob of an “issue” that remains unresolved.

Lately, Straus has been working to forge a compromise on an effort to strengthen voter identification requirements, a measure so divisive it sparked partisan meltdown in the Senate and triggered threats of lawsuits.

The legislation is expected to be debated by the House within the next couple of weeks. But by many accounts, a House compromise is on the horizon. Unlike the Senate, Straus said, the House wasn’t going to “pull the pin on the grenade and be irresponsible, which I think they were.”

“They just didn’t care about the consequences of the emotional side of it,” he said. “And we’re trying to be deliberate and slow … we’re trying to find solutions, not just talking points for somebody’s political agenda.”

Rep. Aaron Pena writes that voter ID could be on the agenda for the Elections Committee as early as tomorrow, with some kind of compromise voter ID bill to be debated. That’s assuming that the whole thing doesn’t get blown up by the Republican hardcore, as documented by Gardner Selby:

I’m hearing from Capitol sources that Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, privately told GOP colleagues today he’d reached closure on his intended-to-be-a-compromise version of voter ID legislation and might even issue an afternoon press release saying so.

To which, some Republicans reportedly reacted: “Whoa, Nelly (or Toddy).”

Their beef: They’d prefer not to see Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Elections, running out a softened-up approach that they don’t think meets the intended ID mandate.

True, it’d be a painful political boomerang for Republicans to see House Democrats (on the short end of the 76-74 House split between the parties) wrest control of the GOP’s most-valued legislative proposal (though the flip side, perhaps fueling Smith’s hunt for common ground, is that if the Senate-approved version of voter ID isn’t tweaked, he could fall short of getting the proposal out of his committee or off the House floor; tough cookies).

Until Smith speaks out (yup, I’ve tried to reach him), I’m left with separate statements from Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, who takes a hard line on the voter ID front, and from 51 House Republicans (including Brown) similarly saying they’re not interested in phasing in changes or making it easier for most anyone to vote without presenting proof of their identity.

GOP blow-up? I’m waiting to hear more.

For what it’s worth, Rep. Smith says it was all sweetness and light when he addressed the caucus about his bill. Sure it was. I can’t think of a better resolution to this mess than a GOP implosion as no bill gets passed because the hardliners refuse to accept a compromise, while their version fails to get enough votes. Nothing could illustrate the point that this is all just a naked partisan power grab than that. Form a circle, Republicans, and load up those AK-47s! We’ll start popping the popcorn now.

Craddick’s cleanup

I’m amused by this.

Before the House voted Speaker Tom Craddick out of his powerful job, state officials wiped his computers clean and deleted scores of electronic files, raising concerns that important public records may have been destroyed.

Files on one shared computer network drive were saved, but unless Craddick specifically requested them, computer hard drives and electronic records associated with individual employees were deleted, officials said.

Craddick left the speaker’s office on Jan. 13, returning to the state House as a rank-and-file member without a vast staff and without the sweeping power the presiding officer wields.

The computers were removed from the speaker’s office to be wiped clean at 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, said Anne Billingsley, spokeswoman for the Texas Legislative Council, which oversees computer issues for the Legislature. Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, was sworn in as speaker at noon the next day.

But before Craddick gave up the gavel to Straus, the council let Craddick take what he wanted and deleted everything else, officials said.

“Everything that Speaker Craddick had on his computers as far as data and records, he was allowed to take with him into his (state representative’s) office,” Billingsley said. “As far as the computers go, they took all the computers for the speaker’s office and they got wiped.”

Deleting computer files is standard procedure, Craddick’s chief of staff Kate Huddleston said. But it’s not clear what files were deleted, setting off alarms among government watchdogs.

Fred Lewis, an independent government watchdog, called the deletions “outrageous.”

“If it’s on a state computer, it’s a state record. They’re not his records. They belong to the people of Texas,” Lewis said. “I think there should be an investigation on whether or not he illegally destroyed state records.”

My reaction upon seeing this was, is this really standard procedure? If the commenters on Burkablog are to be believed, apparently so. It would be standard in the business world, but then we don’t have open records laws to worry about. This followup story goes into more detail.

[The Texas Legislative Council] said it followed its regular procedures, which included computer “sanitization” guidelines that had been issued in 2003 and revised in 2007. The bottom line: only the legislators themselves — and in this case former speaker Craddick — get to decide what to keep and what not to keep.

“The legislator makes all decisions regarding their files,” the council said in an unsigned news release on the stationery of council director Milton Rister. “The council simply follows its operating procedures in reformatting the computers for use by other or new legislators.”

But state Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, said Rister should resign over the incident.

“I’m very concerned about records being destroyed the day before the election of a new speaker without anyone in the Legislature in charge of stopping it or preventing it,” Merritt said. “Milton Rister needs to resign.”

Council spokeswoman Araminta Everton declined to comment on Merritt’s request.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said he was filing legislation to prevent such destruction in the future. He said his bill was designed to “preserve the public’s right to know about legislative information when a legislator leaves office.”

I think that’s a better approach. At the very least, there’s no reason why a backup of the computer can’t be done before the wipe is performed. As for Milton Rister, he’s been the subject of controversy since he was first named director of the TLC.

And of course, with Tom Craddick, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Even as fellow House members were wresting him from his leadership post, former House Speaker Tom Craddick directed state officials to renovate his cherished Capitol apartment, spending all but $18.55 from a restoration fund that once totaled over $1.3 million.

The final purchase order — $45,400 for two historic Texas oil paintings — was issued just hours before Craddick had to hand power over to Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, after House members voted him out of the No. 1 post because they didn’t like his autocratic leadership style. Straus got Craddick’s job as well as the keys to the 1,804-square-foot apartment behind the House chamber.

Private funds, donated from wealthy contributors and lobbyists, were used to pay for the renovation. State employees were also dispatched to perform minor installation work on the project late last year, officials said.

Craddick, a Midland oilman, announced he was withdrawing from the speaker’s race on Jan. 4, after it was clear he no longer had a majority of the House behind him. A day later, on Jan. 5, the Texas State Preservation Board approved the expenditure of $124,000 on the apartment, including the purchase of a $75,000 crystal chandelier that had already been hung over the speaker’s spacious dining room.

All told, the State Preservation Board — in charge of modifications to the state capitol — approved $169,400 in expenditures on the apartment renovation during Craddick’s final week in office. The last expenditure, for the oil paintings, was approved just before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, only hours before the Republican speaker formally relinquished power, records show.

I have to admit, the man does have a certain flair.