The late columnist Molly Ivins often told the story of Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis addressing a group of wheelchair-bound Texans watching from the House gallery. Lewis ended with, “Now stand and take a bow.” I was in the Texas Senate when Sen. Walter “Mad Dog” Mengden of Houston proclaimed, “And that is the problem, if there is a problem, which I deny.” You can’t make up this stuff. One Texas lawmaker introduced a resolution praising Albert DeSalvo for his “efforts with population control.” Only after the resolution passed unanimously did the legislators realize they were praising the Boston Strangler.
Those were the good times. Today’s Texas legislators are mostly angry, mean-spirited demagogues with an agenda which no more reflects the desires and priorities of most Texans than pond scum. The lawmakers simply pander to their voters’ fears and paranoia. (Few voters as there are — Texas has the lowest voter participation of any of the 50 states.) Gideon John Tucker, an American lawyer, newspaper editor and politician, wrote in 1866, “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.” So, while our own legislature is in session, let’s look at their work.
Despite the opposition of police, sheriffs and a whole lot of citizens, our lawmakers passed a new open-carry gun law that allows four guys at the next booth to play Gunfight at the Golden Corral. Although Texas has the third highest rate of HIV infections in the country, the legislature passed an amendment that defunds HIV/STD prevention programs. The amendment to the House budget proposal — offered by Rep. Stuart Spitzer (R-Kaufman) — diverts $3 million over the next biennium to the disproven, if not totally useless, abstinence-only program aimed at preventing teenaged pregnancies. Stand by for thousands of unwanted Texas babies who will end up on our welfare rolls. Millions of our tax dollars are going to other states because of our stand against health care, and we have already discussed a bill that would prevent the UN from taking over the Alamo.
The height of hypocrisy are the lawmakers in Austin who run on the “get Washington out of our business” platform and constantly demand “local control.” Then, at the behest of the oil and gas lobby, the gang stripped cities and counties of the power to prohibit fracking, like the good voters of Denton County did. “We don’t want a patchwork of laws across the state,” said one sponsor. There is also a bill to keep local governments from outlawing plastic bags – the kind you get at the grocery store – and one to keep cities from installing video cameras at major intersections to photograph red-light runners who like to T-bone your kids’ nursery school van. How about a “get Austin out of our business” platform?
In a transparent move to protect themselves, the legislators have defanged our watchdogs. The Travis County Public Integrity Unit (PIU) had been given state-wide authority, and funds, to investigate and if necessary prosecute public officials who broke the law, as if there were any. We all know the (excuse the cliche) back story: the drunken DA, Gov. Perry using that as an excuse to defund the PIU which led to Perry’s own felony indictments. And now we have this law to strip the PIU of its power and give it to the Texas Rangers (who finished at the very bottom last season) and to local DAs. This just might create “a patchwork of law enforcement across the state,” which the legislators apparently want.
This particular sordid story gets better, or worse. We have elected an attorney general, Ken Paxton, who admitted to sleazy financial dealings and paid a $1,000 fine. No question of his guilt, but he was elected anyway, maybe because he had an R beside his name on the ballot. Did the R stand for Reformed or Recidivist? But under this new law, the Public Integrity Unit couldn’t pursue the case anymore, and the job went to the Denton County DA who sat on it for two months, and probably wouldn’t have touched it with a 10-foot subpoena until public do-gooders raised a stink. The DA, who had been in with Paxton on several business deals, finally recused himself, and two outside lawyers were hired. Wonder if Perry could have found funds to pay them?
As for our former governor, Perry got out Dodge just in time, because scandals keep popping up. There is the Texas Enterprise Fund which doled out hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to attract businesses to Texas – even those which never applied for the funds. Also, there is that $20 million no-bid border security contract that, as former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby would say, doesn’t pass the smell test. Actually it stinks. But the PIU, whose staff now has 17 employees, down from 35 before Perry pulled funding, says it does not have the money or staff to reopen its investigation. Speaking of state funds, while Perry vetoed $7.5 million for the PIU, which – can you imagine? — the new legislature did not restore, the Senate has allocated about $811 million to fund its border security plan, while the House is proposing $565 million.
To be fair, voters elected these officials, and they are doing exactly what they said they would do. Their annual pay is only $7,200 plus expenses, and they meet in regular sessions 140 days every two years. (The standing joke is that they should meet for two days every 140 years.) They have vaulted the Lone Star State into the 18th Century — Texas ranks last in most state comparisons including health care, education, teenaged pregnancies (see above) and state spending per capita. Nevertheless, the hot topic this session is how much both budgets and taxes can be cut. So when people say, “Don’t mess with Texas,” tell them it’s too late.
Ashby votes at firstname.lastname@example.org