Author Archives: Ross Ramsey

Analysis: A media exec in Texas politics, not quite ready for prime time

Bruce Jacobson is vice president of media for LIFE Outreach International and executive producer of Life Today TV.

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Today’s column is brought to you by the Bureau of First Impressions. That agency, like the “Bruce Jacobson Jr. for United States Senate from Texas” campaign, is an imaginary entity that may or may not really exist.

Candidates started officially filing for the 2018 election cycle in Texas over the weekend. Some were doing their prep last week — and one of them forgot to hang an “under construction” sign on his website and his campaign.

Jacobson, an executive in Christian TV in Tarrant County, told reporters earlier this year that he was “prayerfully considering” a primary challenge against Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

He’s still thinking, apparently, but someone in his camp is working on his website.

Publicly. Awkwardly.

It’s like turning on a microphone with nothing to say, or a camera with nothing to see.

Here’s what it said on his website on Friday afternoon.

“This test website is merely a temporary platform for a federal candidacy that may or may not be announced shortly. This beta website does not constitute an announcement of a candidacy and does not indicate support or opposition for any announced candidate.”

That tells us that there’s a lawyer hiding in there somewhere. Here’s a translation: “We haven’t filed our paperwork, campaign finance information, etc. Please don’t spank us.”

The earlier version, snagged by the Texas Tribune’s alert political editor, Aman Batheja, was much less lawyerly, and much, much more entertaining:

“This Website is Under Construction.

“This is highly likely going to be the website for Bruce Jacobson, Jr. for his possible upcoming campaign for the United States Senate. This website is currently going undergoing testing.

“Had this website been live, you would have seen information about Bruce Jacobson, Jr., about his positions on the issues for the 2018 United States Senate campaign that impact the great State of Texas.

“Had this website been live, you would be given area to donate to this possibly upcoming almost official campaign for the State of Texas representative who could be serving Texas in the United States Senate.

“Had this website been live, you would most likely be viewing the Bruce Jacobson, Jr. For United States Senate announcement video which is of course, currently being edited for a highly possible announcement and press release about Bruce Jacobson, Jr. most likely to be announcing next week and then serving as the Senator from the great State of Texas after a peaceful non-combative primary with the 34th U.S. Senator from Texas Ted Cruz. Senator Cruz will be defeated and we would really, really love your support in the primary and the general election, provided we announce sometime next week.”

It’s a small mistake — the sort of thing that happens when the effervescent marketing arm of a campaign gets ahead of things. Some of the website looked last week like it will probably look if and when the Jacobson juggernaut leaves the runway. His biography is up. There’s a page where supporters and curious political reporters can throw their names onto the campaign’s email list.

The place to take donations isn’t live yet — this isn’t a campaign yet, right? But the “Nationbuilder” template for the site is there, along with setup instructions for larval campaigns like this one: “Accepting donations requires a couple of steps… Be sure to delete this information or replace it with a short reason to provide financial support for your efforts.”

Why would he run? What would his positions be? That’s unknown for this maybe-maybe not effort. One page is set up for “United State Senate Issues for Texas in 2018,” but all it says, after the typos, is “Stay Tuned.”

Okay. There’s time. We can wait.

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Analysis: X-factor in 2018’s Texas elections might be Harvey, not Donald

John Sharp, Texas A&M University chancellor and head of the new Governor's Commission to Rebuild Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and Nim Kidd, Chief of Texas Emergency Management, get briefed on recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey at the FEMA Joint Field Office in Austin on Sept. 14, 2017.    

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Donald Trump is supposed to be the big name in politics next year, even though he’s not going to be on the ballot. That’s how it goes for presidents. Voters vote with their thumbs in off-year elections: Up for popular presidents, down for unpopular ones. The results measure a chief executive like a rain gauge measures a storm.

But the tempestuous president has been trumped by a tempest: Texas politics and government is all about Hurricane Harvey now. The terrible storm triggered a disaster recovery already fraught with politics — these messes are always like that. It’s about money. It’s about who’s doing a good job and who’s not doing a good job, and about who they’re doing a good job for, and who they’re not helping.

The first phase of this — the widespread emergency — is over. But the storm left huge problems in its wake for the victims and the state, crowding out lots of petting political concerns and trivia and issues the pollsters discovered deep in their numbers.

Harvey put the state’s political class on the spot: It’s time to actually do stuff. Voters should have a good idea by this time next year which officeholders are heroes and which ones are goats.

If Harvey is still at the top of the civic conversation in 12 months, Trump’s popularity might be the second- or third-most important issue of the 2018 elections.

So far, so good. Most of the early reviews in the days since Harvey left Texas have been good for mayors, county judges, governors and the people who aid and abet them.

Those officeholders avoided the snares that caught George W. Bush and his administration when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The elected class is, on this issue, relatively goat-free. That’s no small thing.

Harvey put the state’s political class on the spot: It’s time to actually do stuff. Voters should have a good idea by this time next year which officeholders are heroes and which ones are goats.

But they have a year of chances left as they decide what should get rebuilt or remade, what shouldn’t, and who should pay. Houston is already having public conversations and debates about property tax increases to pay some of the expenses. State and local officials are working the federal government for financial aid.

Success and failure in those efforts will illustrate one of the cardinal rules of political leadership: The best politics is simply doing your job. Screw that up, and it doesn’t matter that you have a fat campaign account and give rousing speeches.

Republicans at the top of the ticket in Texas appear insulated; so far, it looks like the state’s top elected leaders will coast through the primaries without major opponents. Most, if the tickets were set today, would coast in November, too. Candidates have until Dec. 11 to put their names on the ballot and change the competitive situation.

Down the ballot is a different matter. Many of the Texans running for Congress and the Legislature — incumbent or not — will face tough opponents in the March primaries and/or the November general election.

For those in some parts of the state, that’ll mean campaigning in the wake of President Trump. Democrats are hopeful about that, dreaming of disillusioned voters running away from a Republican president. Some Republicans are worried, and for the same reasons. On the other hand, if Trump is more popular by the time voters are making their decisions, it could be a bumper year for Republicans and a bummer for the Democrats.

In the region swept by Hurricane Harvey, the political conversation could be more local, and more tangible to voters. The 2018 elections will give those voters a chance to grade the people in charge. Trump might be the guy dominating cable television, but Harvey — especially for people still dealing with its aftermath — will be front and center.

Candidates who want to avoid the Trump wave can talk about the storm and about issues related to the storm. Harvey, for them, is a diversion. The candidates who’d rather talk about Trump will have an obstacle in the way, a hurricane that had a more direct effect on voters than an attention-grabbing president.

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Analysis: Firing the opening shots in the 2018 GOP primaries

House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick at a Texas Legislative Budget Board meeting on December 1, 2016.

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The guns of August are blazing.

Whatever Gov. Greg Abbott decides to do with his nice-and-naughty lists of which legislators were with him and against him this year, it’s clear that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants voters to connect the legislative results to next year’s elections.

In a radio interview this week, Patrick went right at his House counterpart and foil, Speaker Joe Straus: “You do need to ask the question, ‘Are you going to vote for the speaker next session who is undermining the political party in our conservative state?'”

In a Tuesday email to political supporters, Patrick, who doesn’t yet have an opponent, listed Straus as his rival: “Re-elect me as your Lt. Governor so I can continue to stand up to the Speaker and keep pressure on those who do not support the Texas conservative majority.”

Ignore the personalities for a moment. This is a fight for the control of the Republican Party that in turn controls state government. It’s like the GOP family finally got all of the relatives to a big reunion, only to find out that one branch doesn’t like the cousins from another branch.

Texas is a two-party state and both parties are Republican.

The lieutenant governor was notably quiet during the special session — compared to his usual outspoken combativeness. He flared at the end, when the House decided to cut off negotiations on property taxes and to gavel out a day earlier than the law requires.

That left Patrick and the Senate in a take-it-or-leave it position on legislation limiting the size of local property tax increases. It seemed like fair play to the House, which was left with a take-it-or-leave-it Senate offer on its own school finance bill.

The lieutenant governor reared in Maryland took a Texas-sized swing at the speaker from San Antonio that night: “Thank goodness Travis didn’t have the speaker at the Alamo. He would’ve been the first one over the wall.”

The truth is, Patrick is carping at Straus for standing his ground on the bathroom bill the lieutenant governor wanted so badly, and on the House’s version of the property tax bill that the Senate has been working on for more than a year.

But when the House and the Senate go to the suburbs of Fist City over a relatively small difference on major legislation — the Senate wanted voters to approve any property tax increases of more than 4 percent, while the House voted strongly against 4 percent and in favor of 6 percent — you know you’re not watching a policy fight.

This is about politics.

Texas is a two-party state and both parties are Republican.

Sure, two percentage points could be important. But they were on the same philosophical page, unable to settle because of overweening institutional differences. As was the case at the end of the regular session, the House took one position, the Senate another, and the governor in the middle couldn’t negotiate the always treacherous waters between those two bodies.

Now Patrick — who is selling himself and Abbott as a team united in opposition to Straus, at least rhetorically — is asking voters to step in. He hopes to change the composition of Straus’ electorate — the other 149 members of the House. His hope, and that of a dozen or so social conservatives in the House who are riding as the Freedom Caucus, is that the elections will send a more conservative Republican contingent to the House, which would then elect a speaker whose politics are more in line with Patrick’s.

Several items on the governor’s special session agenda withered in the House, including the union dues bill and several proposed constraints on local governments. The governor got almost half of what he wanted — pretty good, for a guy working with an effectively divided Republican Legislature.

The governor has been able to get as far as he has — a district judgeship, a spot on the Texas Supreme Court, attorney general and now governor — without declaring sides in the GOP’s intramural fights. He’s more often aligned with Patrick than with Straus, but has much stronger ties to establishment Republicans than his lieutenant governor.

He has threatened to take sides in the coming primaries, however, in an election year that could be subject to stormy presidential mid-term politics. Trump might have no effect on the primaries here; whether a candidate stands with the president is probably a general election question.

And who knows? Maybe a year from now, the president will have the Texas Republicans united again, turning next August’s guns to the state’s third political party — the Democrats.

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Analysis: In special session, Texas Senate’s the hare, House is the tortoise

The three leaders of Texas appear jovial at a short meeting of the Cash Management Committee on July 18, 2017, as they face a potentially contentious 30-day special session of the 85th Legislature. 

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Does this seem familiar? The Texas Senate is ripping through an ambitious agenda, racing through the 20 issues on the governor’s special session agenda in an effort to finish within the 30 days allotted for that work.

The Texas House is more deliberate, spending its time on the single issue that must pass — sunset legislation that would continue, for two more years, the lives of five government agencies — and leaving the other 19 issues for later.

This full-speed-ahead vs. slow-and-steady tension was the hallmark of the regular legislative session earlier this year. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, presiding officer of the Senate, laid out an ambitious plan, giving the low bill numbers — Senate Bill 1, Senate Bill 2 and so on — to his legislative priorities and hurrying those off to the House for consideration and collaboration.

That strategy has its charms, especially to anyone with enough legislative experience to know that end-of-session deadlines are often fatal even to bills that have widespread support in both chambers of the Legislature.

Get the work done early, before the storm that always comes at the end.

It has a tactical disadvantage, however, because the chamber that hurries sends all of its darlings to the chamber that’s moving slowly. It’s like sending a stream of hostages to a kidnapper. If the Senate wants a lot of bills passed and the House does, too, there are opportunities for trade. If not — if the Senate wants things and the House doesn’t have a wish list — it puts the hurry-up Senate in the jaws of the we’ll-get-to-it-sometime House.

Time, the truest friend to legislative assassins, is especially short in special sessions.

The governor can’t really change the flow of things. He can implore. He’s got the bully pulpit. But his only official role here is to start the session, name the subjects for consideration and then wait to see whether any bills make it back to him for signature or veto. Except for his power to pick the subject matter, it works a lot like the regular session.

Last week, Senate Republicans used every rule available to speed consideration of the sunset legislation, because Gov. Greg Abbott said it had to pass before he would open the agenda to other issues.

Once Abbott opened the gates, the Senate set 13 committee meetings for Friday, Saturday and Sunday — racing through the items on the special session agenda in order to get as many of them as possible in front of the full Senate before the end of the session’s second week.

The House, meanwhile, has limited its attention to the must-do sunset legislation, content to lumber through the red-meat items on Abbott’s agenda after that one is out of the way.

“This isn’t a race,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the San Antonio Express-News when asked about the different tempos.

That’s right, sort of. Hardly anyone outside of the Texas Capitol and the bubble that surrounds it really cares about the inch-by-inch progress of legislation, about which side acted first and whose amendments got on; they just care about what passes and what doesn’t, about who voted their way and who didn’t.

The difference in speed will give Patrick and the Senate — and the governor, if he wants to join in — an opportunity to pressure the House to act on what the Senate has sent over. They win on the noisemaking front.

It gives the House the power to edit the Senate’s work, to decide what ultimately gets to the governor and what doesn’t, to control the flow of the special session. It plays into one of the Capitol’s favorite clichés, too: “The process is designed to kill bills — not to pass them.”

Time, the truest friend to legislative assassins, is especially short in special sessions. The first of the session’s four Fridays is already behind us. The House — the tortoise in this race — is just coming up to the starting line. The hare — the Senate — is already sprinting.

All by itself.

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Analysis: You can fight City Hall — if you’re governor of Texas

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City attorneys all over Texas are getting ready to read from the Book of Abbott, wherein the former attorney general for the state of Texas sayeth: “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.” Sub in “state” for “federal,” and you might just have the new credo for top municipal lawyers in Texas. 

The idea was stolen, with permission, from Dave McNeely, a longtime Texas political writer who still writes columns for papers across the state. McNeely is onto something — a notion that captures the peculiar position of a state run by federalist Republicans who want to cage the government in Washington, D.C., and who also believe Texas has given far too much leash to local governments.

Greg Abbott’s line referred mostly to the Obama administration that was in power during the second half of Abbott’s 12-year tenure as the state’s top lawyer. But now that he’s governor, local government attorneys are lining up to sue the state government, most recently over a stringent immigration law created this year.

It’s a war on two fronts. The state still has issues with the feds, though the Republican Texas government has been showing some forbearance to the newly installed Republican federal government. The new action is on the local-state front.

Look at the agenda for the special session that will start in less than four weeks.

A debate will renew over a proposal to require automatic rollback elections when cities, counties and special districts raise property taxes by more than a particular amount (5 percent is a common suggestion). Here’s the thing: Voters just hate property taxes. In the recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 77 percent said the state should, by all means, interfere with the locals on this.

Local governments have pushed back with a list of their own complaints. The state should stop sending expensive rules and mandates that help push up local spending — and taxes. Local voters put local officials in office and can kick them out if they don’t like the results. The law already allows voters to petition for rollbacks when taxes rise too quickly. Taxes don’t go up as quickly as the state says, anyhow. The biggest local property tax is the one for schools — and increases in that tax are driven by the state’s declining per-student spending on public education. Each argument — that last one, in particular — has some merit.

Whatever. If you’re in politics and your voters are angry about something, it’s only natural to address the source of their anger. Property tax reform, appraisal reform, revenue caps on government spending — all of those are popular with voters and, as a result, with politicians.

The governor is after local laws that limit property owners’ right to cut down big, old “heritage” trees — a rule that might be more popular with Texans trying to keep developers from mowing down a forest to build apartments but that chafes homeowners who — like the governor himself — want to take out a pecan tree that happens to be in the perfect spot for a swimming pool. That’s two fights in one: Who should have the power to crank up the chainsaws, and who should have the power to say the trees should stay or go? Abbott is with the property owners — and the state government. 

He’s still against the feds, too. He wrote a campaign book — “Broken but Unbowed” — arguing for stronger state governments and a weaker federal government. His push for a convention of states to consider federal-government-limiting amendments to the U.S. Constitution proved popular with legislators this year, even though voters have not embraced the idea (in the UT/TT Poll, 54 percent said they like the Constitution just the way it is, thanks, while only 28 percent want to change it).

Abbott’s making a power move in the other direction, too. The argument against a spreading patchwork of local city and county regulations echoes the consumer movement that was in vogue when Abbott’s generation was coming into adulthood, with its push for uniform standards in place of perplexing local rules and regulations that, while designed to protect people, often serve to confuse them.

One such customer, state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, complained before the session about Austin’s attempt to regulate ride-hailing companies and the companies’ decision to bail on the state capital. He could get Uber or Lyft to pick him up in Georgetown and take him to Austin, he said, but couldn’t get them to take him back home, because those companies had decided not to do business in Austin. His colleagues agreed with him, voting to erase regulations like Austin’s and to put the state behind the regulatory wheel.

Texting while driving is another example, and one that shows the governor’s interest. Lawmakers passed — and Abbott signed — a statewide ban on texting while driving. It took 10 years of trying to get that into the law books, but a tragic accident at the beginning of the session helped spur lawmakers to finally do something.

Still, the governor hesitated. He signed that into law, but also said he will ask lawmakers for a supplement during the special session — one that would obliterate standing local laws on the subject and take away cities’ ability to regulate the issue themselves.

City attorneys are busy with the “sanctuary cities” lawsuits right now and haven’t jumped at the texting law. Local tree hugging is threatened, but still in place. The governor’s proposals to limit municipal annexations and zoning and permitting laws haven’t been debated. Property tax reform is still on the table. The folks in the state Capitol are busy with projects that could give the local lawyers years of reasons to hop out of bed, go to work and sue a higher government.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Uber and Lyft have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Analysis: “Tax relief,” maybe, but no savings for taxpayers

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State officials are talking once again about your property taxes. Like you, they hate those taxes. A lot.

But they’re hoping to fool you, once again, into thinking they are going to lower the price of local government and public education.

None of their proposals or their recent actions would do that.

School property taxes are the biggest part of every Texas property owners’ tax bill. They are also the only local property tax that goes up and down primarily because of what happens in Austin.

State officials don’t set your school property tax rate; they just decide how much money local officials are required to raise.

In practice, it amounts to almost the same thing.

If the state spends less money per student, the local districts have to spend more. They get their money from property taxes, so property taxes go up.

And then, state officials complain — alongside property taxpayers across Texas — about rising property taxes.

The current long slide in state funding started in 2007 — right after lawmakers rejiggered the formulas and balanced state and local funding, with each covering 45 percent of the total cost of education and the federal government picking up the remaining 10 percent.

The numbers ten years later: Locals pay 52 percent, the state pays 38 percent and the feds are still at 10 percent.

According to the Texas Supreme Court about a year ago, local property taxes and the system they finance remain constitutional. Lucky for the state that’s not a criminal court, though: Taxpayers clearly feel robbed.

State officials can feel the heat of that ire. But their new budget doesn’t address the school finance problem. They killed legislation that would have put another $1.5 billion into public education — the only bill in the regular session that would have moved school taxes, if only indirectly and only a little bit.

It wouldn’t save you any money — contrary to the rhetoric billowing from the Senate — but it could lower the speed at which your property taxes grow. It’s like promising a gazelle you can make the lions a little slower.

And their effort to limit growth in property taxes levied by other local governments failed, too. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will put that one on the agenda of the midsummer special session. One version, passed by the Senate and apparently favored by the governor, would have required voter approval for any local property tax increases of more than 5 percent.

It wouldn’t save you any money — contrary to the rhetoric billowing from the Senate — but it could lower the speed at which your property taxes grow. It’s like promising a gazelle you can make the lions a little slower.

Texas lawmakers have replaced the idea of lowering state taxes with a new one: Complaining alongside taxpayers who want lower taxes. Actually doing something about it has remained out of reach.

They could replace an unpopular tax with a less unpopular one, but they have few options — none of them particularly lucrative. The Texas Lottery was an example of this, and it served mainly to underscore our widespread innumeracy: A surprising number of Texans thought state-run gaming would cover the full cost of public education in Texas. In fact, the Texas games earn the state about $2.5 billion very two years, about as much as taxes on alcoholic beverages and less than half as much as the (also) unpopular business franchise tax. Lawmakers budgeted $41 billion for public education over the next two years; the lottery will cover about 6 percent of that.

They could cut spending, except it has proven nearly impossible to do that in Texas, partly because the state budget is, relatively speaking, pretty tight, and partly because when you get down to it, the programs that would be cut are more popular than the tax cuts that might result.

People want roads and schools and prisons and whatnot, and the political experts who run the government — give them their due for getting into and then remaining in office — have ascertained that it’s more rewarding to keep current programs alive than to cut taxes.

That’s a safe assumption, isn’t it, since they haven’t cut those programs or whittled those taxes?

But state leaders can hear the voters, too, so they’re trying to force local governments to hold the line on taxes. They can’t provide any relief themselves, but maybe they can make someone else do it.

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