Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Was Abbott's first legislative session a success or a failure?

It's all in the spin.

Republicans -- after changing state Senate rules -- cut taxes, loosened gun laws and boosted border security. They also put off addressing complicated issues such as fixing the school finance system, avoided more contentious proposals such as banning so-called sanctuary cities and repealing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, and, perhaps not coincidentally, averted the special sessions that have become common in recent years.

"Legislators are going home today," Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters after signing a narrow bill to allow Texans to treat epilepsy with an oil derived from marijuana, "and I do not anticipate them coming back until 2017."

No special session is the best news post-Sine Die.  But the many downsides of the 84th include one of the governor's emergency items -- ethics reform -- that died like a dog in the street.

A new loophole elected officials can use to avoid financial disclosure? Check. Giving Texas politicians and bureaucrats special treatment when they commit white-collar crimes in Austin? Done. Keeping the public in the dark about lobbyist wining and dining? Accomplished. Sweeping ethics reform? Not so much.


“This session there was a real opportunity to improve that process and enhance trust, and instead I think things went backwards,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Watson, who saw his bills shedding light on lobbyist wining and dining go down in flames. “The governor had an emergency declaration that it was supposed to be about ethics, and we’re watching real ethics legislation die a brutal death.”

Aides to Gov. Greg Abbott, who in February called on legislators to “dedicate this session to ethics reform,” did not respond to messages seeking comment about the failure of one his signature initiatives. Abbott has given no hint that he would call a special session on ethics reform.

This part is especially revealing.

One place to start might be the rubble of Senate Bill 19. That major overhaul effort fell apart two days before the clock ran out on the session and quickly dissolved into finger-pointing between the House and Senate over whether to require disclosure of anonymous donations given to politically active nonprofits.

The House wanted it. The Senate didn’t. And efforts at compromise failed.

More on that.

“I’ve already written about (campaign cash disclosures) as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court,” Abbott said. “I wrote that laws like that are unconstitutional, and I based that decision on United States Supreme Court decisions, and I think it’s important for legislators not to try to pass laws that have already been ruled unconstitutional.”


Abbott aides did not respond to inquiries about what ruling he was talking about, but in 1998 Abbott wrote in a decision for the majority that Bay Area Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse did not have to identify its contributors.

And that's why we need a constitutional amendment.  Back to the original.

Buck Wood, a Democratic lawyer who helped push though ethics reform after the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal shook up Texas politics in the early 1970s, predicted as much several weeks ago, as hearings on the broad reforms were just starting.

“The Legislature is just not willing to regulate itself, and that’s always been the case. It takes some sort of massive scandal to get anything done,” he said Sunday. “I don’t think frankly there was really any serious effort to get it done. There was a lot of talk, but I think that’s all it was — talk.”

That’s not to say lawmakers didn’t do anything to change the laws that affect them, but it wasn’t what the reformers had in mind. Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, managed to tack on an amendment — in two different bills — that opens up a “spousal loophole” allowing politicians to shield details about their spouses' financial holdings.

Huffman was also instrumental in passing a bill creating a unique carve-out for lawmakers accused of public corruption. If Abbott doesn't veto it, no longer will he or other state elected officials be required to face an investigation by local prosecutors in the county where the alleged corruption occurred. Instead, they will face an initial probe by the state police — whose budget the politicians oversee — and then prosecution and trial in the county where they maintain a homestead.

So Abbott can say he batted .800 on "emergency items", but his big whiff on ethics reform is a foul stench that hangs over the Capitol like a dark cloud.  His crack as he signed the medicinal cannabis bill was also something we can wish that Republicans who favor legalization might remember to hold against him.

Surrounded by families whose loved ones have suffered from intractable epilepsy, Abbott insisted that the new law was narrowly tailored for a specific purpose.

"I remain convinced that Texas should not legalize marijuana, nor should Texas open the door for conventional marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes," Abbott said before the signing. "As governor, I will not allow it; SB 339 does not open the door to marijuana in Texas."

But not all medical marijuana advocates are celebrating. Many believe the new law does not go far enough, offering limited options to Texans with epilepsy — the proposal requires a CBD-THC ratio of no more than 20:1 — and nothing for those with other diseases that can be treated with medical marijuana, such as cancer.

So nearly no advancement -- even some regression -- on these matters of concern, but a lot more small-government intrusiveness into the lives of pregnant teenagers.  Teabaggers aren't happy about the lack of progress on their issues, while most of the rest of Texas gives thanks that it wasn't worse.


Only if you're into that 'lesser of two evils' BS.

Update: If you prefer an executive summary of the 84th from the AP's perspective, go here.  And read Texans for Public Justice's take on Abbott's leadership missing in action on ethics reform.


Gadfly said...

Let's also not forget that, unless the Texas Supremes are feeding him advance inside info about the school finance case (maybe they are, a la Chief Justice Taney and President James Butchmeup Buchanan on Dred Scott), there's no way to go to 2017 without a special session on school finance.

PDiddie said...

Yet that is the governor's plan (see first excerpt, top, second graf). The chairman of the education committee just retired. I don't see Aycock coming back to fight over this again in six months or a year, thus I don't see any way that they can have a special session on the topic until 2017.

Gadfly said...

So, Abbott's indirectly saying, which I already figgered with the Aycock retirement, "you're screwed, schools."