Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Scattershooting sanity: per-diems, Straus v. Patrick, and straight-ticket voting

Not this kind of scattershooting.

-- Following up on this post, the Texas Ethics Commission approved -- despite stated objections from chairman Paul Hobby -- a per-diem increase for state legislators, which means the legions of Austin lobbyists can spend more on plying them with food and drink.  Kirk Watson is a voice of sanity in this regard.

The public would know a lot more about which lawmakers are getting wined and dined under legislation filed Monday by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Watson filed three bills that would effectively shut down a giant loophole that allows lobbyists — often under pressure from legislators — to avoid naming names when they fill out their mandatory spending and entertainment reports with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Watson said he’s not casting “aspersions” on anyone but hopes his legislation will increase public confidence in state officials as they interact with lobbyists representing various interests at the Capitol. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, has filed similar legislation, but Watson's bills take the concept a few steps further. They extend the reporting requirements to spending on relatives of state officials while building in protection against future loopholes.

“Anything we can do to assure confidence in that and assure that it’s being done in the appropriate way, we should,” Watson said. “And that is generally best served by better reporting, better disclosure and more knowledge.”

Do you suppose this is the kind of ethics reform Governor Abbott has in mind when he gives the State of the State later this morning?  Maybe, but I doubt it.

-- There's a real showdown brewing between the Texas House and Senate, which actually means the Speaker and the Lieutenant Governor.  How it pans out might be the biggest story of the 84th session.

House Speaker Joe Straus became the legislative Border Patrol last week, tapping the brake when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proposed booking the National Guard for an extended stay on the Texas-Mexico line.


Patrick wants to put in $12 million to keep those troops in place until May, which would give him time to push for a longer deployment during the legislative session.

Straus called him on it, saying in effect that only Gov. Greg Abbott, as the state’s commander in chief, has the power to play army.


Abbott has not said anything about the arm-wrestling, at least in public.

This tension is not just about the border thing.

In an interview with James Henson, a Texas Tribune pollster and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, Straus added to the list that starts with border security. He said there are questions to resolve about blocking colleges’ bans on concealed handguns and opposes the repeal of in-state tuition for certain children of undocumented immigrants. That puts him at odds with Patrick on those issues. During the weeks ahead, we all get to find out whether the House and the Senate are taking the same positions as their leaders on those issues.

But it’s not just about issues, either.

Go read the rest.  Large fault lines are bound to crack open between the Tea Party Caucus and the Sanity Caucus in both chambers.  No bets taken yet on who has or could get the upper hand.  It'll all play out over the next four months or so.

-- Speaking of even more sanity, Republicans agree that straight-party voting in Texas must come to an end.  To wit, State Representative Ron Simmons, Republican from Carrollton:

Virtually all voters educate themselves on candidates at the top of the ticket (president, governor, etc.). But many voters, partially because of straight-ticket voting, make little or no effort to educate themselves on the candidates at the bottom of the ticket running for offices that have the most direct effect on individual citizens — think county clerk, county commissioner, justice of the peace and state representative. These voters simply check the one box, either Democrat or Republican, and move on without giving it a second thought.

This is bad for Texas.

Let me give you just one example. My Democratic opponent last year was the vice presidential candidate for the Socialist Party USA in 2012. In our race, he put forth little effort to inform voters about himself or his platform. However, on Election Day he received about 35 percent of the vote — almost identical to the percentage of the vote that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis received in the district. Even I, a conservative Republican, don’t believe that 35 percent of Democrats in my district are Socialists or believe in what Socialists believe. But the way they voted in November tells a different story.

The answer to this is to join the 39 other states in the U.S. that have no straight-ticket voting. Voters will still be able to vote a straight-party ticket, but they’ll have to take a little extra time to go step by step down the ballot and select a candidate for each elected office. This will hopefully encourage voters to learn about the candidates in each race. But even if voters choose not to educate themselves, they can still vote along party lines or decide to not vote for any candidates in a particular race.

Are our liberty and way of life not important enough to really know whom we’re voting for to run our local and state governments? If people don’t make the effort, those who want to deceive, manipulate and abuse our representative form of government for their gain will be the only ones left standing in our halls of government.

I’ve filed House Bill 1288 to eliminate straight-ticket voting in Texas. I encourage you to contact your state representative and state senator to request their support of this legislation.

I signed.  But I still think it's cool that a Socialist disguised as a Democrat got 35% of the vote in the Dallas suburbs, even if nearly everyone that voted for him was likely a moron.  It was the scourge of straight-ticket votes, after all, that helped Archie Bunker get elected Texas agriculture commissioner, defeating Junior Samples, the (alleged) Democrat.

Another Republican state representative -- not exactly renowned for sanity -- has filed a similar bill, but it limits the partisan designation removal to judicial candidates and county executives.  That's still a good thing.

State Rep. Jason Villalba has filed legislation that would exempt judges and county officials from straight-ticket ballots.

The bill relates to elections in Texas’ largest counties, including Dallas County. The offices of sheriff, district attorney, tax assessor and constable would be removed from party-line voting. Criminal and civil court judges would also be exempt.

“We need to get away from straight-ticket voting and focus more on qualifications, criteria and ability, rather than party affiliation,” Villalba said.


Villalba, R-Dallas, said he prefers removing all “non-policy making elected offices” from partisan elections, but that would take a Constitutional referendum.

“If we thought we could get a Constitutional Amendment passed, that’s the direction we would go,” Villaba said.

As it stands, Villabla is unlikely to get this bill through the Legislature. Most Democrats and Republicans like the current system.

“It will be a tough one,” Villalba said.

Strong bipartisan support for straight-ticket voting in Texas.  Imagine that.

There is, as you might suspect, a hidden agenda for these bills filed by two Dallas-area Republicans: they think they might have a shot at swinging Dallas County back into the red column.  Despite whatever nefarious intentions may exist, it's still on Democrats to educate their voters and potential ones, turn them out on Election Day, and otherwise put forth the required effort to win elections, not rely on a tool that allows those who can drag themselves to the polling place their fifteen seconds' worth of civic engagement every two years.  Not to be too harsh about it, but it's lazy and a little craven to depend on STV to keep you in power in the big cities where the intelligent people have congregated, and the gerrymandered minority districts Republicans have allowed you to keep.

There's only so much blaming the media in this day and age that they deserve.  I fault the emerging Idiocracy myself, and that includes us all at some depth.

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