When is an influence peddler not a lobbyist?

Recently, the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) unanimously agreed to fine Michael Quinn Sullivan $10,000 for failing to file as a lobbyist. You can read a Texas Tribune story about it (“Ethics Commission Slaps Conservative Activist With Fine“) or read the original TEC order (pdf). The debate has drifted over to press relations as legislators try to decide who should be counted as media in the Texas Capitol (“Analysis: A Conundrum for Texas Capitol Gatekeepers‘).

Sullivan heads Empower Texans. It is widely recognize that Empower Texans has become one of the most influential organizations in the state and Sullivan was paid well over $100,000 a year to head the organization. The law specifics requires you to register as a lobbyist if you get paid to communicate directly with legislators in an attempt to influence legislation. Part of Sullivan’s defense is that he merits an exemption from the registration requirement because he is “media.” Some of that argument is spelled out in a Empower Texans statement (“Why Every Journalist Should Care About the Michael Quinn Sullivan Case“). The argument seems very weak to me and I’m not surprised that they lost on a unanimous vote.

Empower Texans has attacked the TEC process (as spelled out by spokesman Joe Nixon) and the TEC certainly merits scrutiny. However, it’s worth pointing out the TEC is not some liberal bureaucracy. Four of the commissioners were appointed by Governor Perry, two by the Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and two by Speaker Joe Straus. That group seems unlikely to form the kind of malicious kangaroo court described by Sullivan’s defenders.

Sullivan has become living proof that the hubris so common in Austin and Washington is not limited to those in office. It’s unfortunate that a group committed to transparency in government would spend so much time and money undermining transparency in the massive lobbying industry. Anyone who has read the vague spending reports filed with the TEC (lobbyists don’t report precise payment, they report a range of contract costs), seen the massive amount given to candidates, and obscene amounts spent on feeding legislators and staff would have trouble believing that restrictions in Texas are too tight. Over 1,000 lobbyists register every legislative session (1,663 managed to do so in 2013). It’s clearly not a burden that unreasonable.

Empower Texans donors can look forward to seeing their contributions go to an expensive bank of lawyers attempting to squeeze Sullivan through loopholes in the law. That doesn’t seem like a fiscally responsible thing to do.

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Whataburger and Net Neutrality

Bobby Hill at WhataburgerI don’t usually write about nation issues. There are plenty of blogs and other sources on that subject. However, national politics recently intruded into my process of updating the fourth edition of our textbook.

Most Monday mornings during the summer, I stop by Whataburger, get myself a Jalapeño Cheddar biscuit (okay, two), and do a little editing. Can you really write about Texas politics without spending some time at Whataburger?

The good folks at Whataburger provide WiFi so that I can check out Internet sources while there. I was trying to get the some numbers on state revenue when I smacked into this digital wall:

Request denied by WatchGuard HTTP proxy.  Reason: one or more categories denied helper='PublicAP-WebBlocker' details='Gambling'  Method: GET  Host: www.txlottery.org

The numbers I needed were on the state’s revenue from the lottery. It turns out that the good people at Whataburger wanted to protect me from gambling. The fact that it was state-sponsored did not diminish their concerns. I also found myself protected from happyplace.someecards.com for “Adult/Sexually Explicit.” (The content I was trying to get to was “Thieving dog apologizes to baby for stealing her toy“) Well intentioned? Maybe. Clumsy and mistaken? Yes.

It was a reminder of why I don’t want anyone between me and content. The Internet has remained remarkably free of government censorship and I’m now concerned about corporate control. I spend too much time sitting through insufferable Suddenlink ads while watching cable television to trust my cable company’s intelligence or intentions. I don’t want to give these companies any more control over my life.

I accept Whataburger’s WiFi rules. However, they don’t try to regulate my food intake when I’m home. I don’t want my Internet provider regulating information intake.

Texas Insurance Rates

Texas has ended up in the top 10 states again. In this case, the news is not good.

The Texas Office of Public Insurance Counsel (OPIC) reports that Texas has the third highest insurance rates in the nation. In fact, the OPIC compares the average rates paid by a homes valued between $175,000 and $200,000. Texan’s paid an average of $1,440. That’s 76% higher than the national average.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 7.52.40 PMThe OPIC has a number of suspects in these high costs. Their analysis concludes (and emphasizes): “While catastrophe losses explain why premiums are high relative to other states, evidence suggests they are not the primary driver of recent premium increases.”

They ascribe some of the problem to “inefficient markets” and suggest that consumers spend more time shopping for different policies. That begs the question why the Texas market is more inefficient than those in other states and why company expenses, sales commissions, and company profits are higher in Texas than other states. OPIC is in a position to report these sources of higher premiums, but it is not in a position to regulate them.

The bottom line (for the moment) is that state regulation is not going to bring down rates. If Texans want chapter insure it’s up to consumers to shop around. OPIC suggests using tools online at www.opic.state.tx.us or at helpinsure.com.

 

Is Texas ready to change its mind on marijuana?

A Texas Tribune story (“Expecting Pot Penalties to Decrease? Slow Your Roll“) explored whether of Texas is ready to change its policy on marijuana. Shortly after that, the Texas Tribune released  poll results on Texans’ attitudes about marijuana.

UTTT-Poll-Feb2014.011_400

Only 23% of respondents support the current policy of marijuana being illegal in all cases. Almost half of respondents (49%) support legalize something like possession for personal use and another 28% support medical marijuana.

So, about 3/4 of Texans support some kind of change to the state’s drug policy. The question is whether or not change will come to Texas.

Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis announced that she supports medical marijuana. That does indicate some support for changing the law, but it’s  a long way from legal marijuana. Meanwhile, Greg Abbott does not support any changes to the drug laws.

Remember this if you’re thinking about Texas suddenly joining other states in decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana: Texas law allowed for life in prison for simple possession of marijuana until the 1970s. The state’s libertarian leanings  often lose out when they run into Texans’ social conservatism.

Change is going to be slow because the people most opposed to reforming marijuana laws are at the heart of the base of the Republican party. It’s a great example of how the rules of the game matter. A majority of Texans might favor changing the state’s marijuana laws. However, the majority of the primary voters  choosing the nominees of the majority party in Texas probably do not. Representative democracy is often about who shows up and most Texans do not show up for party primaries.

How rich do you have to be?

A story about Virginia politics has me thinking about politics in Texas and everywhere else.

National Journal’s Matt Berman put together a thoughtful article (“What the Bob McDonnell Indictment Reveals About Wealth in American Politics“) about the predicament that Governor McDonnell and his wife found themselves in. There are, as Berman points out, a set of expectations that come with living in the public eye.

It’s not surprising to see U.S. politicians place so much value on appearance, even well above their own means. To be shocked is to ignore the often outrageous pressure society puts on its (especially female) political figures to look the part. Not even Janet Yellen can wear a dress twice. And remember, as big as the bill is for Maureen McDonnell’s shopping spree, it doesn’t even touch the $150,000 the Republican National Committee spent on a makeover for Sarah Palin in 2008.

Governor McDonnell at his inaugural

Society expects it elected officials (and their families) to be impeccably dressed. In other words, we expect that the people who will represent us will look and dress nothing like us. As Lucia Grave points out in her analysis have some kind of serious problem when “serious” news outlets like Roll Call  judge people like Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen based on their wardrobe. Ironically, even those defending Yellen’s attire displayed some of the warning signs of extreme shallowness. In his mea culpa for writing about Yellen’s attire, Warren Rojas recounts some of the criticisms he faced: “Where is the blistering assault on President Barack Obama’s strict rotation of blue or gray suits, some wondered. Why no exposés about current Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s penchant for Jos. A. Bank wear, prodded others.?” This left me wondering, who was tracking Obama’s suit rotation or researching the origins of Bernanke’s suits? Why is anyone trying to judge any important person by their clothes?

None of this excuses what Governor McDonnell and his wife may have done. However, it is worrisome to think about the impact of this discussion on the thousands of lower or middle-class men and women thinking about entering public life and wondering if they can afford the trappings of power. How many people look at what their elected officials wear and implicitly understand that those people live in a different world? How many average Americans will never try to enter halls of power of power because they don’t feel they can meet this implied dress code?

Many of our elected officials have advocated school uniforms (in part) to address the kind of petty materialism behind this problem. Uniforms also contribute to a sense of teamwork, emphasize learning, and discouraging the formation of gangs. This seems as needed in Austin and Washington as our schools.

Has Texas been spending lots more money?

There has been a debate over how much spending in Texas has increased. It’s an important debate and like more important policy questions the answer can be complicated.

The debate got louder when the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an editorial (“Texas Goes Sacramento: Republicans spend their energy gusher, and then some“) that attacked Perry for supporting spending in a fashion they compared to liberal icons former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and current California Governor Jerry Brown (Both the Wall Street Journal and Perry love playing off the rivalry between Texas and California):

This is the kind of stunt one would expect from Nancy Pelosi. The budget contains a roughly $1 billion tax cut, but for every $1 of tax relief, $19 in new revenue will be spent…

Mr. Perry traveled on a business recruiting mission to California in February and poked fun at the tax-spend-and-borrow cycle in Sacramento. He can fix the reckless Texas budget by vetoing all or most of it and insisting on deeper business tax cuts. He should not want people to start comparing him unfavorably to Jerry Brown.

The first question is whether or not the WSJ attack on Perry is wrong.

First, consider the Legislature (who passed the budget that the WSJ considered too big). The House and the Senate both had very large Republican majorities. Further, many of those Republicans were of the “tea party” variety. It seems unlikely that such a majority can be credibly called  big spenders. It strains credibility to call Perry a California liberal for signing a budget passed by a conservative Texas Legislature.

Second, the WSJ uses the previous budget as their baseline for judging the new budget. We need to remember that the state faced a huge budget shortfall. The legislature had to make huge cuts while agencies and universities actually had to give back money that had been appropriated in the previous budget. Those cuts were the product of tough economic times and the Legislature made some politically difficult decisions. Making that budget the baseline is highly questionable. Finally, the Legislature cut down on budget gimmicks that it had used to make the last round of budget cuts easier. This budget did less of that and the Legislature should be given some credit for more fully confronting budget issues.

Third, there’s plenty of evidence that spending in Texas is growing at roughly the rate of population growth plus inflation. There are more Texans using more stuff provided by government. PolitiFact Texas sided with Rick Perry’s claim that state spending was growing in line with population and inflation and concluded:

Perry said the 2014-15 Texas budget that legislators approved would keep spending increases below combined changes in population and inflation.

Setting aside the [Texas Public Policy] foundation’s analysis, which split expenditures by when they were authorized and not which budget they belonged to, we found that state spending rose no more than 8.7 percent from 2012-13 to 2014-15.

That falls below the 9.85 percent population/inflation rate embraced by legislators last fall, which is also in line with recent biennial average increases of 9 percent. Then again, the spending could exceed other predictions for that rate.

On balance, we rate Perry’s statement as Mostly True.

The Legislative Budget Board’s analysis takes a longer view and looks at growth going back a full decade and looks at the impact of property tax relief. Their figures include spending on  water and transportation projects that could be rejected by voters in constitutional amendments. The analysis there indicates that general revenue spending has grown more slowly that inflation/population. (The Houston Chronicle has suggested that the WSJ relied on Texas Public Policy Foundation.)

The Wall Street Journal piece is remarkable in a number of ways. First, it was unusual for a national publication to engage in the debate over a state budget at is approached a governor’s desk. Clearly, this was an attempt to leverage Perry’s presidential ambitions against him. We have all come to expect partisanship and bias coming out of the opinion pages of national media. However, the WSJ’s desire to inject itself in an intra-party battle before candidates have even declared is interesting. Perry certainly deserves scrutiny as he positions for a possible run for the presidency. And, conservatives  found plenty to criticize during his 2012 bid for the nomination.

The WSJ does correctly noted that the Legislature did fund the Emerging Enterprise Fund and other slush funds run out of the governor’s office. That may be a fair criticism. However, those funds account for only the tiniest bit of the Texas budget.

The WSJ article provides a good excuse to look at budgeting issues and consider what kind of standard should be applied to spending.

Good or bad news for Dan Patrick?

According to the Quorum Report, Senator Dan Patrick it touting a new poll that shows David Dewhurst with 40% of the vote for Lt. Governor among likely Republican voters while 18% support Patrick. Patrick seems to feel that he is gaining on Dewhurst who had 43% in the previous poll. The Wickers Group, source of the poll, concludes that David Dewhurst’s  support  eroded over past summer and Dan Patrick “remains well-positioned to win this race.”

I guess you could say that.

On the other hand, most pollsters would immediately note that the shift is smaller than the margin of error of the poll (+/- 4.5%). In fact, I suspect that most pollsters would lead with that.

Further, it’s hard to believe that Dewhurst’s summer could have been much worse. First, he was portrayed as weak in his failure to shut down the filibuster and demonstrations that stalled the abortion bill during the special session. Then, he came across as weak as he tried to get a relative out of jail by trying to convince law enforcement that he was actually someone. It was too reminiscent of Will Farrell’s character trying to convince a woman he’s trying to impress that he was “kind of a big deal.”

My takeaway from the poll is that Dewhurst still has better than double the support of his nearest competitor and his rivals have a lot of work to do. The wind has been at Patrick’s back all summer and his gains have been statistically insignificant. Patrick has always had a strong base of support among conservative Republicans and it’s surprising that he hasn’t expanded beyond 18%.

The poor showing of Ag Commissioner Todd Staples  (4%) and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson (4%) may be the biggest news out of the poll. They’ll be battling to escape last place. They could surge if the fight between Dewhurst and Patrick turns nasty enough  to chase voters away from the frontrunners in large numbers. Short of that, it’s hard to see how they get into the race.

The Lt. Governor’s race is just starting and there is a lot of campaigning ahead. However, any suggestion that Patrick is doing better than expected is little more than wishful thinking.