I don’t know

Let me say what no journalist/pundit writing about the Rick Perry indictment is brave enough to say: I don’t know.

Rick Perry Mug ShotI don’t know what’s going to happen. Why? Because I haven’t seen the evidence that was presented to the grand jury. Perry and others have not even testified. There’s so much we do not know about this story. Reporters, pundits, and their like feel a constant need to fill space. They write whether they know something or not. Why? Because they want to get ahead of the competition.

Some people are saying that Perry is guilty and will be convicted and/or should resign. Ironically, Perry might really like to resign to focus on running for president. He’s already on the road a lot.

I get suspicious when they call your indictment an “asset” or even a “blessing” for Perry. It has been portrayed in the media as some partisan witch hunt. It may well have started that way. However, Judge Bert Richardson, a Republican, named Michael McCrum as independent prosecutor for the case. Michael McCrum has an excellent reputation and enjoyed the support of the state’s two Republican senators when he was being considered for U.S. attorney for the District of Texas. Efforts to portray this as a partisan battle between Perry and a drunken Democratic District Attorney will not hold up when people see where these questions are coming from. Even if you doubt the leanings of the prosecutor, the grand jury that indicted Perry found something in that case. Some people have looked at this evidence and seen something. I’m not convinced it’s because of partisan politics.

Will it be enough there to convict Perry? Probably not

Can Rick Perry afford any more distractions and baggage? No.

At this point in his career Perry is hoping for more out of life than a lack of jail time and Republicans are not going to be interested in nominating a candidate whose flaws have been thoroughly investigated, documented, and reported. As I noted in an earlier post, Perry has already finished poorly in the Texas GOP straw poll. His candidacy does not need more problems.

Perry might still be able to pull it out. Nixon certainly did. However, citing Nixon as a model of redemption is not the most comforting image since the nation just commemorated the 40th anniversary of his resignation. Clinton (either one–maybe both) survived scandals. But again, we’re not talking about the name Republicans will enjoy referencing.

Fredo Corleone from the Godfather

Perry should be worried when Democratic strategist Robert Axelrod and Republican rivals offer up their support. Their embrace of Perry may have a very different meaning than he thinks.

The phrasing coming out of the spin machine is that this is an attempt to “criminalize” politics. That argument may resonate within the beltway in Washington or the political circles of Austin. Perry would be well served to remember that some Americans use the words “criminal” and political” interchangeably and probably wouldn’t mind putting Congress in prison. Perry (and everyone else in politics) would be wise not to embrace this argument because it equate embraces everything Americans hate about “politics as usual.”

This indictment is a serious problem for Perry. Strategists and pundits who dismiss it do so at their peril. There is a lot of this story left to play out. I don’t mind admitting that I don’t know what is going to happen. And, I’m in no rush. Perry is not on the ballot in 2014. Texans have other decisions to ponder.

 

The “new” Rick Perry

BuKXyzaCAAAu9Fy.jpg-largeNational Journal recently ran a cover story on “The New Rick Perry.” National Journal is not widely read outside of DC, but inside DC it is widely respected for the kind of in-depth analysis that most publications never seem to find room for.

The article on the “new” Rick Perry is a good example of why National Journal is widely read by people who think seriously about politics. Michelle Cottle has recognized that Perry is building a new image in an effort to jump-start a stalled presidential bid.

The “new” Perry label is especially meaningful to longtime political observes because it harkens back to the “new Nixon” that emerged from devastating back-to-back defeats in the presidential race in 1960 and the 1962 California gubernatorial election. Politically, Nixon was dead in the water. In fact, he had told the press after the election that “you don’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

Perry has faced his defeats. His stumbles in the 2012 campaign have been documented. More recently, the results of the Texas Republican straw poll (“Ted Cruz wins presidential straw poll“) made clear that Rick Perry’s future was in jeopardy–unless he makes some changes.

Ted Cruz 43.4%
Ben Carson 12.2%
Rand Paul 12.1%
Rick Perry 11.7%
Jeb Bush 3.3%
Scott Walker 2.9%
Other 2.7%
Marco Rubio 2.6%
Paul Ryan 2.0%
Rick Santorum 1.9%
Bobby Jindal 1.7%
Chris Christie 1.3%
Undecided 1.1%
Mike Pence 0.6%
John Kasich 0.5%
Steve King 0.2%

The problem was not Perry simply finishing behind Ted Cruz . Cruz is a great match with the Republican base in Texas in 2014 and he would be tough to beat with the kinds of Republicans who filled the state convention this summer. Perry could easily say that the Texas GOP is different from the national party and that he would enjoy broader support in other states. However, finishing in fourth place suggests that his appeal has become very narrow. Finishing behind Ben Carson, a newcomer known primarily for his appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, should warn Perry that Texas Republicans are looking hard for alternatives to Perry. Finishing behind the Rand Paul, the new face of the Libertarian wing of the party, should tell him a little about the future of the Republicans. The “Texas miracle” is not firing up voters in Texas. Why would it win hearts and minds in other states?

Finishing behind Cruz also tells us that Perry can no longer command the spotlight in Texas politics. Cruz is exhibiting more star power than Perry. And, unfortunately for Perry, star power is important for fundraising. Presidential candidates need the support of large donors to get their campaigns started. Perry needs Republicans to give him thousands of dollars and then get on the phone and convince their friends to contribute to Perry. Writing those checks and making those calls requires a lot of confidence in the candidate. Perry’s failed 2012 campaign gave Republican doubts about his breadth of his appeal and Texas straw poll renewed doubts about the depth of his appeal.

The Rick Perry we knew if not going to get elected president. His work so far has not resonated sufficiently with voters. Perry recognizes the need for some extensive rebranding to excite donors and win the hearts of Republican voters. The National Journal article could have used the language of comic books and movies and talked about a Perry “reboot.” That might have been familiar to more readers.  However, the fact that the “new” Nixon won the presidency in 1968 (and again in a landslide in 1972) after his defeats. The Nixon reference is an excellent remainder that anything is possible in politics. The Republican field is wide open and the new Rick Perry might prove much better than the old Perry. The National Journal story does a good job of previewing the new Rick Perry and anyone thinking about Perry’s presidential aspirations needs to give it a read..

 

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.

Disclosing politicized non-profits

Transparency leads to honest politics. In recent years many political groups have gone undercover and disguised themselves as “non-profits” in order to evade disclosure laws and hide their donors and activities from voters. Stephen Colbert demonstrated this brilliantly with his SuperPAC and this helped build a reform movement.

The Texas Legislature has passed a bill  (SB 346) sponsored by Senator Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) that would require that “non-profit” groups that engage in political activities disclose donors who give more than $1,000. That is, non-profit groups that behave like political committees have to follow some of the same disclosure rules that political committees do.

I’m fond of transparency for several reasons.

  1. As a voter: I want to know who is helping candidates. I understand the desire for donors to conceal their identify. However, this is outweighed by the public’s right to know. I want to know who is financing these candidates. The dollars passing through the loopholes in the law are getting to be as plentiful as the money flowing through legal channels. Voters need to know who is paying for these campaigns.
  2. As a political scientist: I want to know who is investing in Texas politics. The impact of organized interests in Texas politics is legendary and we will never know who really holds power if we don’t know who is controlling the purse strings of campaigns. Teaching Texas politics means pulling back the curtain and showing students who is putting money into Texas elections.
  3. As a charitable giver: I don’t like political organizations disguising themselves as  something like charities. As I write this, West is only  beginning to rebuild after the massive explosion that scarred that city and Granbury is trying to recover from a tornado that cut through their community with devastating consequences. Political non-profits have no business hiding behind the skirts of real charities. The contribution to nasty, misleading, partisan ads does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath or same section of tax code as the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, or Salvation Army as they try to help Texans in need.. Investing in lies and investing in hope are very different things. God help us if our laws conflate charity and political committees. We separated church and state, in part, to protect the reputation of our churches. Let’s not blur the line any more than we have to.

Perry will sign the bill if he is still interested in being governor. This reform bill enjoys broad, bipartisan support. Legislators know that reforms are needed and the ability of this bill to attract support from both parties suggests that it’s a reasonable bill. Perry could sign the bill and proclaim the virtues of  fair elections in Texas. He would be championing the transparency and openness he has embraced in the past. As The Beaumont Enterprise noted in their editorial endorsing the bill:

The bill is designed to shine light on nonprofit “issue advocacy” groups that are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on their favored candidate as long as they don’t campaign directly for that candidate. Political action committees (PACs) have to divulge information about the money they raise and spend, but these issue advocacy groups, basically super PACs with innocuous names such as American Crossroads (Karl Rove’s group), can hide in the dark.

Perry will veto the bill if he is thinking like a presidential candidate. He can rail against big government and the Internal Revenue Service and attempt to gain national attention (and the favor of some of the mega-donors). A veto could become fodder for some lively speeches, fiery direct mail fundraising letters, and personal messages to large donors. Saying no will be hard.

A potential presidential candidate who expected to find themselves dependent on the financial backers lurking in these phony non-profit group would veto this bill. A governor who wants to leave a legacy of institutional reform will embrace transparency and sign the bill.

**UPDATE**

PolitiFact.com put out an analysis that discusses the term “charity” as it relates to how these groups function. I’ve revised the post a little to minimize the liberties I took with the term.

The Center for Public Integrity released a study (“Tobacco giant funded conservative nonprofits“) that reveled how large some of the contributions can be:

Reynolds American’s contributions include $175,000 to Americans for Tax Reform, a nonprofit led by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and $50,000 to Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy outfit heavily backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

May 25 Update:

Perry has vetoed the bill citing “freedom of association and freedom of speech.”  It’s not clear why (or if) Perry supports  current disclosure laws since their impact on freedom of association and freedom of speech would be identical. However, Perry has never been known for consistency on libertarian concerns.

 

Investing in a top-heavy bureaucracy

The Austin American Statesman has run several stories (“Management positions, salary increase at DPS while state trooper pay languish” and “State agencies defend executive pay“) that reveals how quickly administrative salaries have grown in the Department of Public Safety while the salaries of state troopers have lagged behind. A relatively few administrators receive high salaries while most of the people who do the day-to-day work of the government receive much less. Earlier this year the Dallas Morning New reported (“Audit: Texas governor, AG, land commissioner boosted staffs as state workers’ overall numbers shrank“) that while the state lost 3,200 employees, the governor, attorney general, and land commissioner’s offices grew. Texas also saw the Governor approve a big salary for his choice for education commissioner (“Texas Schools Chief Michael Williams Will Make $215K“), granting his political appointee a salary 15 percent above the amount appropriated for the position the year. Of course, that year also so large budget cuts to the Texas Education Agency and school budgets across the state. Meanwhile, we learned that the Governor’s Chief of Staff earned $325,000 a year–that after earning a $162,000 bonus as she left the Employee Retirement System (ERS) even as state employees were told that reductions had to be made to their benefits because of budget shortfalls.

We’re told that these salaries and bonuses are needed to compete with the private sector. However, they only seem to be worried about staying competitive on top executive salaries and I see much less interest in providing competitive salaries for everyone else.

The fact that our state’s leaders and their appointees have made giving pay raises to high level bureaucrats a priority while street-level bureaucrats like state troopers and teachers went neglected tells us that either this is what they want or that they are incompetent. I suspect most Texans are not going to like either answer.

Who shouldn’t we test for drugs?

Recently Governor Rick Perry and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst announced their support for drug testing for people who receive government assistance for the poor. Under the proposed law, applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TAFN) in Texas would be required to pass a drug test.

One of the motives behind this legislation is efficiency. Texans don’t want to see their tax dollars going to pay for illegal drugs. However, based on Florida’s experience with a similar program Texas would likely spending more to administer than it would save in denied benefits. As the Miami Herald reported, only 108 of the 4,086 (2.6%) people who took the test failed.  Florida came out at least $45,780 behind because drug testing there averaged $35 per test. That doesn’t include other costs of the program and the court costs required to defend the law in courts.

The response of some Florida legislators and their allies in Texas is that this is really about stopping illegal drugs. As David Dewhurst commented, “It is a legitimate function of government to help people who are not able to help themselves.” Of course, if this is really the motive of the law it need not be limited to TAFN recipients. Further,if we’re really interested in helping those Texans not able to make their own decisions we should expand testing to include alcohol and prescription drug abuse.   Finally, it’s ironic that Texas would be cracking down on all drug use just as other states are moving toward decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.

120509_The_Drug_Test_t618

The risk to privacy may be the biggest issue. If accepting TAFN or other government benefits gives the government the right to regulate your private life, the same could be said about college students accepting grants, government employment, contracts with the state, Social Security, and other possibilities.

The idea of making recipients take drug tests is an appealing idea. After all, it only intrudes into a the private lives of only a few people who are unlikely to raise an objection. On the other hand, I wonder what the limits are once the government has decided it the right to know these kinds of things about any of its citizens.

What level of interaction with the government require surrendering personal liberties? Should we start by drug testing our least fortunate citizens or our highest elected officials?

The Case Against the Sales Tax Holiday

The Tax Foundation, a conservative-leaning group, has a report (“Sales Tax Holidays: Politically Expedient but Poor Tax Policy“) making the case against sales tax holidays like the one expected to save Texans about $65 million this weekend.

The report is worth a look because you will not see very many politicians willing to take on such a politically popular notion. Governor Perry has been out reminding citizens about the tax holiday and State Senator Rodney Ellis, an author of the original 1999 bill that created the holiday, was at Macy’s urging that the holiday should be protected. Ellis defends the holiday because the cost to the state is a small compared to the tax breaks to energy companies.  Of course, we could consider getting rid of both sets of tax breaks. And, maybe a three-day shopping orgy isn’t the only way to help make going back-to-school more affordable for working families. In any case, it’s a popular tax break that isn’t likely to go away.

Rick Perry at WalMart
Texas Senator Rodney Ellis as Macys

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