The Austin Chronicle

Patrick's Advisers Call Pre-K "Godless"

By Richard Whittaker, April 22, 2015, 12:30pm, Newsdesk

Serious question: Is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick trying to piss Gov. Greg Abbott off, or is it purely accidental? The latest fiasco in their declining relationship: Patrick's band of Tea Party consultants calling Abbott's plan for half-day pre-K "godless" and "socialistic."

Let's back up a little here.

Back in January, Patrick formed two bodies that he said would connect him to popular opinions. The first, the Advisory Boards of Private Citizens, was actually 55 highly-connected business leaders, including Midland oilman and conservative sugar daddy Tim Dunn and the king of oil and influence, T. Boone Pickens. The second was his Grassroots Advisory Board, a literal who's who of Tea Party radicals.

Around the same time, Abbott proposed expanding state-funded Pre-K. The House picked up the ball, and on April 9 it passed House Bill 4, establishing a $130 million fund for school districts that meet certain curriculum and teacher qualification criteria.

The Tea Party hates state Pre-K. In their conspiracy-verse, they are nothing more than heathen indoctrination camps, snatching away children from their parents. As HB 4 passed, extremists like Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, and Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, tried to paint this as statism run amok. This was much to the chagrin of bill author Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood, who slapped them down by saying this was just about providing cash (and not that much) to help existing Pre-K programs get better.

Enter Patrick's Tea Party think tank, which yesterday sent a wild-eyed letter to the Senate, slamming HB 4 as nothing more than Head Start 2.0, arguing it would never have results, it would just cost money – the standard Tea Party cant. And then it went off the rails completely, claiming that it "removed our young children from homes and half-day religious preschools and mothers' day programs to a Godless environment."

Because, as usual, the Tea Party didn't bother paying attention. The letter makes it seem like HB 4 mandates universal Pre-K, which it absolutely does not. As Huberty restated while taking on his chamber mates, this just gives a little extra cash to programs that reach certain standards.

Now they could have found some common ground with Democrats. After all, many Dem and education advocates are furious that this doesn't provide full day Pre-K. Half-day can create real headaches for parents who work full time jobs, and have to find additional child care, or leave their jobs to pick up their kids. However, the ideologues of Patrick's spare brain have no interest in common ground. "This interference by the State tramples upon our parental rights," they rave, continuing that "the early removal of children from parents' care is historically promoted in socialistic countries."

Now the plausible deniability is that Patrick doesn't control his Tea Party acolytes, and his office has already said it hadn't seen the letter before it was published. But it does seem strange that, almost two weeks after the House sent to HB 4 to the upper chamber, it hasn't been sent to a committee yet. Even more suspiciously, its Senate counterpart, Senate Bill 801 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, hasn't had a hearing.

All of which adds energy to the swirling rumor that Patrick, for some unfathomable reason, is trying to force a special session. His fight with Abbott over Pre-K mirrors the bizarre showdown over tax cuts: Abbott has sent clear messages that he's prioritizing reforms to the franchise tax (which the House is pushing hard), but Patrick has added property tax to the mix. Even the cut, cut, and cut again conservatives realize there's only so much budget to be reduced through tax switches, so Patrick appears to be playing a very dangerous game of chicken – one that could detonate the regular session.

And why would he do that? Because he's Dan Patrick, and showboating and grandstanding is what he does. Speculation is already rife around the Capitol that he wants to drag the Legislature even further to the right. Moreover, the fearlessly ambitious Patrick has had a meteoric career, and no one doubts that he wouldn't torpedo one session just to raise his profile even further.

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