Point Austin: Welcome Back!
Shock, awe, and hypocrisy return to the dome
The 84th Legislature has barely begun, and we've already got officials competing for Clown of the Week. Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller – earlier known, from his authorship of an anti-abortion ultrasound bill, as the Man With the Vaginal Wand – announced that "the government here in Texas is getting out of your lives." He was announcing a "cupcake amnesty" for parents wishing to bring cupcakes or other sweets to public school for their offsprings' birthdays. Miller wasn't even right on the substance – nothing in state regulations prevents schoolchildren from celebrating birthdays in the conventional way, cupcakes and all – but the level of hypocrisy he achieved in the wake of his invasion of the bodily privacy of Texas women was breathtaking.
We can expect a lot of that sort of thing this year. A few days before Miller's grab for TV face-time, incoming Gov. Greg Abbott was denouncing the "California-zation" of Texas – that is, some local communities are regulating single-use plastic bags, heritage trees, and – horrors! – hydrocarbon fracking. When he's suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of Texas' unfettered right to pollute the state's air and water, Abbott is all about "local control" – and he's also especially prone to the usual political boilerplate on the subject, when defending local school districts from "unfunded state mandates." But now, when a few local communities (Austin, Dallas, and others) attempt to defend their communities against the waste, expense, and pollution of ubiquitous plastic bags – suddenly Abbott is contemplating state mandates to oppose "collectivism."
Abbott's likely more worried about the growing backlash against fracking – recently banned in the hardly liberal redoubt of Denton – than he is about plastic bags or even protected tree cover – but he exemplifies the attitude of state Republicans toward local initiatives that are contrary to the priorities of state Republicans. When the folks over in West Lake Hills – which makes Austin look like Odessa when it comes to tree protection – get in his ear, we'll hear very little more on that subject.
Small Government, Well-Armed
But the circus is indeed back in town, and it will be difficult to focus on the big tent when the sideshows are so mesmerizing. On opening day, the gun crazies were out in force, manufacturing weaponry at the South Gate and attempting to intimidate legislators not immediately on board with their demand for "constitutional carry" – that is, no regulation or licensing of weaponry, whatsoever. And on the floor of the House, an equally-deluded group of enthusiasts were attempting to oust Speaker Joe Straus, whose major sin is that he has bipartisan support. After rival Rep. Scott Turner, R-Richardson, was trounced, 127-19 (winning a few votes more than predicted), Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party President Julie McCarty told the American-Statesman that legislators "acting on fear of Straus" (presumably for committee appointments) was "equivalent to negotiating with terrorists."
The gun nuts promise to return (indeed, a few of them are reps), which means the "panic buttons" newly authorized by the House after this latest episode (since when should a Capitol staff member have to endure armed bullies?) will probably be put to good use. But you have to ask, what about the rest of us? When a few of these narcissistic idiots come marching into our neighborhood Chipotle's, will "Stand Your Ground" apply to the regular customers? As for the "terrorists" – I suppose Speaker Straus is now a designated member – let's hope they can defend against the worst of the dismally tyrannical measures bubbling up from the "small government" Tea Partiers nibbling away at the Capitol.
All this is indeed a sideshow, and on the big issues acknowledged even by the leadership – education, health care, transportation – the early signs are that little will be accomplished beyond grandstanding. On education funding, it appears the ongoing school funding litigation will be allowed, via state appeal, to drag into the next biennium, rather than finally grapple with the fundamental underfunding and inequities of public school system (higher education is little more than afterthought). Although the state is momentarily flush, says the comptroller, let's sacrifice another generation of students on the altar of property tax cuts.
Similarly, the health care of millions of uninsured Texans will be secondary to both tax cuts and ideological attacks on Obamacare, even though expanding Medicaid would not just provide regular care to many who go without, but draw down billions for Texas hospitals and the state economy that will instead go elsewhere. Having already decimated by regulation the reproductive health care system for hundreds of thousands of Texas women, the leadership will hardly blink at turning their backs on the rest of the uninsured.
Maybe we'll spend some money on highways – death and taxes may be sure things elsewhere, but in Texas, we guarantee highways and prisons. We'll see how far we can stretch that suddenly diminishing oil and gas windfall on poured concrete – and let the uninsured and their schoolchildren make do on homemade sweets.
Have yourself a strawberry cupcake, with thanks to the ag commissioner.