Austin at Large: Hanging Guns on the Wall

As Greg Abbott tries to keep the drama alive, whose behinds will end up busted?

Austin at Large: Hanging Guns on the Wall

It's the old dramatic maxim attributed to Russian master Anton Chekhov: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." A modern, less aestheticized take might be, "Don't let your mouth write a check that your ass can't cash." As we enter the first act of our next election cycle – in Texas, it begins a couple weeks after sine die – guns are being hung on every wall in the house, and checks are being written, postdated until 2022, by every mouth in politics.

People who like to quote old dead white men (which kinda sells Chekhov short; he had a brief but highly eventful life) can often miss that his thing about the gun is an order, an imperative; the gun must be fired, or else you're lying to the audience. He's championing a minimalist, every-detail-must-count approach that makes a lot of his own writing boring and that later greats, including Hemingway and Nabokov, dunked on mercilessly. Their styles are probably more analogous to the wonderful world of showbiz and sponcon and social shares in which our politics now take place. It's already evident that a lot of the metaphorical, and most (but not enough) of the literal, guns hung on Texas walls during the last decade of red-regime decline have never gone off. But some of them will, and I'm not convinced they won't backfire on the people who've put them there. They and their asses (Genesis 44:3, KJV) will be busted.

Comin’ Real, A Next Episode

By the time our own City Council reconvenes on July 29 to try to make a meal (in the upcoming fiscal year 2022 budget and beyond) out of the trash and spoiled red meat the Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott have thrown them from up the street, the latter may already be up and gone from the first special session of the 87th Lege, called by Gov. Loveless to begin July 8. He has not announced yet what's to be on that call. We can presume it will feature some more "election integrity" nonsense that could be rendered moot in short order if the U.S. Senate is shocked back to consciousness and reasserts our nation's commitment to democratic rights and freedoms. It also will likely include an invitation to override Abbott's veto of the Legislature's budget for the upcoming biennium (it won't have taken effect yet in July), which is a sweetener for Dems who might otherwise let that broken quorum stay busted. And now he's talking about "social media censorship" because of course. Will other fun topics be added to the call? Will more special sessions be called between now and the 2022 primary (aside from the expected September soiree for redistricting, which may blow up without any maps, and for allocating "Biden Bucks," which he would rather do himself anyway)? Only his pollsters known for sure.

A Madness To His Method

Abbott has also said he'd put "bail reform" back on the agenda, since it was one of his State of the State priorities back in February and (as House Bill 20) didn't make it past sine die alive. He does not mean actual bail reforms that have allowed innocent Texans without money to escape cruel and open-ended imprisonment; he means nut-picking horror stories of the very rare and sad people who get out of jail on personal bonds and then commit heinous crimes, which he can exploit and turn into saturation TV buys that demonize soft-on-crime Democrats, just like Ronald Reagan did. (Research shows jurisdictions that ended cash bail have fewer crimes committed by those on pretrial release.)

This is a great example of how the discourse, particularly on the red side, has deformed under MAGA stress. This branch of the big justice-reform river has been made navigable by free-market conservatives, most especially Houston's own Laura and John Arnold, who've spent millions on making their Public Safety Assessment tool, a risk-based algorithmic model, the de facto alternative to cash bail. They're worth more than $3 billion, a fortune whose seeds were planted at Enron, so their asses can cash whatever checks their mouth may draft. They do care about equitable and human justice, but also about the cost and waste of incarceration and the abuses of a corrupt cash-bail cartel. They're also heavily into charter schools and pension reform, which many of their allies on the justice front politely overlook. Their foundation (which they turned into a social venture capital LLC, so Mackenzie Bezos Scott they are not) was sued in a stunt case when one of those rare, sad people in New Jersey was let go by a judge using the PSA tool and went on to murder; Chris Christie was a co-defendant. Subsequent bail reformers have cooled on using an algorithm, with potential layers of bias baked in, to decide people's freedom, but the Arnolds have helped "letting criminals go free, eek!" become a broadly accepted centrist stance. Which is why Abbott must now oppose it.

However much he shrieks and grunts now, Abbott is from the same world as the Arnolds; he appointed their pension-reform point man, Josh McGee, to the state pension review board, to howls from labor groups. HB 20 started in the House this session as a split-the-baby plan that rules out personal bonds (or in some cases, any bail at all) for those charged with various fearful crimes, but tries to reduce pretrial detention as a whole and promote tools like the PSA. The Arnolds themselves were cautiously supportive. Then Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and his henchwoman Sen. Joan Huffman, stripped all the more positive stuff out, without a peep from Abbott then or now. He needs to bring it back to save face because he hung that gun on the wall back in February. When it goes off, who will it kill?

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin at Large, 87th Texas Legislature, Greg Abbott, election integrity, voting rights, bail reform, criminal justice reform, John and Laura Arnold, Arnold Ventures, Public Safety Assessment, House Bill 20, Joan Huffman

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