Category Archives: State news

Might there be a judicial election reform on tap?

Readers of this blog are aware of this fundamental truth: I detest, hate, loathe the way we elect judges in Texas.

We elect them at every level on partisan ballots. The system stinks. It has resulted in good judges being tossed out of office only because they belong to the party that isn’t in power in the moment. Republican or Democrat. It doesn’t matter. The partisan election of judges sucks out loud, man!

There might be a change in the works. A legislative effort is underway to study how to bring a needed change. It is running into a major roadblock in the form of Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate.

According to the Texas Tribune, Patrick is “skeptical” of potential changes in the way we choose our judges. He said something about Texans preferring to elect their judges. Well, duh! I get that. I am not totally on board with an appointment system. I want at the very least to see an election system that allows judges to run on non-partisan ballots.

A former state senator, Republican Bob Duncan, has been a longtime champion for reforming the election system. The Legislature has created a commission to study ways to repair the system. Duncan agrees with Patrick that there needs to be total buy-in if there’s going to be a change. If only the lieutenant governor would throw his support behind a judicial reform effort; Gov. Greg Abbott already has done so. We’ll have a new House speaker in the next session and my hope is that he or she will sign on, too.

I keep asking: What is the difference between Republican justice and Democratic justice? I cannot determine a partisan difference. There are differences in judicial philosophy that have nothing to do with partisan consideration. So why not forces judges to run on their judicial philosophy?

I used to argue for a reform that creates a judicial appointment system; it would require judges to run for “retention.” I don’t think that will happen in Texas. I am going to hold out some hope that Texas can find a way to change the judicial election system from a purely partisan effort to a non-partisan system.

It makes sense and in my view is going to deliver a better quality of judges who adjudicate justice on behalf of all of us.

Oh, the irony of Gov. Abbott’s refugee rejection

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, along with other governors, had the opportunity to “opt in” on an executive order issued by Donald Trump to allow refugees into our state.

He chose to opt out. Gov. Abbott has slammed the door on individuals and families who, by definition, are seeking refuge in Texas as they flee repression, violence, crime, corruption and physical harm in their home country.

I am trying to wrap my noodle around this decision. I am left only to ponder the profound irony of Abbott’s decision, making Texas the first state to opt out of Trump’s executive order.

The irony? Oh, well, we have this historical fact: Our nation came into being in the 18th century because men who had fled religious oppression in Europe had come across a vast ocean to form a republic that would become known as “the land of the free,” the “land of opportunity” and “a beacon of liberty” for the rest of the world.

It looks that in Texas at least, the door has been shut to those seeking freedom and opportunity and that the beacon has been turned off.

Abbott’s decision, quite naturally, has drawn plenty of criticism. As it should. To be honest, the governor’s refusal to opt in to the federal order is disappointing in the extreme. He has sought to say that the state should allow those who already are here to remain as refugees. But what about those who continue to suffer human rights abuses in nations south of us?

This is a very distressing decision by Gov. Abbott.

I cannot prove this, of course, but my hunch is that our nation’s founders would be unhappy beyond measure.

Texas won’t take refugees? Shameful decision!

Critics of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are understandably outraged over a decision by the state.

Abbott has decided that Texas will not participate in a federal refugee resettlement program, which around 40 other governors — from both political parties — have agreed to do.

I am profoundly disappointed in Gov. Abbott’s decision to opt out of the resettlement effort.

By definition, refugees are those who are fleeing terrible living conditions. They seek to enter the United States because, for varying reasons, they fear for their well-being in their native countries.

Many of those on the far right declare fealty to their religious faith. They are chiefly Christians who adhere to the Jesus Christ’s teachings.

Sigh.

I cannot find a single New Testament passage that suggests Jesus would approve of any effort to turn away the dispossessed, the downtrodden, those who are fleeing repression.

According to the Texas Tribune: Abbott said the state and nonprofit organizations should concentrate resources on those already here, according to a letter the governor sent to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

This is not the action of a compassionate government with leaders who proclaim themselves as caring about their fellow human beings.

Texas AG needs to go on trial

Is this the year that Texas’s indicted attorney general stands trial on charges of committing securities fraud? Finally? Will we get a resolution?

Republican Ken Paxton and his legal team are trying to get the case moved back to Collin County, which is Paxton’s home county; he represented North Texas in the Legislature before being elected as attorney general. Prosecutors are concerned that a Collin County jury won’t be impartial enough to render a reasonable verdict.

But wait! A Collin County grand jury was able to indict Paxton on felony charges. Thus, I don’t have a particular problem with the case coming back here.

At issue is an indictment that alleges Paxton didn’t disclose his connection with an investment firm. The indictment came down in 2015, the year after Paxton was elected attorney general. He has since won re-election to the AG’s office.

What boggles my mind is the number of delays that have occurred since the initial indictment … nearly five years ago! They have involved venue change requests, damage done by Hurricane Harvey (given that the case has moved to Houston).

Texas needs an attorney general who either is cleared of the allegations that are hanging over his head or one who would replace an AG who’s been convicted of a felony crime.

As the Beaumont Enterprise said in an editorial, enough already, with the incessant delays.

How about a trial this year?

Bonnen broke the law, but let’s not prosecute him

BLOGGER’S NOTE: This blog post was published initially on the KETR-FM website.

I guess the verdict is in on Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s secret meeting with a right-wing activist.

The speaker likely broke a campaign finance law when he met with Empower Texans guru Michael Quinn Sullivan, offered up the names of 10 fellow Republican legislators that Empower Texans could try to defeat in the 2020 election and then offered the right-wing PAC a media pass, giving the PAC immediate access to House members working on the floor of the chamber.

The House General Investigating Committee issued the report, then closed its investigation.

What should happen now? My hope – and it’s just me speaking for myself – is that Bonnen can retire quietly at the end of next year and disappear into the tall grass, never to be seen or heard from again in public life. There need not be a criminal investigation.

General Investigating Committee Chairman Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican, suggested that the report precludes any criminal investigation, even though Bonnen likely broke the law.

According to the Texas Tribune: Bonnen “likely violated” a section of the Texas Government Code, according to Meyer, who was reading from the report … — but advisers in the report said the law provided no “independent statutory consequences” for a state official who breaches it.

That section states that a state officer or employee should not “accept or solicit any gift, favor or service that might reasonably tend to influence the officer or employee in the discharge of official duties, or that the officer or employee knows or should know is being offered with the intent to influence the officer’s or employee’s official conduct.

I get all that. Here’s the deal, though: Bonnen took a lot of political heat and pushback from his fellow Republicans, about 30 of whom demanded he resign the House speakership. He at first denied the meeting with Sullivan. Then Sullivan produced a recording of the meeting. He outed Bonnen, who then announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to his House seat in Angleton in 2020.

Good riddance! That ought to be enough of a punishment for the speaker who double-crossed his supposed allies in the Texas House of Representatives.

As the saying goes: This case is closed. Let’s move on and let the next Texas House of Representatives select a speaker who will remain faithful to any pledge he or she makes to work with his colleagues and avoid stabbing them in the back.

With new speaker coming up, here’s my wish for next session

Texas is going to have a new state House of Representatives speaker when the next Legislature convenes in January 2021. The matter that got the current speaker, Republican Dennis Bonnen of Angleton, into so much trouble has been well-chronicled … mostly.

I want to focus briefly on one matter that needs a bit more exposure: the promise to grant a political action committee media passes to the floor of the Texas House.

Bonnen and Empower Texans founder Michael Quinn Sullivan had a conversation that Sullivan recorded. Bonnen gave Sullivan the names of 10 GOP lawmakers who Sullivan could target in the 2020 legislative election. He also promised to give Sullivan’s group media credentials, enabling Empower Texans to lobby legislators on the House floor.

That is a seriously bad move by the speaker, who decided against seeking re-election next year.

If Republicans keep control of the House, the next GOP speaker needs to ensure he or she does not cross that line. If Democrats take control of the House, which is a possibility, then the next Democratic speaker must avoid that line as well.

Empower Texans trumpets itself as a “news” organization, that it purports to report news on its various information platforms. It is no such thing. It is a strong advocacy group that promotes a rigid ideology. They are repugnant to me personally.

It would be equally wrong for a group such as, say, Planned Parenthood or the American Civil Liberties Union or any other progressive political activist group to be granted that kind of access to legislators.

It was bad enough that Bonnen betrayed his GOP colleagues by offering up the names of 10 of them to appear on Empower Texans’ hit list. It was equally improper for Bonnen to promise media passes to a PAC whose mission is to turn the Legislature into a mouthpiece that echoes Empower Texans’ right-wing agenda.

May the next speaker — and those who come later — learn from this sorry example of a political double-cross.

Texas Democrats optimistic; but let’s keep it (more or less) in check

Texas Democrats reportedly are optimistic heading into the 2020 election season. They think a Democratic presidential nominee can carry the state, handing Texas’ 38 electoral votes to the party’s nominee.

Were that to happen, the GOP president, one Donald Trump, can kiss his re-election goodbye. Indeed, I figure that if Texas is going to flip from Republican to Democrat, then the 2020 election will be a dark, foreboding time for the GOP throughout the ballot in Texas.

However, Democrats would be wise to curb their optimism in Texas.

It’s not that I don’t want Texas to help elect someone other than Donald Trump, or that I don’t want the Texas Legislature to turn from GOP to Democrat. I want to see at minimum a contested political playing field, one that features two strong political parties arguing vehemently to persuade voters to buy into whatever ideology they are trying to sell.

However, Texas’ turn from Democratic to Republican control was dramatic and total over the course of about 20 years.

I get that Democrats got all fluttery when Beto O’Rourke nearly defeated GOP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. O’Rourke then tried to parlay that near-miss into a presidential candidacy. He failed.

Texas Democrats have been floundering in the wilderness since the late 1990s, when they won their last statewide political campaign. Is the upcoming year going to mark the turnaround for the Texas Democratic Party. My bias tells me to hope it does.

My more realistic side tells me to wait for the ballots to be counted.

Wanting a reform of rules governing legislators becoming lobbyists

While working on a blog entry I happened to call the office of Texas state Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo to ask whether the state had clamped down on legislators who seek to become lobbyists.

The answer I got was “no.” The state had not reformed what is commonly called the “revolving door policy” that allows state legislators to become lobbyists for the special interest group of their choice.

In short, someone can walk away from the Legislature and walk directly into a high-paying job as a registered lobbyist.

That rule has to change. It is one of the items I am going to place on my wish list for the 2021 Texas Legislature to enact.

State legislators have built-in access to their former colleagues when they walk away from their public service careers. My memory of legislators with whom I am familiar who then went to work on behalf of special interests is lengthy.

The most notable example is former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney of Hale Center. The Democrat left the Legislature after being muscled out of the speaker’s chair and became an instantaneous lobbyist/big hitter. And who was surprised at that? No one. Laney had a lot of political allies and personal friends on both sides of the aisle. He has been able to parlay those friendships into a healthy post-Legislature career.

Former Republican state Rep. David Swinford is another one. The Dumas lawmaker left the Legislature after the 2009 session and went to work pitching wind farms to his former legislative colleagues.

The rolls are full of those kinds of examples. I harbor no particular ill will toward lobbyists as a general rule; only those who represent special interests that I find repugnant.

Still, the instantaneous advantage former legislators have when they leave elected office and go to work for special interests puts them at a decided advantage over their competitors.

Why not level the field a bit by mandating, say, a two- or three-year waiting period before former legislators can sign up as lobbyists? Is that such a hard task to accomplish? It doesn’t seem so to me.

Will ‘Texodus’ cause loss of clout in Congress? Uhh, yes, it will

A headline in the Texas Tribune asks a question that borders on the preposterous.

“As experienced Texan congressmen retire, will the states’ sway in Congress decline?”

I have the answer: Yes. It will decline.

Both congressional chambers rely heavily on seniority. The more senior the members of the House and Senate, the more powerful committee assignments they get. They ascend to chairmanships or, if they’re in the House, they sit as “ranking members” of the minority party; a ranking member is deemed to be the senior member of the party that doesn’t control the chairmanship.

My former congressman, Republican Mac Thornberry of Clarendon, is retiring at the end of next year; he won’t seek re-election to his umpteenth term in the House. He serves as ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, a panel he chaired until Democrats took control of the House after the 2018 election.

Congressional power ebbs and flows. Texans who worry about such things need not fret over Texas’s loss of clout in the House. Indeed, if the state is turning into more of a “swing state,” Texas Democrats might find themselves elevated to positions of power formerly occupied by their Republican colleagues.

For the time being, though, the retirements of six Texas members of Congress does create a dwindling clout for the state on Capitol Hill.

However, it is likely far from a terminal ailment.

Hoping that Empower Texans has suffered a mortal wound

As I survey the lingering damage done by the downfall of Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, I am left to hope that a good bit of collateral damage has been inflicted on a key principal in that fiasco.

That would be Empower Texans and the political action committee’s founder/guru/main man Michael Quinn Sullivan.

Sullivan met in June with Bonnen, who delivered him the names of 10 Republican legislators who Empower Texans could target in the 2020 election. Bonnen didn’t know it in the moment, but Sullivan plunged a knife into his back by recording the conversation.

Bonnen offered Sullivan’s right-wing lobbying group access on the House floor by issuing it “media” passes. Empower Texans is by no stretch of the imagination a media outlet. It is an advocacy group that seeks to bend the Legislature to its rigid ideology.

Bonnen denied initially the leaked reports about giving up the legislators to Sullivan, who then produced the recording of Bonnen doing precisely what Sullivan said he did.

Bonnen was toast. Many of his fellow GOP lawmakers called for his resignation. Bonnen didn’t quit, but did the next best thing: He announced he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2020 to his Angleton House seat.

My strong hope is that Empower Texas becomes a PAC non grata among Texas legislators. Democrats already detest Empower Texans and Sullivan. So do a number of moderate Texas Republicans; and, yes, there are some moderates among GOP legislators’ ranks, as I happen to know some of them.

Sullivan betrayed Bonnen, who in turn betrayed his Republican colleagues, many of whom supported his election as speaker at the start of the 2019 Texas Legislature.

Bonnen will be gone from the 2021 Legislature. Empower Texans, which has sought to meddle in local politics for too long already, needs to be gone as well.

If I were a Republican Texas legislator, I damn sure wouldn’t trust Michael Quinn Sullivan as far as I could throw him.