Category Archives: State news

By all means, change the Texas judicial election system!

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has just elevated himself greatly among those of us who detest the way the state elects its judges.

Chief Justice Hecht wants the Legislature to do away with partisan election of judges. He wants a total overhaul of the judicial election system. He has called on merit selection and retention elections to replace the ghastly status quo in which highly qualified judges are tossed aside on a strictly partisan basis.

Hecht has walked this path before. I suppose I just haven’t been paying careful enough attention until now.

To be clear, the chief justice was stung by the loss of key Republican judges in the 2018 midterm election. Appellate courts flipped from GOP to Democratic control, which I guess alarms the Republican chief justice.

Whatever the case, or his motives, I totally support his call for judicial election reform.

Hecht made his remarks in his State of the Judiciary speech. He said, “Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind.”

So it happened in 2018. And so it has gotten the attention once again of the state’s top civil appellate court’s chief justice.

I long have bemoaned the partisan election of judges in Texas. I have sought over the course of many years in Texas to get judges and judicial candidates to explain to me the “difference between Democratic and Republican justice.” Not a single one of them ever explained the difference in any fashion that made a lick of sense.

To be clear about another point as well, not all judges want the kind of reform that Hecht has proposed. I remember asking the late state Sen. (and later a Supreme Court justice) Oscar Mauzy of Dallas whether we should go to a form of merit selection for judges. He came unglued. Mauzy, a ferocious, partisan Democrat, said appointing judges was akin to a “communist” system of justice. He loved running as a Democrat and wasn’t about to support any change in the Texas judicial election system.

Texas Republicans long have prospered in these judicial contests. The Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals — the state’s two highest appellate courts — comprise 18 GOP jurists. Thus, to hear a Republican chief justice call once again for this significant judicial reform is, well, the rarest of calls.

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, for trying to pound some sense into the state’s political power structure.

Voters retain ultimate power

Two political incidents in the Texas Panhandle have provided significant evidence of just who holds the power in these disputes.

I refer to two dustups: one involving Texas state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick; the other one involves the Amarillo Independent School District Board of Trustees.

In both instances, the voters are getting the shaft by those in power.

First, the Seliger-Patrick battle.

Patrick is angry with Seliger because the Amarillo Republican lawmaker doesn’t always vote the way Patrick prefers. What the lieutenant governor needs to understand — and I am sure he does at some level — is that Seliger works for West Texans, not for Dan Patrick.

Patrick yanked the chairman’s gavel from Seliger, who chaired the Senate Higher Education Committee. Seliger said something supposedly unkind about a Patrick aide. Patrick then responded by pulling Seliger out of the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Seliger owes his allegiance to the voters of the sprawling Texas Senate District 31. As for Lt. Gov. Patrick, he is acting like a legend in his own mind.

Now, the AISD board.

An Amarillo High School volleyball coach, Kori Clements, resigned after one season. She cited parental interference as the reason she quit; she also said the school district administration didn’t back her.

The chatter around the school district is that the offending parent is a member of the AISD board of trustees.

The board has been silent. It has refused to speak to the issue directly. It needs to do exactly that. Why? Because the board works for the public, which pays the salaries of the administrators and educators and which pays to keep the lights on at all of AISD’s campuses.

The voters are the bosses. The AISD board answers to them, not to each other, or to the superintendent.

There needs to be a public accounting for what happened to make Coach Clements pack it in after just a single season as head coach of a vaunted high school volleyball program.

The public needs to know. It has every right to demand answers.

Search for voter fraud comes up . . . empty!

I guess it’s fair to ask: Did the search for fraudulent voters in Texas come up empty?

The Texas secretary of state’s office flagged the names of 95,000 individuals looking for evidence that they aren’t U.S. citizens and were ineligible to vote. Then the office decided that many thousands of those flagged actually are U.S. citizens.

Gov. Greg Abbott is downplaying the significance of what transpired. He said something about it being an ongoing process and that the list was never intended to be a “final” assessment.

Well, OK, governor. If that’s your story, I’m sure you’re going to stand by it.

It just looks to me as though the secretary of state was looking for a problem where none seems to exist. The SoS informed officials in five large Texas counties — including Collin County, where my wife and I reside — that they likely erred in flagging those names.

It looks to me as though we are finding out that the instances of fraudulent voting in Texas is the non-starter that many critics of the allegations about voter fraud have said all along.

There just isn’t the epidemic of voter fraud in Texas that many have suggested is occurring.

Texas Senate gives right-wing PAC special seat at press table

Do you want to know the crux of what has pi**** off a leading Texas senator about the way the state’s upper legislative chamber is being run?

Try this: Empower Texans, a right-wing political action group, has been given a ringside seat on the floor of the state Senate. Such groups usually are relegated to the upper floor along with the rest of the spectators who are curious about what’s happening in the Legislature.

In the Senate, which is run by an Empower Texans darling — GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — the group gets to look senators in the eye while they debate and cast their votes.

Trouble is brewing?

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said this, according to the Tribune Tribune: “They’re an advocacy organization and a political organization. Far more than anything else. That’s really their identity. They have a PAC and they contribute to candidates.”

Seliger knows Empower Texans well. He had to fend off a spirited Republican primary challenge in 2018 from two ultraconservative candidates. He won his party’s nomination outright anyway, which is to West Texas’s great benefit.

But the decision to allow this group of far-right-wing zealots onto the Texas Senate floor speaks volumes to me about the kind of place Lt. Gov. Patrick is creating. The Tribune reports that Empower Texans’ presence at the press table has angered some senators and ignited rancor early in the legislative session.

I’ve noted repeatedly in this blog about the feud that has erupted between Seliger, a senior GOP senator, and Patrick. Seliger’s legislative clout has been diminished by his removal from key Senate committees, namely the Higher Education and Education panels.

Now we hear that Empower Texans, an advocacy group that has taken aim at Senate moderates, such as Seliger, is getting to mix it up directly with legislators the group seeks to influence.

Seliger said the group’s status is “under review, as I think it ought to be. This is an easy call.”

Something is telling me the Texas Senate is going to become an unhappy place in this legislative session.

Keep our eyes on Texas Tech vet school progress

I have spoken already on this blog about some of the damage that can be done to West Texans who depend on their state senator to look after projects that provide direct benefit to their part of the state.

I want to discuss briefly one specific project: the Texas Tech University System’s plan to build a school of veterinary medicine at its medical school campus in Amarillo.

Why mention it? Because a veteran legislator, Sen. Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican, has been yanked out of the chairman’s seat on the Higher Education Committee. Seliger lost the chairmanship he has occupied for several legislative sessions.

The loss of that seat could cost the Panhandle dearly. My sincere and adamant hope is that it does not endanger the veterinary medicine school that Tech wants to build in Amarillo.

The Tech Board of Regents has signed on. The Amarillo Economic Development Corporation has committed tens of millions of dollars to it. The Panhandle community supports the vet school, which would be the second such college in Texas; the only other vet school is run by Texas A&M University, which quite naturally has been pushing back against Tech’s plans to build the school.

The school of veterinary medicine will provide a direct boost to Amarillo and the Panhandle. Tech has established a need for such a school, which could cater to large-animal veterinary care in a region known for its livestock.

Does the Seliger removal from the Higher Ed chairmanship put the vet school in dire peril? It must not! However, there is the possibility that the Panhandle’s lack of a voice on the Higher Ed panel could work against the forward momentum that is building for the completion of the project.

Lt. Gov. Patrick has done some damage to the Panhandle with his apparent vendetta against the region’s senior state senator. Let us all keep our eyes and ears open to the legislative maneuvering as it involves the Texas Tech school of veterinary medicine.

Lieutenant governor plays a heavy hand badly

Those of us who know Texas state Sen. Kel Seliger need to take a look at a clean and crisp political analysis about the growing feud between the Amarillo lawmaker and fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

The Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey has concluded that Patrick is likely misplaying his hand in punishing Seliger for an impolite remark the senator made regarding a top Patrick aide, Sherry Sylvester.

Read Ramsey’s analysis here.

By banishing Seliger the chairmanship of the Senate Higher Education Committee and taking him off the Education Committee, Patrick has muted a key Texas Panhandle voice on matters involving public education. Seliger has been a champion of both public and higher ed since he was first elected to the Senate in 2004. In fact, Seliger’s service on the Education panel continued the Panhandle presence, given that he succeeded the late Teel Bivins in the Senate District 31 seat.

Ramsey’s analysis takes note of how Patrick has demonstrated a habit of (a) punishing a senator from his own party and (b) pouring it on.

What might play out as the Senate gets down to legislative business over the course of the next 120-some days is whether Seliger emerges as a “swing vote” that could deny legislation from coming to a vote of the full Senate.

I don’t believe Seliger is a particularly vengeful individual. Then again, he’s been done wrong by the lieutenant governor and, by extension, so have his West Texas constituents been harmed by Patrick’s petulance. Seliger takes his public service seriously, even if he doesn’t always taken himself so seriously . . . which I consider to be a positive trait that I believe all politicians should exhibit.

Judging from the way Patrick has erupted over Seliger’s supposedly crude comment, the lieutenant governor is taking himself far too seriously to suit my taste. Then again, I don’t have to serve with this guy. Oh, no, I get to do something even better: I get to complain about his conduct as the Senate’s presiding officer, given that he works for me and the rest of the state’s 27 million residents.

Therefore, I believe he has messed up by attempting to manhandle one of the Senate’s wisest and most experienced individuals.

Hey, Dan Patrick: Senators work for us, not you

I have to weigh in one more time — although quite possibly not the final time — on the growing Texas Senate feud between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Kel Seilger, an Amarillo Republican.

The way I see it, Patrick is acting as if he employs the 31 members of the state’s upper legislative chamber. That ain’t the case, fella. They work for us. They work chiefly for the people who they represent in their respective Senate districts as well as for those who live in other parts of the state, given that they enact laws that affect all Texans.

The lieutenant governor stripped Seliger, a seasoned veteran of the Legislature, of all his committee assignments. Why? According to Seliger it is because the two men have different world views and legislative priorities; Patrick claims he did it because Seliger reportedly has a potty mouth and made some “lewd comments” to a female Patrick staffer.

Either excuse seems to point to a dictatorial streak being exhibited by Lt. Gov. Patrick.

The Dallas Morning News this morning published a lengthy feature on Seliger and the reputation he enjoys among his Senate colleagues. I’ll attach it to this blog post. Spoiler alert: The reporter, Lauren McGaughy, called yours truly for comments on Seliger, and she included some of them in this piece.

Here it is.

My point here is that Seliger answers to West Texans first and to the rest of the state second. Patrick place on the senator’s pecking order priority list is a very distant third.

I already have stated my pro-Seliger bias in this dust-up. The Texas Panhandle — where I used to live — and the rest of Seliger’s vast Senate District 31 have been disserved mightily by Patrick’s petulance. He referred to Seliger in an earlier DMN piece as a “corrosive force” in the Senate. The comments given to the Morning News by senators in both political parties paint a vastly different picture of the man with whom they have worked and served our great state.

I will continue to stand by my friend, Sen. Seliger.

Texas GOP is eating its own

The Texas Republican Party used to be represented among its elected officials as an organization dedicated to low taxes, local control and individual liberty. There was little else at the top of the party’s agenda.

That’s no longer the case. It now gets involved in issues such as use of public restrooms, school vouchers and whether we should allow prayer in public school classrooms.

I mention this in light of the recent tumult involving two key Texas Republicans: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Kel Seliger.

Patrick has kicked Seliger, of Amarillo, out of the chairmanship of two Senate committees and removed him from membership on two others. Seliger didn’t like one of the chairmanships he got, said something to a radio talk show host and then got the boot from that chairmanship.

Patrick blames Seliger’s impolite remarks about a key Patrick aide; Seliger blames the tempest on the vast differences in the two men’s approach to government. Spoiler alert: I am going to side with Seliger on this one.

Which brings me to a key point. I once wondered aloud whether Seliger has a place in today’s Texas GOP. I posited the notion that the party has moved away from the senator’s more pragmatic approach to government. Given the rigid ideology that at times drives Patrick’s legislative agenda, I am thinking once again that might be the case.

The closest thing I can find in Seliger’s political portfolio that might tilt him toward a “socially conservative” viewpoint is his strong support for gun owners’ rights. He calls himself a proud member of the National Rifle Association. The rest of his legislative political career has focused more on the value of public education, on keeping our tax burden low, fighting for private property ownership, issues that matter to the rural West Texans who help re-elect him to the Senate every four years.

Patrick well might believe in all that, too, but he goes a whole lot farther than Seliger does. He pushed that idiotic Bathroom Bill through the Senate in 2017, only to watch it die in the House when then-Speaker Joe Straus declared it dead on arrival. The bill would have required transgender individuals to use public restrooms in accordance to their gender at birth. Discrimination, anyone?

That’s the kind of nonsense that seems to drive so many Texas Republicans in public office these days. I don’t believe Seliger — whom I have known well for the past 24 years — buys into that agenda.

So these two men have butted heads.

Patrick presides over the Senate. He can assign or un-assign senators to whichever committees he chooses.

Sen. Seliger calls himself a proud Republican. I believe he does so with sincerity. The problem, as I see it, is whether the GOP leadership is aligned with this good man’s practical sense of government’s reach and its limitation. I fear it isn’t.

Sen. Seliger deserves better than what he got

I cannot put aside the shafting that Texas state Sen. Kel Seliger got from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. And as a result, Patrick also gave the shaft to hundreds of thousands of West Texans who deserve to be represented by their veteran lawmaker.

And for what reason? Because the Republican senator isn’t loyal enough to the ideological agenda proposed and pushed by the Republican lieutenant governor! From my vantage point, I believe Seliger answers first to the West Texans who have elected him to the Texas Senate, not the guy who runs the state’s upper legislative chamber.

Patrick removed Seliger, of Amarillo, as chairman of the Senate Higher Ed Committee; he pulled him off the Senate Education Committee and the Finance Committee. He installed him as chair of the Agriculture Committee, then pulled him out of the chairmanship after Seliger made what Patrick thought was an “lewd” comment about a key Patrick aide.

Seliger believes Patrick is angry over the senator’s resistance toward some of the rigid ideological views that Patrick expresses on occasion. He favors public schools and opposes Patrick’s push for vouchers to lure students away from public education.

So now the residents of Texas Senate District 31 have a senator in office with vastly reduced political clout. Shameful, I tell you!

This tempest reminds me a little of an earlier fight between two congressional Republicans, one of whom represented West Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich was a champion of something called Freedom to Farm. He had led the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 and pushed the Freedom to Farm bill in the House. It would have dramatically overhauled federal farm policy, which didn’t set well with then-U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, who represented West Texas from Lubbock to Amarillo. Combest resisted Freedom to Farm and voted against it.

Gingrich thought he would punish Combest by denying him a House Agricultural Committee chairmanship. Combest stood firm, telling Gingrich in no uncertain terms that he didn’t work for the speaker, but worked for the farmers and ranchers who elected him to the House. He was their man, not Gingrich’s errand boy.

Combest wouldn’t be bullied by Gingrich in the 1990s. Seliger won’t be bullied by Patrick now.

I see a certain similarity between these two pairings. I pulled for Combest in his fight with the House speaker and I am pulling for Seliger in this feud with the Texas lieutenant governor.

Both men stood and are standing with the men and women who elect them, not the bully who seeks to call the shots in the legislative chamber.

Where is the Texas Senate’s wise man?

I don’t know where he is at this very moment, but I cannot stop thinking about Bill Ratliff as I read about the tension building between two key players in the Texas Senate.

Ratliff served as lieutenant governor in the early 2000s. He was elevated to that post by his fellow state senators after Lt. Gov. Rick Perry moved into the governor’s office after the 2000 election of George W. Bush as president of the United States.

Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant in East Texas, was generally a revered political figure in the Texas Capitol. He enjoyed tremendous bipartisan support. Why is that? Because he didn’t govern with a heavy hand.

Ratliff must be grinding his teeth as he follows this stuff.

Oh, man. The mood in Austin is a whole lot different these days. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick not only has pi**** off his Democratic colleagues, he’s managing to antagonize his fellow Republicans. One of them is a fellow I’ve known quite well for more than two decades, Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo.

Patrick is telling the rest of the GOP Senate caucus the following messages: Do it my way . . . or else! The “or else” in Seliger’s case arrived when Patrick took away the chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee and removed Seliger from the Education and Finance committees. Patrick then threw Seliger a bone when he named him chair of the newly formed Agriculture Committee, a post that Seliger reportedly didn’t thrill him.

A Patrick aide said that if Seliger believed the Ag post was “beneath him” he could ask to be withdrawn and Patrick could appoint someone else. Seliger then told a Lubbock radio host — in so many words — that the aide could kiss his “rear end.”

Patrick then responded to that by yanking Seliger out of the Agriculture panel’s chairmanship post.

Imagine any of this occurring with Bill Ratliff as the Man of the Senate. I cannot wrap my head around that.

To be clear, I do not know Ratliff. I only know of him. Just as I don’t know Patrick, either, but I certainly know of this guy.

Patrick is playing hardball. He is using his considerable power to punish one of the Senate’s more senior members because the two of them don’t view the world through the same ideological prism.

Here is how the Texas Tribune sees this saga.

The Texas Senate used to have a tradition of bipartisanship. The lieutenant governor used to govern with an eye toward enlisting support from the minority party’s senators. To think that a lieutenant governor — whether Democrat or Republican — would punish a member of his own caucus has been a heretofore unthinkable occurrence.

I wish we could find another Bill Ratliff out there somewhere. They didn’t call him “Obi-Wan Kenobie,” the wise man from “Star Wars,” for nothing.