Don’t expect a rosy report from me regarding Texas’s new all-guy crop of officials who took office last month. To feel any hope whatsoever, you need to be uber-Christian, gun loving, anti-women’s choice and equal pay, or a big business type. Although Texas is swimming in those flavors, I wear none of those labels, as you regular readers already know.
With disclaimers out of the way, let me tell you that it’s not easy picking the worst among our officialdom. For example, the new Commissioner of Agriculture immediately announced his support for cupcakes in schools to the delight of his cupcake-growing constituency and despair of those concerned about our growing (and growing) children. The new Attorney General Ken Paxton may still be indicted for the crime of undisclosed securities solicitation for which he’s already paid a pittance of a fine to the State Securities Board. Moreover, General Paxton has filled the top ranks of his office with guys from the Ted Cruz shop, thereby guaranteeing that the AG’s office will continue as a political vehicle to attack the federal government, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency.
This, of course, was Greg Abbott’s – our former AG’s – agenda. Now that he’s moved on to the Governor’s mansion, he’s expressed his continued support to make sure Texas suffers from as much poisonous air as his big business donors see fit. This way, we can all get sick and suffocate to death free of the federal government’s interference. But, man, doesn’t it feel good to assert our state’s right to dirty air!!
Even as bad as these guys sound, the prize for worst new officeholder goes to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick who is keen on presiding over a theocracy. He’s outdone the other guys in religious fervor by wrapping himself in the flag of Jesus Christ and proclaiming that no separation exists between church and state. During the recent inauguration ceremonies Patrick told the assembled multitude, “I respect all faiths and religions, but I am a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third, and I praise Jesus for this moment and this day.” So, where does serving the citizens of Texas as a presiding officer of the Senate and advocate for democracy come in? Fourth, fifth, tenth?
Aside from his fixation on giving Jesus a seat at the table, Patrick gets more low marks with his plan to run the Senate with the aid of a group of (unelected) plutocrats. These movers and shakers in the business world have been appointed to six policy committees including the following: Economic and Workforce Development; Economic Forecasting; Energy/Oil and Gas Tax Policy; Transportation; and Water. And it should come as no surprise that the proceedings of these panels will remain closed to the public.
Patrick says the idea for the committees came to him during his campaign when meeting with “literally hundreds of successful businessmen and women from every kind of business one can imagine.” In short order, he was struck with the idea “that these entrepreneurs could be a valuable asset to the Texas Senate in helping craft policy initiatives. I began asking many of these business leaders (if I were elected), would they consider volunteering their time and expertise to address the major issues of today and tomorrow, that face Texas.”
Fifty-five of the invitees accepted his offer, all of them major donors to political causes. Some are Democrats, but most are Republican. Thirty-seven of them are listed as donating to the Dan Patrick campaign. Oil tycoon, billionaire T. Boone Pickens, head of the Energy advisory committee donated more than $30,000 in the last two years.
Mr. Pickens is joined on that committee by Tim Dunn, the money behind the conservative group Empower Texans, that donated more than $50,000 to Patrick’s campaign. On the Economic Forecasting panel is Fertitta Tilman who gave more than $100,000 in the name of Landry’s Restaurants. And Brint Ryan, head of Patrick’s tax policy advisory panel is a tax consultant specializing in helping companies like Raytheon and ExxonMobil win Texas tax breaks. Mr. Ryan donated $250,000 to Rick Perry’s presidential campaign effort alone.
In other words, Patrick’s anointed 55 are not neutral technocrats and disinterested business people, rather longtime GOP donors, and many who have a strong personal interest in what the state does and doesn’t do. As a whole, the six policy panels represent a potential rat’s nest of conflicts of interest and influence peddling, as one media source described it.
And try to control your gag reflex as you hear Patrick wax not-so eloquently and oh-so sympathetically about his new friends. As he explains, “Often in Texas, the private sector is asked for help by a candidate but after they get elected, there’s not much follow up.” How sad to think, he laments, that “a legislative body [would want] to disconnect themselves from the private sector.”
And get this novel (NOT) idea: these people, he tells us, could “provide us with insight or new ideas that we haven’t thought of.” And just imagine, “. . . if we have an idea, a piece of legislation, they will tell us how [it will] work, how [it will] impact” their industries, says Patrick. And better yet, these formerly voiceless plutocrats are so darn grateful! Patrick says that his group are “really excited about someone in Austin listening to what they have to say.” Are you gagging yet?
Unlike Senate committees that hear public testimony from any and all who have some insights or impacts to share on legislation, any ideas that the 55 generate in the form of a legislative proposal will be transmitted to the public via Lt. Gov. Patrick himself. Whew!! So glad he’s addressed our transparency concern!! In fact, he tells us, there’s one already! (Surprise!) The proposal would require that twenty percent of new vehicles purchased by Texas state agencies should run on CNG, compressed natural gas.
It takes little head-scratching to realize that this legislative proposal came from Energy panel head T. Boone Pickens, the same T. Boone Pickens who controls a California company called Clean Energy Fuels Corporation. And this would be the same company that is heavily invested in natural gas and seeks to become a leader in CNG. As of January of last year, Clean Energy was losing money and looking for new fleets of vehicles it could serve. Along comes the Patrick campaign soliciting donations, and Pickens found his solution.
Clearly, this is typical Texas influence peddling, but it has taken an unusual form, mostly because the new lieutenant governor really doesn’t like open government, or any government for that matter. In fact, he seems to think Texas government is so stale and infirm that he’s invited his new unelected friends to give us some guidance and new ideas (not to mention some bidding to do)!!
In a remarkable piece of hubris, even for Houston’s own blowhard radio jock, Patrick likens these panels to a “team of rivals,” as coined by Doris Kearns Goodwin for her book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genuis of Abraham Lincoln.” The members of that team included Lincoln and three other men, all of whom were opponents for the Republican nomination in 1860. Despite the other three’s disdain for Lincoln – based on his lack of formal education and backwoods upbringing – the new president subsequently invited the other three to serve in his cabinet as a way of disarming them.
Hence, Patrick’s description of his newly named panels as a team of rivals could not be more ludicrously misplaced. First, the team in Dr, Goodwin’s book were politicians, not business people and donors. Second, the members of Patrick’s informal committees are not rivals even in the business world, representing various industries and interests. Third, most are Republican party donors who consistently support the same candidates, including Patrick. Rivals? Maybe on the golf course.
As for any possible comparison to Lincoln and/or genius of any kind? I’m just waiting for Dr. Goodwin to stand up and say, “I know Abraham Lincoln, and you, Mr. Patrick, are no Abraham Lincoln.”
But even that put-down would likely have little impact on Patrick’s delusions of grandeur and his vision of being the ultimate puppet master of state government. Texas Monthly wrote in 2013 that during his seven years as senator, Patrick had little appreciation for legislative protocol and tradition. Explaining why he was named among the 10 worst legislators, the magazine said, “There are few types of lawmakers less helpful to the legislative process than bullies and ideologues. Unfortunately, Dan Patrick too often seemed to be both . . .”
His latest example – the empaneled 55 – exemplifies his willingness to eviscerate the established committee process of the Senate. Are the members and heads of the Senate committees – who Patrick himself appoints – going to be nothing more than paper tigers? Will they even get a glimpse of Mr. Pickens and hear what he might have to say about CNG? Probably not. Mr. Pickens already has his high-profile ear and mouthpiece, after all.
If you haven’t caught on by now, I’m not buying Patrick’s snake oil about these business leaders and their lack of legislative access. If anyone has access in Austin, it’s Patrick’s 55. His creation of a toll road for super access comes with the bonus of their not having to go on the public record, be questioned, opposed, or required to take an oath before testifying. They can tell him virtually anything.
Since we all know these folks aren’t voiceless, the real purpose of these private panels appears to be nothing more than a fancy payback for previous donations, along with securing their future donations. Patrick, you see, has charted himself a long political career.
I wonder how many among the Patrick 55 have figured out that they may have bought a candidate, but the reverse may also be true? Do these advisory panel appointments nail them firmly in his camp for the foreseeable future and serve to discourage even side-long glances at other candidates? Will they be able to speak out or even testify at a legislative committee (assuming they get a wild hair) without Patrick’s express consent? In other words, have they sold their free speech rights or, at least, given Patrick rights of first refusal in furtherance of his attack on democracy and secular government?
If nothing else, it will be interesting to see if Patrick has outsmarted these titans of industry and business, not to mention those tea partiers he had to dance with to get this far in his political career. And, we might want to see how far he can go before the thirty-one senators he presides over get tired of being treated as irrelevant. After all, the powers of the lieutenant governor are determined by the Senate itself, not state law. It would be fun to see them tell the emperor he is wearing no clothes.
Texas has long been the home of outrageous politicians, so it’s hard to entertain us with new tricks. But as the new legislative session gets warmed up, one has to admit that we are venturing into new territory with this lieutenant governor and his over-inflated balls. We just have to control our gag reflexes!