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The fairy tale of Texas politics

In an Austin American-Statesman editorial that ran last Saturday, July 2nd, the paper talked quite candidly about the lack of a level playing field in the Texas capital as pointed out by conservative East Texas republican freshman Representative David Simpson and liberal Austin-based Public Citizen director, Tom “Smitty” Smith.

The odd man from East Texas

Austin American-Statesman Editorial Board

July 2, 2011

For whatever reason and for whatever it says about their region, East Texans occasionally send us lawmakers who are just a bit different.

But difference, like diversity, can be good.

David Simpson
Representative David Simpson (R-Longview)

This year, the people of the Pineywoods sent us Republican Rep. David Simpson, who wears his Christian faith on his sleeve and is uninterested in being just another freshman eager to go along to get along.

“I guess I don’t know what a freshman’s supposed to do,” Simpson told the American-Statesman’s Tim Eaton in April.

Last Wednesday, in the special legislative session’s closing moments, Simpson showed he also doesn’t know what a freshman isn’t supposed to do by giving a blistering speech generally critical of legislative process and specifically critical of the death of his bill criminalizing invasive pat-downs by Transportation Security Administration agents.

Simpson’s “personal privilege” speech was odd, and many of his House colleagues consider him a bit odd. Be that as it may — and setting aside what we believe was his misguided war against the TSA — it should be noted that Simpson raised some basic and important questions about legislative process.

“We all, no doubt, were aware that when we came to these grand halls that there also would be within them duplicity and deceit,” he told colleagues. “The challenge, though, is not to succumb to it, not to go along to get along in order to be re-elected, not to be complicit with its corruption.”

Corruption is a strong word. If Simpson has first-hand knowledge of corruption, it is his duty to report it to the proper authorities. But Simpson also pointed to peculiarities of the legislative process that, while somewhere this side of corruption, can cause head-scratching, including the expedited handling of measures on the House Local and Consent Calendar that might not actually meet the requirements for streamlined handling.

He also raised good questions about the no-new-taxes state budget of which Gov. Rick Perry and other Capitol conservatives are so proud.

“Methinks we boast too much,” Simpson cautioned. “Some are touting that we have not raised taxes and have not used the rainy day fund. But let’s be honest about it. We are deferring $4 billion into the next biennium. Is that conservative? Is using tax speed-ups conservative?”

Simpson also noted shortfalls in Medicaid funding and the use of the rainy day fund to balance the current state budget. “And we have not kept up with the enrollment of our schools,” he said. “We are funding our schools a little bit more but not on a per-capita basis.”

“How can it be right to approve a half-billion dollars of handouts to special interests, including commercials for Fortune 500 companies? We put them before our children, before our students, before our coming workforce,” he complained.

Simpson was referring to state records that show subsidies (though not $500 million worth) for the production of commercials for Fortune 500 companies.

Simpson also discussed his support for abolishing the state’s Emerging Technology Fund that doles out dollars to promising business ventures. For his efforts, Simpson said he “was scolded and told (by a state leader) that if I wanted to come back … we’ve got to keep taking pork back to the district.”

“The majority in my district don’t want more pork, more handouts for special interests,” he said. “They want a level playing field.”

“Politics has a lot in common with fairy tales,” he said. “In both arenas, you have to suspend rational faculties in order to comprehend what’s going on.”

He is correct. At the Capitol, when House members flit about the chamber and cast votes for absent colleagues or to register an absent colleague as present, you do indeed have to suspend rational faculties to justify what you’re seeing. You also have to do that when a majority of the members of each chamber blatantly retreat into private to discuss the public’s business.

You also gaze in wonderment when important legislation, including bills that died during the process after lengthy deliberation, spring to life as below-the-radar amendments appended to related or semi-related or unrelated legislation in the session’s closing days.

Tom "Smitty" Smith - Director, Texas office of Public Citizen

It all gets back to what Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen Texas, an advocacy group that bills itself as “the people’s voice,” calls “the three really big lies about the Texas Legislature.”

  1. The first is that “ideas pass and fail on their merits, as opposed to whether they are going to protect the politicians that are in power.”
  2. The second big lie is that the rules are fair. “Anybody who has watched the Legislature knows the clocks don’t run on time and the rules get bent to benefit the people who are the insiders,” Smith said.
  3. The third big lie is that the budget is based on needs. Smith noted that economic development funds controlled by Gov. Rick Perry didn’t get cut, “but we cut budgets for those people who need it the most, whether it be state agency workers or school kids.”

Smith and Simpson probably are on the opposite sides of many issues of importance. But Smith praised Simpson for “calling out the basic lies that permeate the Texas legislative process.”

“He represents the kind of principled politician we all hope we elect every session to represent us,” Smith said.

Some see Simpson as odd. Smith sees something else.

“For me, he is a hero,” Smith said

We should all keep this in mind when we go to the polls to vote.  Kudos to the Statesman for editorializing on this.