Prop 6 Seeps Into Republican Politics

Gov. Rick Perry, House Speaker Joe Straus and state Sen. Troy Fraser have traveled to drought-stricken towns all over the state to demonstrate the importance of the vote on Proposition 6, which would provide $2 billion in new water financing.

But the implications of this year’s constitutional elections go beyond the future of Texas’ water supply. By pulling from the Rainy Day Fund instead of general appropriations, Proposition 6 may be the best chance state legislators have to fund water projects without raising taxes — the only way Republicans could back a significant commitment of state funds to infrastructure.

“We really believe that after we pass this, that we’re going to be able to fund [water] for the next 50 years,” Fraser said. “Our hope is that we never have to come back to the Legislature for money.” 

At the same time, touching the state’s savings account has drawn the ire of the Tea Party, making water another issue that has driven a wedge among conservatives.

“It’s this battle within the Republican Party,” said Debra Medina, who won 19 percent of the vote in the governor's race in 2010 and is now running for comptroller. “It’s not so much a Republican-Democrat battle as it is for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.”

Indeed, while Democrats initially cried foul over using the Rainy Day Fund for water and not for public education, Proposition 6 now has widespread bipartisan support. Even liberal environmental groups like the Sierra Club are on board — though some suggest they have little choice, having fought hard during the legislative session to make sure 20 percent of projects are for water conservation or reuse.

Instead, it is the hard-core conservatives running for statewide office who are in an awkward position. While state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, has enthusiastically supported Proposition 6, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott is giving only tepid approval.

Abbott, who like Davis is running for governor, has emphasized that the measure should be a “one-time draw” from the Rainy Day Fund, even recently proposing another constitutional amendment that would limit instances in which legislators could “raid” the account. Republican Tom Pauken has said he is undecided on the water proposition. Libertarian Kathie Glass is against it.

Many other serious contenders in statewide races with a large Tea Party base of support have reacted similarly.

Medina considers herself an exception.

“You’ve got this very stark divide between those in elected office and those that aren’t,” she said of the statewide candidates’ views. “They all pledge allegiance to the same thing, but if you’re not willing to actually draw lines in the sand and actually take these tough positions ... your belief is worthless.”

Medina said the vote will be a test of whether the Tea Party base can show up and send a message to Republicans, as it has in high-profile elections like last year's U.S. Senate race. But though twice as many Texans have cast ballots early compared with the same point in 2011’s constitutional elections, the higher turnout is not expected to help the conservative cause.

The bulk of voters so far come from Houston, where Mayor Annise Parker’s re-election bid and the decision of what to do with the Astrodome have boosted turnout significantly. While the rainy region has been far less affected by drought, it is also largely Democratic, suggesting it could offset the votes Medina and others are counting on. 

Nonetheless, proponents aren’t taking any chances. The Water Texas Political Action Committee, headed by Straus, Fraser and state Rep. Allan Ritter, has raised $2 million since the campaign began, spending $1.7 million in the past month. The latest campaign finance data shows a good chunk of that went to on-the-ground efforts and media buys in the Houston region. More than $1 million was spent on major media buys, including an ad with former baseball star and Texas Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan.

No such campaign frenzy has been documented on the other side, beyond Tea Party voter guides and active email lists. But Proposition 6 opponents have highlighted their grassroots nature, compared with the corporate-financed support of the measure. Among the biggest contributors to Water Texas PAC have been Dow Chemical Company, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, ConocoPhillips and Energy Future Holdings/Luminant.

Opponents have also pointed out that major industrial and construction interests have been big donors, suggesting they are jockeying for the contracts for giant water projects that are sure to come. Freese and Nichols, a major engineering consulting firm, is a major donor to the H2O4Texas PAC.

That allegation caused Bob Pence, the firm’s CEO, to chuckle.

“Heck, don’t fund it and let these emergencies occur,” Pence said. One of his firm’s biggest contracts recently, he said, was to work on a $300 million emergency pipeline needed in North Texas after the invasive zebra mussels caused fears of polluting the region’s water supply.

“It’s been a very nice deal for us,” he said.

Measuring Attorney General Candidates on Smart Meters

Chairman Barry Smitherman of the Railroad Commission of Texas in his office, May 31, 2013.
Chairman Barry Smitherman of the Railroad Commission of Texas in his office, May 31, 2013.

Unlike their counterparts in the lieutenant governor’s race, the three Republicans vying to be the state’s next attorney general — state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney and Texas Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman of Houston — have largely refrained from drawing any knives in public.

But a message from Branch’s campaign manager that was published on a conservative blog earlier this week — despite being sent “on background” — highlighted one line of attack being worked behind the scenes: smart meters.

When Smitherman served as the Public Utility Commission chairman, the agency mandated the installation of those advanced meters throughout the state to measure energy use. At the time, he widely promoted the use of smart meters.

Since then, the issue has become increasingly controversial among a small but vocal segment of the population that has raised privacy and health concerns about the devices.

Smitherman has responded by distancing himself from the policy. In July, more than two years after he left the commission, he sent a letter to the PUC encouraging it to adopt an opt-out provision, which it did in August.

This week, a letter from Enrique Marquez, Branch’s campaign manager, appeared online, asking, “Commissioner Smitherman has been very public in his support of smart meters in the past — why the sudden change?”

The note from Marquez, which referred to Smitherman’s current position as “blatant hypocrisy,” was prompted by a post on a different conservative blog that placed the blame for the smart meter mandate on Branch and Paxton, both of whom voted for a 2005 bill that directed the PUC to develop plans related to smart meters.

Smitherman, through a spokesman, argued that he had not changed his tune on smart meters, but had rather been “carrying out the directive from the Legislature” when he pushed for the mandate, and then, after waiting an appropriate amount of time since leaving the commission, clarified his personal opinion this year.

“Barry’s the only candidate in the race that has expressed his desire to the PUC for Texas residents to be able to opt out of smart meters and the Legislature-Ken Paxton-Dan Branch mandate,” Smitherman spokesman Jared Craighead said.

The 2005 legislation in question, House Bill 2129 by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, passed without opposition and said “the Legislature encourages the adoption of these technologies by electric utilities in this state.” It also required the commission to study and identify ways to “remove barriers to the use of advanced metering and metering information networks or of other advanced transmission and distribution technologies.”

But Bonnen said the legislation left the specifics of the state’s approach up to the commission. “For Barry Smitherman or anyone else to suggest otherwise is just a cover-your-ass is all it is,” he said. “It’s pretty cut and dry. There is zero mandate in the legislation.”

This echoes the sentiments Bonnen expressed to the PUC in a 2012 letter. While he acknowledged that the bill required the agency to develop a plan for the deployment of smart meters, he continued: “I am greatly concerned that certain providers are acting beyond the purview of HB 2129 by forcing smart meters on customers. This was not the intent of the legislation."

Justin Padgett of Texans Against Smart Meters said he felt like the account from Smitherman’s campaign was not “forthright and honest.” He also said he had not been able ascertain the positions of the other candidates. “They probably don’t differ all that much,” he said.

Indeed, as with many issues, there does not appear to be much daylight between the candidates’ current positions on smart meters.

“We have heard concerns expressed about smart meters by voters across Texas,” Marquez said in a statement, “and Dan Branch is committed to using all avenues as AG to protecting the privacy of Texas electric consumers.”

Paxton said: “I support a competitive electric market and the freedom for individuals to choose their own electric provider. I believe competition should include the ability for an individual to choose or decline to choose particular utility equipment, including smart meters, free from penalties.”  

He also alleged that the PUC “took liberties to create an individual mandate for smart meters in Texas, which I oppose, and which was against the intent of the Legislature.”

But Tom “Smitty” Smith, the director of the Texas branch of Public Citizen, said that if Branch and Paxton opt to go after Smitherman over smart meters, “they should go back and look at the data before they get on their high horses.”

Smith said Smitherman and the PUC should be praised for assuring that the best technology was used and protocols put in place to minimize security concerns.

“Smitherman, in my mind, wisely made some high-quality decisions that will save Texans money for generations by assuring they are more universally available,” Smith said.

But the real question, he said, noting the small numbers of people who have opted out of smart meters, was, “What does this have to do with the attorney general’s race? This is niche politics at the most microscopic.”

Newsreel: Closing One Election, Opening Another

This week in the Texas Weekly Newsreel: The vote on water and other constitutional amendments is days away, Todd Staples jabs at Dan Patrick and Democrats start testing Ted Cruz's popularity with independent voters.

Inside Intelligence: About Your Privacy...

The federal Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, is unpopular with our insiders in government and politics, with 57 percent saying their view of it is unfavorable, and most of those saying their views are “very unfavorable.”

We also asked about immigration this week. Four out of five insiders would support comprehensive federal immigration reform that would provide a pathway to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.

They also strongly support the idea of granting citizenship to children brought illegally into the U.S. if they do certain things, like enlisting as soldiers (75 percent), going to college (56 percent), working as firefighters (48 percent), working in disaster relief (44 percent) or working as childcare providers (38 percent). When combined with those who “somewhat support” the idea, each of the proposals had a clear majority.

Privacy has been in the news lately, and the institution that most recently got it there — the National Security Agency — was deemed by the insiders as the most likely to violate their constitutional rights or right to privacy. Sixty-two percent said the NSA was very likely to do that; 82 percent said they were very or somewhat likely to violate privacy rights.

Who else was on the “likely” list? Your internet provider (75 percent), your cellphone provider (72 percent), the IRS (70 percent), the CIA (69 percent), the FBI (65 percent), Congress (54 percent), the local police (51 percent) and the president (50 percent). Least likely? The Supreme Court (70 percent unlikely), your bank (55 percent) and the state government (54 percent).

As always, we collected comments along the way and a full set of those is attached. Here’s a sampling:

Please tell us whether you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, neither favorable nor unfavorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable opinion of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

• "Certain reforms need to happen: 1) eliminating life-time caps; 2) eliminating pre-existing condition exclusions; and 3) providing access to health care to those who truly cannot afford it. We did not need the albatross that is Obamacare to accomplish these reforms."

• "Much better would be a single payer system. As long as it's hybrid with the evil insurance companies, there will be problems."

• "The web site problems are minor compared to the problems this law will create."

• "Since I am one of the lucky ones with a great, employer-based health care plan, I am strongly in favor of others having the same sense of security and protection from financial ruin if they get sick. Is this way perfect? No. Do I trust Congress to pass another bill to replace it if repealed? No."

• "It has good pieces, but it's obviously overall a disaster that probably will just get worse over time until it's dismantled. The interesting issue is whether we'll go back to a modest, less ambitious policy that simply fills holes in the current system, or a more radical single payer system. It would take a D sweep to do the latter. I predict the former."

Do you support or oppose passing a comprehensive immigration overhaul at the federal level that would provide a pathway to citizenship for most illegal immigrants currently living in the United States?

• "If by 'comprehensive' you mean a plan that includes a sensible guest worker program AND truly secures our border, then yes. Otherwise, this was tried in the 80s and it failed."

• "Last I checked - that was the American way and how we have come to be the country we are today. A lot of Mexicans died outside of the walls of the Alamo, but let's not forget the ones that died inside as well. This whole attitude of pulling up the ladder once we have climbed on top ourselves only lowers us all."

• "Comprehensive immigration reform would have to mean meeting somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, the two sides of the issue have no sense of middle. Can't let everyone in. Can't keep everyone out."

• "No citizenship. Allow for a guest worker program."

• "Federal law already provides a pathway for illegal immigrants, namely they return to their countries and queue up like their fellow countrymen and go through the legal process."

• "Illegal=against the law. I'm quite moderate, but I think that maybe we should enforce our laws."

Do you support or oppose granting citizenship to persons brought here illegally as children if they...

• "If an individual is willing to put their life on the line in uniform in service to our country, an offer of citizenship should come with that. Otherwise, which occupations or endeavors result in citizenship should be part of a sensible visa program that makes our country stronger intellectually and economically."

• "We do not punish children for the sins of their fathers."

• "We best not devolve into the Roman model of mercenary armies, but as a path to earned citizenship the idea has merit."

• "The only answer that gives me great pause is 'work as a child care provider.' Seems like affluent people are willing to look the other way for their own personal nannies but not for others brought here illegally who go on to pursue college, professional careers or public service."

• "I wouldn't discriminate on the basis of the work the person does. There ought to be a fair process that applies equally to all."

Do you think each of the following institutions, agencies, or individuals are very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely to violate your constitutional rights or right to privacy?

• "Its not paranoia if they are really after you."

• "Terrorism has provided a green light to 'national security' agencies to run amuck and violate wholesale our constitutional rights, virtually unchecked."

• "We wouldn't know if it weren't for the whistle blowers."

• "Well as you can tell by my responses I think 'privacy' is a quaint little thought from the past!"

• "If the State (generic term) has a legitimate need to examine my phone or email records, and keeps the results of that examination confidential, I don't consider that to be a violation. I'd rather have my Gmail scanned by some federal functionary than allow another 911 event in an American city."

• "Seriously? This is a question?" 

Our thanks to this week’s participants: Gene Acuna, Cathie Adams, Brandon Aghamalian, Jenny Aghamalian, Clyde Alexander, George Allen, Jay Arnold, Charles Bailey, Dave Beckwith, Andrew Biar, Allen Blakemore, Tom Blanton, Chris Britton, David Cabrales, Kerry Cammack, Thure Cannon, Snapper Carr, Janis Carter, Corbin Casteel, Jim Chapman, William Chapman, Elizabeth Christian, Elna Christopher, Harold Cook, Kevin Cooper, Chad Crow, Beth Cubriel, Randy Cubriel, Denise Davis, Hector De Leon, June Deadrick, Tom Duffy, David Dunn, Richard Dyer, Jeff Eller, Jack Erskine, John Esparza, Jon Fisher, Norman Garza, Dominic Giarratani, Stephanie Gibson, Eric Glenn, Kinnan Golemon, Jim Grace, Clint Hackney, Anthony Haley, Wayne Hamilton, Bill Hammond, Richard Hardy, John Heasley, Ken Hodges, Steve Holzheauser, Deborah Ingersoll, Richie Jackson, Cal Jillson, Jason Johnson, Bill Jones, Mark Jones, Robert Jones, Lisa Kaufman, Robert Kepple, Richard Khouri, Tom Kleinworth, Sandy Kress, Nick Lampson, Pete Laney, Bill Lauderback, James LeBas, Donald Lee, Luke Legate, Mark Lehman, Leslie Lemon, Vilma Luna, Matt Mackowiak, Dan McClung, Mike McKinney, Debra Medina, Robert Miller, Bee Moorhead, Mike Moses, Nelson Nease, Pat Nugent, Todd Olsen, Nef Partida, Gardner Pate, Robert Peeler, Jerry Philips, Tom Phillips, Wayne Pierce, Richard Pineda, Allen Place, Royce Poinsett, Gary Polland, Jay Pritchard, Jay Propes, Bill Ratliff, Patrick Reinhart, David Reynolds, Grant Ruckel, Jason Sabo, Andy Sansom, Jim Sartwelle, Bruce Scott, Robert Scott, Christopher Shields, Jason Skaggs, Ed Small, Martha Smiley, Todd Smith, Larry Soward, Dennis Speight, Jason Stanford, Bob Stein, Bob Strauser, Colin Strother, Sherry Sylvester, Trey Trainor, John Weaver, Ware Wendell, David White, Darren Whitehurst, Woody Widrow, Seth Winick, Peck Young, Angelo Zottarelli.

The Calendar

Friday, Nov. 1

  • Last day of early voting

Monday, Nov. 4

  • Fundraiser for House candidate Duane Ham; Austin Club (5-7 p.m.)

Tuesday, Nov. 5

  • Election Day
  • Fundraiser for Rep. John Zerwas; Austin Club (4:30-6:30 p.m.)

Wednesday, Nov. 6

  • Fundraiser for Rep. Marisa Marquez; Austin Club (4:30-6:30 p.m.)

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

Texas abortion providers’ Monday victory was short-lived. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday reversed a federal district court ruling that found part of the state's new abortion regulations unconstitutional, meaning the provisions of House Bill 2 could take effect immediately if state officials choose to enforce them.

The Texas Tribune polled all candidates running for statewide office to determine whether they support or oppose Proposition 6. And they built a table that tells you where each of them stands.

In his first major policy address as a gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Greg Abbott proposed tighter constitutional limits on state spending and increased constraints on the Rainy Day Fund.

Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, offered her harshest assessment yet of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, criticizing the Republican's role in the government shutdown. She also rejected comparisons between Cruz's actions and her June filibuster. 

Gov. Rick Perry called the ongoing impeachment investigation into University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall “extraordinary political theater,” and said his appointee’s quest for voluminous records from the University of Texas at Austin was justified. 

A top immigration lawyer says activist immigrants like the DREAM 9 in Arizona betray the cause they champion and can dilute important cases like that of Carlos Gutierrez, who sought asylum in the U.S. after criminal gangs cut his legs off. 

Political People and their Moves

Jake Ellzey of Midlothian, a career naval aviator, will join the Republican primary in HD-10, where state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Midlothian, is retiring next year. 

State District Judge Elizabeth Coker of Polk County agreed to resign and to never sit as a judge again, after the State Commission on Judicial Conduct investigated complaints that, among other things, she had texted a prosecutor during a trial to suggest questions in an attempt to help the state win a conviction. The commission didn’t make any official findings, and the judge didn’t admit to anything. But she agreed to quit and not ever return to the bench. 

Former state Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton told KIII-TV he will run for Orange County judge, a seat opening with the retirement of Carl Thibodeaux.

Karin Johanson will oversee Democrat Wendy Davis’s campaign for governor. Johanson was most recently the campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin. 

Dallas developer Donald Huffines said he will challenge state Sen. John Carona of Dallas in next year’s GOP primary. Huffines said he has never run before; Carona has been in the Legislature since 1990.

Gerald Parker Jr. is the new veep for public health preparedness and response at the Texas A&M Health Science Center. He was previously deputy assistant secretary of defense.

No surprise here: Texas A&M’s board of regents approved the appointment of former state Sen. Tommy Williams as vice chancellor of federal and state relations for the A&M System. Gov. Rick Perry hasn’t called one yet, but there will be a special session to replace Williams until his term is up in 2016.

Quotes of the Week

I always wanted to work with dead people.

Joel Roldan, a funeral director from El Paso, on why he got into a business where Latinos are underrepresented

We remember and honor Davy Crockett’s death at the Alamo. But we celebrate every year Texas Independence Day because of Sam Houston’s victory.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, telling The Washington Post that too many Republicans in Congress are like Davy and that he’d rather be like Sam

I gave them my driver’s license and it went as advertised.

Gov. Rick Perry on his first time voting under the newly implemented voter ID law, as quoted in The Dallas Morning News

It’s not a big deal at all.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to the Austin American-Statesman on the rollout of the voter ID law

If I didn’t care so much about our country, I would hope he would get the Republican nomination for president, because that would mean the end of the Republican Party.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, referring to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in an interview with Rachel Maddow

I get tired of having someone sitting behind me, in my party, canceling my vote.

Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, on why he endorsed the Republican challenger to Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville