Losing My Lege is a weekly column about the goings-on in and around the Austin capitol building during the 84th Texas legislature.
The 84th Texas legislature convened this week, with a new batch of lawmakers, lobbyists, and elected officials poised to defend some of Texans’ most cherished freedoms: the right to eat cupcakes and carry unlicensed handguns in public.
Yes, cupcakes. Newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller held a press conference on Monday announcing that his first official act would be to grant amnesty to cupcakes in Texas schools, taking a bold stance against the oppressive big-government regulation that … does not, actually, ban cupcakes in Texas schools.
In fact, “Lauren’s Law,” in place since 2005, specifically allows Texas kids to enjoy cupcakes and other sweets at class parties, despite regulations that put limits on other junk food in public school classrooms and lunch rooms. Undeterred by the minor hiccup of reality, Miller took the opportunity to engage in a little political grandstanding, letting “everybody know” that on his watch, “the government here in Texas is getting out of your lives.”
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Lord, if it only were the truth.
While the cupcakes of Texas were basking in the sweet glow of their not-so-newfound freedoms, gun rights activists stormed legislators’ offices to demand support for HB 195, which would repeal Texas’ 125-year-old ban on the carrying of unlicensed handguns in public. Members of a Fort Worth-area open carry group—one of whom reportedly, according to a Houston Chronicle quote from house Democrat Poncho Nevarez, “reeked of marijuana”—were so aggressive with lawmakers that they prompted the Republican-dominated Texas house to make the installation of “panic buttons” in capitol offices one of its very first orders of business this session instead. Those are necessary, apparently, to protect lawmakers from the good guys with guns. The rest of us are on our own.
Speaking of grandstanding, literally: Sen. Konni Burton, the anti-choice Tea Partier who won Wendy Davis’ old District 10 seat in November, took her oath of office while wearing black leather boots embossed with the phrase “stand for life,” digging in her heels, as it were, against the pink sneakers famously worn by Davis during her 2013 filibuster against Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion bill.
Indeed, anti-choice lawmakers seem intent on reminding everyone just how willing they are to continue chipping away at abortion access. Now that HB 2 has shuttered the majority of Texas abortion facilities, legislators are turning their attention to some oft-proposed bills that, in years past, have taken a backseat to more stringent TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion provider) laws and mandatory ultrasounds.
So far, right-wing lawmakers have filed six bills that would affect the provision of abortion care in the state, including a sex-selective abortion ban, increased regulation of the judicial bypass process that some minors must use to obtain abortion care, and a law that would require abortion facility employees to “complete training on human trafficking.” Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) has also proposed a ban on allowing abortion providers or affiliates—Planned Parenthood, basically—from providing sex education in Texas schools.
Undeterred, a few outnumbered but tenacious Democrats have also filed bills that would increase access to abortion care and other reproductive health services: Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) wants to eliminate Texas’ mandatory 24-hour pre-abortion waiting period and Rep. Mary González (D-El Paso) has proposed bills that would widen the criteria for enrollment in the Texas Women’s Health Program and require “medically accurate” sex education material in schools.
Overall, as Texans say goodbye to the 14-year Perry administration, they turn to newly elected Gov. Greg Abbott, formerly the state’s attorney general, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a former state senator and right-wing talk radio show host, for signals on what to expect next.
Right-turn signals are a good bet. Lt. Gov. Patrick, whose office wields the most political power in the state legislature, announced last week that he intends to do all he can to defund the state’s Public Integrity Unit, which is charged with investigating corruption in public offices—much to the chagrin of lawmakers like Gov. Perry, who was indicted last year on coercion and bribery charges when he cut funding to the PIU in an attempt to force the Travis County district attorney to resign.
This week, Patrick announced he’d be getting down to to business—or perhaps, down with business. Specifically, the business of appointing business tycoons and Republican political donors to what he calls the “Lieutenant Governor’s Advisory Boards of Private Citizens,” which will advise lawmakers on public issues ranging from transportation to tax policies, at last giving voice to Texas’ much-marginalized and oft-ignored wealthy white guy contingent. (Of the 55 appointees, just six are women.)
What kind of indispensable advice will these rag-tag bands of average Joes offer? Well, as an example, Patrick appointed fabulously rich natural gas investor T. Boone Pickens to chair the “Energy / Oil & Gas” board, to which he may offer such expertise as denying that fracking has caused a disturbing upswing in earthquakes across North Texas.
The boards are, said Patrick at a press conference on Thursday, an opportunity for business leaders to bring “insight and new ideas” that legislators may not yet have thought of—in other words, he’s rolled out the red carpet to the best-funded lobbyists in the state.
I sort of have to admire Patrick’s gall. After all, the Tea Partier campaigned on challenging capitol insiders and standing up for the little guy, but his first move in office is to give some of Texas’ most powerful and established business leaders and political donors a direct line to the capitol building, in an unabashed attempt to legitimize the outsized influence that Texas’ wealthiest residents have long had on dictating public policy. And, if Patrick gets his wish, all without that pesky Public Integrity Unit knocking on closed doors.
It all makes me wonder: Why should lawmakers be the only ones with panic buttons?