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Analysis: Deflection by Officials is Worth Noting

It's diversion season: Top state officials, not surprisingly, would rather talk about red-meat political issues than indictments and legally contested budget vetoes.

Attorney General Ken Paxton (left) and Gov. Greg Abbott.

Diversions seem to be the order of the day.

Attorney General Ken Paxton is ducking questions about the proceedings of a Collin County grand jury that is considering allegations that he committed felony security violations as a private attorney.

Paxton has not been eager to comment on that, but he did make a very public appearance before a legislative committee looking into secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood honchos saying remarkably [insert your preferred adjective here] things about abortions and the use of fetal tissues. And a spokesman has earnestly declaimed the merits of the people and process that delivered it to the grand jury.

Gov. Greg Abbott is turning talk about potentially unconstitutional budget vetoes into a fundraising appeal based on his opposition to Common Core — a national standard for public school curriculum. Maybe that seems like a leap, but it’s more of a 90-degree turn: One of the vetoes would cancel state funding to an organization that Abbott believes is a supporter of that program.

Instead of talking about indictments and vetoes, those two state officeholders are talking about abortion and education.

That’s neither wrong nor unusual, but the deflection is worth noting. To be fair, Anthony Holm, speaking for Paxton, has been a quote machine, flaying the special prosecutors as both inexperienced at what they’re doing now and somewhat shady for their regular business as criminal defense attorneys.

“Normally, seasoned prosecutors are appointed to aid investigations,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Austin American-Statesman. “Instead, these two defense lawyers have built incredibly lucrative practices defending people charged with crimes, including drug and child sex crimes — the very type of criminal Attorney General Paxton tries to put in prison. One wonders about the impartiality of the appointed special prosecutors when their trade is defending those charged with the most heinous of crimes.”

One wonders why you would attack the people taking your case to a grand jury if you thought you had a chance of getting out of there without an indictment, too. By the way, one of the ne’er do wells represented by special prosecutor Brian Wice was Thomas Dale DeLay, the former U.S. House majority leader who, after a long, long fight, was acquitted of charges related to campaign finance in the 2003 campaigns.

And another thing, if you forgot this page from your civics book: A Texas attorney general is a civil lawyer who handles criminal cases only occasionally and at the request of local district attorneys. They appear as crime-fighters mainly in their dreams and in their campaign advertisements.

But this is politics, and the Planned Parenthood videos have become a national story. That makes it easier for Paxton to swap headlines he likes for headlines he doesn’t.

The governor’s diversion is not the same. He’s not in trouble, for one thing, and it rarely hurts a governor to flog the legislature or a state bureaucracy. Abbott vetoed more than $200 million from the state budget he signed last month. It’s a piddling amount against the $209.4 billion in spending outlined in that budget, but it started a shoving match over the governor’s veto powers.

The Legislative Budget Board, co-chaired by the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House, sent a memo to the state comptroller questioning whether Abbott has the constitutional power to veto most of the items he specified. It’s a technical argument over what constitutes an “item of appropriation.” And it’s an argument over political power — where the Legislature’s power stops and the governor’s begins when it comes to the budget.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick somewhat surprisingly sided with the governor and blasted the director of the LBB for sending the memo, even though one of his top aides had signed off on it.

The veto story isn’t over: State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, wrote a letter to San Antonio officials there encouraging them to challenge the veto of funds for replacement of a government building there. Abbott suggested in his veto proclamation that the project needed more study.

Rather than haggle over that, Abbott’s political office jumped into high gear to talk about his veto of state dues to the Southern Regional Education Board. “RT to support my veto of Common Core funding & needless spending that Austin Bureaucrats are trying to reinstate,” he tweeted last week, linking to a petition on his campaign website.

That ignores the legislators who approved the spending in the first place, by overwhelming margins in both the House and the Senate. Not to mention the source of the memo questioning his power: a budget agency overseen by top lawmakers from both chambers.

It could change the subject to his advantage, though: What Texas lawmaker wants to defend Common Core?

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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