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Analysis: You Thought Your State Government Worked For You?

A lot can happen when you're distracted by presidential politics. The past week offered a few relatively local reminders of why politics matters.

Reserved parking places awaited voters at the Hays County Government Center in San Marcos on Feb 25, 2016.

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A lot can happen when you're distracted by presidential politics. The past week offered a few relatively local reminders of why politics matters.

Texas state government can shut down your access to public informationsimply by hiring private businesses to do government work that would otherwise be subject to public scrutiny.

What’s supposed to be the virtuous circle of civics — you elect lawmakers, they get to work, you re-evaluate them on that work and then vote again — has been corrupted. It competes with the commercial circle of civics, where elections are paid for by business interests that are rewarded with state contracts that, incidentally, are protected from public scrutiny because of laws passed by those same business-backed officeholders.

You can blame the Texas Supreme Court, if you’d like, for the ruling that exposed what some call a “monstrous loophole” in the state’s public information laws. Or you can blame the lawmakers who wrote those laws.

Either way, as The Texas Tribune’s Jim Malewitz reported, you can’t find out what it cost McAllen taxpayers to hire Enrique Iglesias to sing in a parade, or how many ride-hailing permits Uber got from the city of Houston.

That’s before you even get to the really big contracts that replace entire departments of state government — in child support, health and human services programs, state prisons and data services.

It might be your money, but the state doesn’t think it’s any of your business.

Your right to choose the people who represent you in government is severely limited.

It’s subverted by self-interested legislators overseen by a lumbering judiciary that preserves the status quo by slow-playing its decisions.

It’s an old gripe about redistricting and other election laws, but that doesn’t mean it’s a misplaced one. Lawmakers choose the voters who will elect them by drawing districts that will keep them or their party — or both — in power.

They’re constrained — barely — by laws that are supposed to prevent some kinds of discrimination. But the courts are painfully slow to remedy unfair political maps, and the process starts all over again when new maps are drawn every decade. It’s hard to replace incumbents voters don’t like, which makes it difficult, for instance, to regulate that “commercial circle” described above.

The litigation over photo voter ID and redistricting that began in 2011 in Texas is still underway. The courts are forcing the state to remove some of its restrictions on voting, but the redistricting judges haven’t done anything — changed maps, made a ruling, raised a question — since their last hearing.

That was two years ago.

The political maps matter. Only a handful of federal and state legislative seats are competitive, and only certain kinds of candidates are truly eligible contestants even in those districts. Those lines are set by the mapmakers, and the courts are supposed to make sure they’re fair — or at least legal — in a timely enough fashion to make a difference.

All of that business and civics stuff might be a little boring. How about life and death?

The safety of Texans with mental illness is sometimes held second to the reputations of the agencies charged with protecting them. Those agencies react to trouble — if at all — by hiding their misdeeds in personnel files and bureaucratic nonsense. A case in point, reported by the Tribune’s Edgar Walters: Keith Clayton, a 55-year-old committed to a state-run psychiatric hospital in Wichita Falls, was killed by attendants there who were trying to restrain him. It took five months for the medical examiner to determine that “an accident” had caused his death. The family, two years later, has never received an explanation.

It recalls something former Gov. Rick Perry said at a public policy conference last month about the power of government.

“Sometimes we forget that the IRS isn’t the only government agency capable of abusing its authority,” he told the American Legislative Exchange Council. “Anyone wielding the power of the state faces the temptation to abuse it.”

Perry was talking about criminal prosecutors run amok. That is hardly the only part of government that either doesn’t do the job it’s supposed to do — like that psych hospital in West Texas — or is doing a job voters had no idea was underway, like the public business outsourced to private firms with limited accountability to voters.

The attention-grabbing wizardry of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton notwithstanding, there are plenty of examples of what’s really at stake when we choose the people who represent us. Voting isn’t just about personalities, and government isn’t just about partisan politics.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

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Politics 2016 elections Department of State Health Services Health And Human Services Commission Redistricting