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Analysis: Sometimes, the Texas political agenda sets itself

Between courts and scandals, football and storms, rats of the literal and figurative varieties, state leaders have lately been forced to react to outside events instead of using their offices to set their own agendas.

Gov. Greg Abbott presents Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner with a $50 million check for Hurricane Harvey relief on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.

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Bad news has a way of hanging in there — it persists — in spite of the wishes of the ruling class in Texas.

It’s hard to control the agenda when you can’t control people’s attention, and there is really only one person right now who can reliably change the course of civic conversation with a single tweet, and he’s not a Texan.

Texas officeholders have a lot less control, and they’re in a bumpy patch. Between courts and scandals, football and storms, rats of the literal and figurative varieties, state leaders have lately been forced to react to outside events instead of blazing new trails and dazzling voters with improvements in education, healthcare, transportation and all the other things government does.

Texas was back in court this week, defending the current version of a voter photo ID law that the courts have found wanting in every form the state has presented. This time, that law — found by a number of judges to be “intentionally discriminatory” — is in the hands of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. In arguments this week, some of the judges on that court questioned whether intentional discrimination took place, but the same court ruled earlier that the law discriminates against voters of color.

Appeals courts sometimes take their sweet time, but Texas has early party primaries. Voting begins Feb. 20 — less than 11 weeks from now, and the primary itself is on March 6. As it stands, the courts are allowing the state to use the current law in those elections.

That’s a persistent bit of bad news: It started when the Legislature first adopted the law, in 2011, and it’s still in the state’s craw more than six years later.

U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, is chewing on another bit of persistent bad news — fresh revelations that the $84,000 settlement of a 2014 sexual harassment case against him was paid with taxpayer money. That’s legal, apparently, but the timing couldn’t be much worse for the incumbent. With less than a week to go before the candidate-filing deadline and that reelection race looming, he told KRIS-TV that he’ll repay the taxpayers. “I want to be clear that I didn't do anything wrong, but I also don't want taxpayers to be on the hook for this,” Farenthold told the TV station.

He’s probably going to have to repeat that at campaign appearances when voters ask him what’s going on, and whether he’s finished his repayment plan.

Texas legislators put a new policy on sexual harassment in place for the Texas House — they set up training and attempted to make it harder to retaliate against victims of harassment who report abuse. But House leaders also admitted that they have handled past cases informally — a change from earlier assertions that they had received no complaints.

No “official” complaints, anyway. Another bit of bad news that keeps rising to the top. And it’s not anywhere close to ending: The Senate, for its part, is also working on a policy but hasn’t held public hearings.

Real rats turned up, too, in significant numbers. The Austin building that houses the state’s Health and Human Services Commission needs exterminators to deal with hundreds of rodents. And the rat revelations have unearthed other maladies of deferred maintenance, like mold problems. That’s not the way popular political initiatives are born.

Nor is this: Texas A&M University hired a new football coach, Jimbo Fisher. His start was as notable for the $75 million price tag as for the new hope himself. This could be good news again before it’s bad news again; that’s the way sports stories go. Coaches are some of the most expensive temps in the labor pool — popular, usually, when they’re new and unpopular, often, on their way out. Fisher got a little noise at the start, but if he’s lucky, he’s just a few wins away from becoming the next good news.

Texas and Florida have teamed up in their worry over federal disaster relief, afraid that Congress won’t pay what’s needed to repair and replace what was lost to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

It’s another case of events choosing officials’ priorities and concerns instead of those officials picking their own fights and their own flags to wave.

This will pass, unless something comes up.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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