Analysis: A conniption fit disguised as a legislative study
A score-settling Texas House report on economic development policies was published Tuesday — after the elections it might have influenced, ordered up by lame-duck legislators who won't be in Austin to see it through.
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Did you see the latest House salvo at proponents of bathroom bills in the Texas Legislature?
This isn’t going to win anyone a Profiles in Courage award.
For starters, it landed a week after the primaries, when the debate might have been raging — it wasn’t, despite predictions — about whether the state government ought to participate in a panicky civic culture effort to tell transgender people which restrooms to use.
It was authored by a lame-duck committee chairman appointed by a lame-duck speaker of the Texas House, partly as a public policy exercise and partly as a shot at a governor and a lieutenant governor who, unlike those two ducks, will still be working in Austin next year.
And it amounts to a yelp (or a quack) — from the victors, no less — about a legislative debate that worked more or less the way these kinds of political and policy arguments are supposed to work. You know — in public, where everybody in the whole state gets to see what’s going on.
On its face, the interim report from the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness is an assessment of the state’s ability to attract and keep businesses. Here’s a taste from the introduction, after a note that Texas slipped from first to fourth in one ranking published last year: “Dynamics that may have contributed to this drop in business rankings include: the increase in global competition, an emerging mismatch between available jobs and workers' skills, an increase in housing costs, outdated infrastructure, high property taxes and certain actions taken by the 85th Legislature.”
That last bit about the Legislature is a score-settling swat at proponents of a couple of pieces of legislation the House didn’t like, such as the “bathroom bill.”
There’s also a section on public education and the inability of the House and the Senate and the governor to sing together on that subject — particularly when it came to their competing proposals to limit local increases in property taxes and whether to change the state’s share of public school funding.
The report was made public on Tuesday and the news release that accompanied it came with a stinger of a headline: “Report reveals lack of education funding, outdated infrastructure and ‘bathroom bill’ threats to Texas economy.”
“Businesses ultimately became involved in the fight against the divisive and pointless legislation known as the 'bathroom bill' when the governor called lawmakers back for a special session and made it a top priority,” the chairman of the committee, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, wrote of Gov. Greg Abbott. “His actions surprised many because the governor's top aides had made it clear, to me and others, during the regular legislative session that the governor did not want that bill on his desk.”
The report makes a number of recommendations, and if you remove the hurt feelings that still linger after a rough legislative year in 2017, they sound like the sort of proposals lawmakers make every day: Make school funding a priority; invest in post-secondary education; invest in improvements to and maintenance of the state’s infrastructure; review economic development incentives.
But the hurt feelings are there. The final recommendation was, in so many words, to quit screwing around with things like the bathroom bill.
Also, the recommendations started with this exhortation to the state’s private sector: “If the business community does not have the courage to defy and work against counterproductive legislation because of fear of retribution, this state is at risk.”
The report was originally due in mid-December — around the deadline for would-be candidates to file for inclusion on 2018’s ballots. That date slipped by, meaning any effort to frame issues before candidates declared was gone. And the first round of the primaries, of course, were last week, so any attempt to frame the intra-party debates for those contests was lost.
There were risks, to be sure, to release that report before the elections. At least two Republican members of the committee — Sarah Davis of West University Place and Charlie Geren of Fort Worth — were on the far right’s list of least-loved conservatives. Cook himself would have been, had he decided to seek re-election. Both Davis and Geren survived their primary election challenges. Davis signed the committee report. Geren didn’t.
The top authors — House Speaker Joe Straus, who ordered the report, and Cook, who delivered it — won’t be in office during the 86th Legislature. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — the House’s main foils last year — will be.
The next speaker — whoever that turns out to be — will decide where to start the next debate on the state’s economic competitiveness, and what the next fight will be.
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