Saturday, January 19, 2013

We don't like our government, so let's call for more of it.

As the 83rd version of the Texas Legislature sputters to a start it's time for Texas' Lock Step political media to revive the age-old tradition of hating on the Texas system of government while deciding the solution is to call for more of it.  Seemingly even more amazing, is that what they're demanding now echoes the political position of Republican bloviator Dan Patrick.  When you stop to think about it however, this is really not amazing at all.  It all boils down to a matter of self-interest.

For our elected officials the math is simple:  They can make more money working (fighting?) for themselves us if only they were allowed to meet for more than 140 days every other year.  Now, granted, many of them would have to relocate to Austin full-time, and there's a very real chance that this move would take Dan Patrick off the air, for the most part, on his Houston talk-radio show.  While both of these would be personal negatives for Lord Dan, they would be positives for Houston as a whole.  If we're lucky, Dan would sell KSEV and it could turn into another sports talk channel.  Almost anything would be an upgrade from what they have now.  Further thinking (on their part) suggests that, were they paid a living wage, the influence of outside money would be reduced because they'd now have enough to afford that extra condo in Austin while maintaining a sham residence in their districts.  It's a win/win, for them, and despite the fact that it would cost Texas Taxpayers a lot more, it would be presented as a win for us as well.

For Texas' Lock Step political media, it's really nothing more than a matter of scheduling.  I can imagine that it's hard to work a full-time job reporting on part-time employees.  The presumption being that a full-time lege would offer more, better news coverage than what we currently have.  The counter argument to this is the proliferation of list-based and "fact-check" reporting on a National level.  Currently, under the present arrangement, political action occurs at a fast and furious pace when the lege is in session.  Were the Lege expanded to full-time the same amount of "work" would get accomplished but it would take much longer.  Needing to fill space, Texas would be subjected to the same type of "Top 5 things" & "fact-checking the subcommittee on Climate Change" tripe that we're served up daily by the National press.

All of this is not to say that some expansion is a bad idea. Democratic Representative Richard Peña Raymond's bill calling for off-year budget meetings is something that probably should happen. Texas is a huge State, and it's budget for government is also huge.  Thinking that a 2-year budget designed around income projections of questionable accuracy will not need alteration is pie-in-the-sky thinking. As is the assumption that Legislators with financial skins in the game ($$$) are going to not favor bills that are self-serving.  With that said I'm not entirely convinced an expansion of the Texas Lege to full-time status is going to solve the problem either.

The problem, of course, is one of lifestyle and income. The current salary for a non-leadership team member of the US. Senate and Congress is $174,000 per year. Viewing this let's set Texas' pay-rate for a full-time legislator at somewhere around $50-$60 thousand.  There is no way under this, or even a slightly elevated, salary structure that these legislators are going to make near the income to which they are accustomed.  What this means is that they're still going to keep their companies and their jobs, but they're going to be spending more time in the echo-chamber that is Austin, where SXSW is still considered a meaningful cultural event and where 6th street is still viewed as a neat place to hang out.  It also makes the jobs of the special interests easier.  Instead of having to track down representatives in their home-towns for one-on-one discussions (and campaign donations) they're now going to have easier access to many elected officials at the same time.  If you're using the full-time legislature as an argument against special-interest spending then you're requiring that we ignore the example of Washington D.C. and I just don't think that's intellectually honest.

Finally we have the problem that full-time legislatures tend to get bored, and this causes their attention to turn to regulation and the passage of silly laws.  I'm not suggesting here that, under it's current structure, Texas is immune to silliness. But I'd much rather have a Pork-chopper bill than a bill to regulate the volume of television commercials.  There appears to be an inactivity avoidance gene in every elected official that makes bills like these possible, after long-arduous work none the less.  Given that information I'd much rather Texas decide to allow the legislature to meet more often, but only to look at a specific set of important things. I'd feel a lot more comfortable with the knowledge that they're meeting to decide just how wrong Susan Comb's projections were than being afraid that they're going to decide that all Texas cable providers are required to offer the Longhorn Network.

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