A Modest Proposal for the Texas Legislature’s Special Session

[The following post originally appeared on TribTalk.]

Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda for the Texas Legislature’s special session next month looks a little light, so here are a few proposals he should add to his list.

  • Change the name of Welfare, Texas, for obvious reasons, to Self-Reliance. The town has had 137 years to adopt a better name, but has failed to act. You know why? Because it’s lazy.
  • Require women seeking abortions to write letters of explanation to their fetuses, and to read them out loud.
  • Shut down zoos’ pro-homosexual agendas in Texas. Most people aren’t aware, for example, that politically correct zookeepers at the San Antonio Zoo are housing three adult female elephants together — without any males. How much longer can these elephants remain just friends?
  • Initiate a state takeover of Texas pawn shops, auto-title and payday loan companies, and plasma centers— the components of our state’s robust poverty industry. Use the profits to fund property tax cuts. In years in which property values go crazy, lawmakers can provide additional relief by raising the interest rates on the state’s customers and maybe trimming what it pays for plasma.

The first three items are straightforward. If our lawmakers can’t agree that the name Welfare is a hideous coffee stain on our state map, that fetuses are owed an explanation or at least a heads-up, and that our zoo animals shouldn’t be forced to be gay, we are lost — with a capital L.

My fourth proposal, however, is going to take some work. It’s visionary, though it does kind of pick up where the Texas Lottery leaves off. And like anything that tosses out the old thinking, it will be wildly controversial.

There’s no getting around the fact this would be a huge government intrusion into the free market. But we have an opportunity here to finally deliver real relief to Texas taxpayers and to adequately fund public education, including any future school-voucher program. All we have to do is get up the gumption to take this step.

It’ll help to begin thinking about the poor and the working poor in two new ways.

  1. Poverty is a natural resource.
  2. We, the people who have given our consent to be governed by the State of Texas, have the strongest claims on the poor through our investments in welfare programs, Medicaid, and public schools.

As the private-sector poverty industry learned decades ago, Texas is a booming market. About 16 percent of our population lived below the poverty line in 2016, according to the Center for American Progress. That’s a ton of opportunity.

Just look at auto-title and payday loans. In 2015, Texas customers took out $1.7 billion in new loans, and refinanced $2.4 billion in debt, Texas Appleseed reported in January. They paid $1.58 in fees for every dollar they borrowed! And that’s just one part of the industry. Think about the lakes of plasma the poor sell every year, and all the iPads, laptops and jewelry they pawn.

Under my plan, profits from these businesses would flow to everyday Texans instead of corporations, most of which are smart enough to figure out other ways to make money.

The fate of my proposal will come down to whether our state lawmakers are willing to take bold, unprecedented action to finally lighten the little guy’s load. I have to say that under the inspired leadership of Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, I am extremely optimistic about our chances come July 18.

Big Business, LGBT Rights Czar

Here’s an idea: let’s hand over the responsibility for protecting LGBT rights to Big Business.

I’m confident this would work at all three levels of government — federal, state, and local — across the country. But in Texas, success would be close to a lead-pipe cinch.

True, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is looking to drastically reduce the number of places where transgender folks can lawfully pee when they leave their homes. For all his apparent agitation, though, I’m pretty sure the issue doesn’t matter much to Patrick. I mean, he’s got to get voters at the Republican grassroots fired up somehow ahead of the general elections. Remember the miracles Karl Rove worked for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 with gay marriage?

But the potty conundrum actually means something to the religious right and parents worried about the safety of their kids in public restrooms. So expect no-potty bills in the 2017 legislative session from rural lawmakers nobody has ever heard of, except in their home districts and within six square blocks of the Capitol building.

In North Carolina, transgender people already have to go to the restrooms dictated to them by their anatomy, or God, the author of their anatomy, or whatever. It’s state law.

But there’s a big difference between Texas and North Carolina. A couple years for now in Texas, a woman who identifies as a man will be free to go to a public men’s room, and vice versa. And it won’t be because of some landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. It’ll be because the measure never made it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

I’d be comfortable betting that any no-restroom-for-the-wicked bills filed in the 2017 Texas Lege will die quiet deaths in committee. At most, they’ll die noisy, faux-noble deaths on the House and Senate floors.

Either way, Big Business will be the executioner.

Just look back to the Lege’s last session.

The Texas Association of Business (TAB), the state’s most powerful business group, “helped” kill several proposed constitutional amendments that popped up in the 2015 Texas Legislature, changes that would have allowed fundamentalists to take their religion out on others. That would be people to whom religious conservatives don’t want to sell services or products because of said-people’s sexual orientation. In their end-of-the-session report, TAB officials wrote: “If this constitutional amendment had passed, Texas would have earned a reputation for being hostile to business and economic development prospects.”

Just like Indiana did in 2015 when Gov. Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Homegrown Eli Lilly & Co., Apple, Walmart, and Nascar were among the corporations that protested the law.

Corporations need millennials to prosper, both as employees and customers, and millennials are just fine with LGBT. A poll conducted in March by the Pew Research Center found, for example, that 71 percent of millennials support gay marriage. Gen-Xers followed with 56-percent support, Baby Boomers 46 percent, and the “Silent Generation” 38 percent.

After signing the religious-freedom bill, Pence was unnerved by Big Business’s reaction, and the Indiana Legislature quickly passed an amendment intended the protect the LGBT community from discrimination. Pence, of course, signed it.

The Hoosier State has an Indiana Chamber of Commerce, but that organization doesn’t quite have the say-so of TAB.

This is a group with real power. Hence the quotation marks around helped in the sentence five paragraphs above, as in “‘helped’ kill” the proposed religious-freedom amendment in the Lege last year.

Equality Texas?

You’re joking, right?

Texas Freedom Network?

Yes, and the Texas Observer is the most widely read publication in Texas.

ACLU of Texas?

Really, you’re killing me now. How many times were you dropped on your head as a baby?

Business didn’t want the amendment, so there was no amendment. The same was true of the most radical, Arizona-inspired legislative responses to illegal immigration that country lawmakers tried to push through the Lege in 2011. They hit the wall that is Big Business. When the burning issue is undocumented workers, it’s about low-cost, available labor for TAB — nothing else.

Not to give TAB too much credit. The primacy of business goes back almost to the State of Texas’s infancy.

Erica Grieder, a senior editor at Texas Monthly, convincingly made the case that business interests usually have trumped religious conservatives’ sweatier legislative fantasies in her 2013 book, Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas. But she also included a caveat, rooted in the fact that Texas is a one-party state when it comes to statewide elections.

“Republicans have amassed so much power in Texas that the religious right is getting more ambitious — just as the moderates are becoming more skeptical,” Grieder wrote.

Are we at the point where hard-right social conservatives have enough stroke to overcome Big Business’s pragmatism? I don’t think so. Unless Joe Straus’s re-election as Texas Speaker of the House in the 2017 session is in some kind of grave danger that we’re unaware of.

If Straus loses the speakership, let’s agree to regroup in New Mexico. Someplace nice. Taos, maybe.

But odds are Straus will survive. Assuming he does, I’m counting on him not only to support my plan, but to be its make-happen agent.

We’ll work up a contract that gives TAB powers of the state to protect the rights of the LGBT community and to weigh in when the lawmakers of the religious right get a little overly excited.

Giving TAB this new role could have a side-benefit — it might keep TAB officials so busy they won’t have time to continue trying to gut environmental protections or skew Texas’s tax system even more in the favor of Big Business.