A Salute to the Texas Tea Party

In the legislative session that just wrapped up this week, as has become their custom, Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers pushed measures that were variously undemocractic, anti-transparent, reactionary, discriminatory (both anti-gay and anti-Muslim), mind-bogglingly stupidly puritanical, and many otherwise awful and/or pointless pieces of public policy, a few of which they managed to put into law.

But in a weird and unsettling turn of events, the Tea Party in many instances acted as a force for good in Austin, resisting the gravitational pull of status quo special interests to advocate for legitimately bold — even progressive — policies and injecting moments of unadulterated joy into an otherwise unremarkable assembly.

Toll roads
Toll roads have crept across Texas like a cancerous spider-web over the past few decades, metastasizing as policymakers have sought to address growing transportation and infrastructure needs without taking the tested but politically uncomfortable route of having taxpayers pay for it. This, we were led to believe, was the grown-up solution. New roads had to get built somehow, whether or not the electorate was mature enough to make the hard decisions. In practice, this reflected a notion of adulthood in which the grown-ups ceded decision-making authority to unelected toll agencies — and, in one case, a private company — so as to avoid making the choices themselves. For years, though, the paradigm held.

That paradigm has shifted considerably over the past year. A plan to add toll lanes to Central Expressway in Plano and Richardson — the same type of lanes that were installed on LBJ in Dallas with no notable opposition — fell apart after Collin County's very conservative legislative contingent objected. Tea Partiers were also instrumental in killing a private company's speculative Wylie-to-Greenville toll road, the corpse of which they subsequently set on fire, sprinkled with holy water, and interred deep underground by stripping the Texas Turnpike Corp. of its eminent domain powers. Their efforts to do away with toll roads entirely fell short, but the people were heard, and the people hate toll roads.

Banning texting-while-driving, a practice that is stupid and causes many deaths and incalculable suffering, is one of those public safety measures that seems so prudent and commonsensical that ordinary politicians (i.e. those who haven't dranketh from the tea cup of liberty) find it impossible to say no. But the road to terrible public policy is paved with good intentions, and a statewide texting-while-driving ban would be bad public policy. It wouldn't be like being stopped for DWI, where officers can perform measurable tests to see whether a driver was above the legal blood-alcohol limit. Under the proposal floated in the recent session, officers wouldn't be able to examine a driver's phone for evidence of texting or other improper phone usage while driving, which would be further complicated by the fact that certain types of activity, like dialing a phone number and using navigational software, would be explicitly allowed. It's not hard to imagine that, absent any way to prove texting while driving, such a ban would become another pretext cops can use to stop motorists they find suspicious but who otherwise aren't doing anything illegal. Thanks largely to the Tea Party, the texting-while-driving ban never made it to a vote in the Senate.

Red-light cameras
Red-light cameras, like toll roads, are terrible. Whatever public safety benefit they provide — and the evidence is inconclusive — it is overshadowed by their Big Brother vibe. Essentially, this is the government outsourcing a core law enforcement function to an outside company, with a built-in incentive to maximize revenue. A proposed statewide ban on red-light cameras, like the proposed ban on toll roads, didn't become law, but supporters managed to get it through the Senate. Closer to home, the same spirit propelled Tea Party activists to victory in a referendum to remove Arlington's red-light cameras.

Even though it made Governor Greg Abbott's short-list of priorities for the session, serious ethics reform — i.e. politicians voluntarily restricting when and how they make money and who they have to tell — was always an uncertain proposition. Whether Senator Van Taylor's SB 19, which included such earth-shattering provisions as requiring lawmakers to wait a year after leaving office to cash in and become a lobbyist and stripping politicians-turned-convicted felons of state pensions, was ever strong enough to be considered serious is a matter for debate, but he did push for an actual, meaningful check on some of his colleagues' most blatant potential excesses. The measure, alas, died an ignoble death as veteran lawmakers bristled at the perceived impeachment of their character and sunk the bill by attaching a provision requiring politically active nonprofits (aka "dark money" groups) to disclose their donors. While a sensible approach to regulating political spending, it was a poison pill that doomed the bill's chances.

Civil forfeiture
A raft of proposals introduced this session sought to nibble around the edges of civil forfeiture, The practice, which allows cops and prosecutors to take cars, cash, or other property they suspect is tied to illegal activity by filing a lawsuit against said property, is ripe for abuse, even after a solid decade or two of scandals and news coverage. Some would increase reporting requirements. Others would raise the burden of proof from a preponderance of the evidence (i.e. probably) to clear and convincing (i.e. almost certainly). The boldest reforms, though, came from Tea Partiers like Representative David Simpson and Senator Konni Burton, who proposed with doing away with civil forfeiture entirely, forcing cops to obtain a criminal conviction before seizing someone's property. That would put a small dent in law enforcement agencies' budgets, but it would also address civil liberties concerns and disincentivize policing for profit in a way that more tepid reforms would not. "We're playing games when you have the state of Texas against $1,343 in cash," Simpson told the Observer. "Cash is not responsible; people are responsible. Human beings are responsible. What we're doing is, we're bypassing convicting them of a crime."

Driver responsibility surcharge
In another lovely sounding idea that turned into an execrable law, the Legislature approved the driver responsibility surcharge in 2003 on the premise that maybe drunk drivers and other criminally dangerous drivers should help foot the bill for trauma care. To do so, lawmakers heaped exorbitant civil fees onto convictions for offenses like DWI, repeat traffic violations, driving with an invalid license. This was on top of already-steep criminal fines and court costs. The practical effect was that a million-plus drivers became trapped in a cycle of fines and debt. Those who failed to pay could have their licenses suspended, which, rather predictably, would often result in new charges and new fees.

A bipartisan reform effort died in the end-of-session procedural logjam, but not before Senator Bob Hall took a gritty stand against the hospital lobby, which enjoys significant revenue from the program and opposes serious changes. Grits for Breakfast offered the play by play:

There was an especially poignant exchange between Sen. Bob Hall and one of the hospital representatives (who oppose abolition because they receive half the money). Hall declared sharply, "What I just heard you tell me was that this bill was designed, was allowed to destroy people's lives in order to provide money from the state for your operation. And that's the same thing I read in the letters I see here from THA, and the TMA, and the others, that they are really only concerned about the money they get, they really don't care about what it does to people's lives."

Hall, it should be noted, takes his tea scalding.

Forget the bullshit cannabis-oil bill Abbott just signed, which might help a few epileptic children if their doctors are cool with going to jail. Simpson, the civil forfeiture crusader, was also the only lawmaker with the cojones to seriously propose full-blown legalization. "All that God created is good, including marijuana. God did not make a mistake when he made marijuana that the government needs to fix," Simpson declared. "Let's allow the plant to be utilized for good — helping people with seizures, treating warriors with PTSD, producing fiber and other products — or simply for beauty and enjoyment. Government prohibition should be for violent actions that harm your neighbor — not of the possession, cultivation, and responsible use of plants."

For an extended recap of Jonathan Stickland's antics during the 2015 legislative session, see the  Texas Observer's "A Children’s Treasury of Jonathan Stickland’s Adventures in the 84th Lege." It's fantastic. For the purposes of this post, we'll confine ourselves to a single incident. Stickland, mad that his bills weren't making progress, stepped to a House microphone and began asking lots of questions about unobjectionable bills and resolutions, thereby grinding the legislative process to a halt and making it clear to his colleagues that he was throwing a tantrum. Fort Worth Representative Charlie Geren, Stickland's arch-nemesis, then attempted to lure the rotund Stickland away from the mic by dragging an oatmeal cookie past him on a string.

It's a uniquely talented troll who can goad his fellow lawmakers to open ridicule, and Stickland has trolled with aplomb. His 2015 session represents a piece of extended performance art. He has abandoned decorum, thrown strategy to the wind and set about attacking the cogs that keep the Legislature from falling apart, earning the scorn of virtually every one of his colleagues in the process. He is the unchecked id of the Tea Party, sowing chaos for its own sake. He may be a net minus in terms of crafting sound policy and effectively governing the state, but he remains the best.

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