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Texas Speaker's Race Heats Up: John Bolton Endorses Challenger

It’s hard to top John Bolton for no-nonsense conservatism.  Rumors have him seriously considering a run for the presidency in 2012, and it may be with that run in mind that he has chosen to weigh in on the race for speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.  On the first work day of the new year, a press release featuring Ambassador Bolton ricocheted around the Lone Star State:

“I am happy to announce my support for Ken Paxton as the next Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. This is a significant office for all Texans, and especially this year it also has important national implications.

“First, upcoming reapportionment and redistricting decisions in many States will play a critical role in ensuring that our fellow citizens obtain the representation they are entitled to. Across the country, we need to rectify literally decades of skewed redistricting decisions, and Texas, which will gain four seats in the House of Representatives in Washington, will play the leading role in that process. Accordingly, how Texas Republicans approach redistricting will have significant national ramifications.

“Second, as Texans know only too well, our citizens are increasingly endangered by drug-related violence spilling across from Mexico. Border-state law-enforcement authorities can do only so much, especially when Mexican authorities are unable to police their side of the border, and the Obama Administration has chosen to sit on the sidelines, hardly even mentioning the dangers of the Mexican drug cartels, let alone acting effectively to protect our citizens. If action is not taken soon, citizens all across our nation will face the same dangers already threatening Texans. Once again, how Texas responds will be a signal for the entire country.

“I believe that Ken Paxton has what it takes to be an effective Speaker of the Texas House on these and many other issues. He will provide leadership for Texas and the nation as a whole, and I am pleased to support him.”

Bolton’s endorsement follows what has been a cascade among the Texas House conservatives, newly elected and veterans, announcing support for state Rep. Ken Paxton of McKinney, who is challenging the current speaker, state Rep. Joe Straus, for the gavel.  Younger members such as Iraq war veteran Van Taylor have sided with Paxton, as have members of the class of 2010, including James White, Jim Landtroop, Charles Perry and Erwin Cain.  Cain’s decision to go public follows a medium-sized problem that has dogged Speaker Straus since shortly after the November elections, when stories surfaced that there was a threat directed at several members, and Cain in particular, with being redistricted out of their seats if they supported anyone else for speaker.

In a Nov. 10 press release, [state Rep. Bryan] Hughes said a then-unnamed person “brought up the subject of redistricting and explained to me how that process would be used to punish those members not on Speaker Straus’s list of supporters.”

Phillips denied that he made any threats to Hughes, but that they did discuss the political realities of redistricting as friendly colleagues.

Hughes, taking an oath by request, said Phillips brought up Reps. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa, a candidate for Speaker), Dan Flynn (R-Van), and Reps.-elect Erwin Cain (R-Sulphur Springs) and Jim Landtroop (R-Plainview) as potential subjects of redistricting should they oppose Straus. Drafts of maps were already being drawn to that effect, Hughes added.

Who ends up wielding the gavel this year is key for many reasons, not least among them the one that has already come up twice in this post: The redrawing of Texas’ electoral map.  The state will get four new seats in the US House or Representatives, and lines down to the precinct level will also be redrawn.  The House speaker plays a key role in that process, and thus the speaker in this year’s session will be unusually powerful and influential well beyond the 140 day legislative session.

In addition to redrawing the maps, the speaker has the power to appoint House committee chairs, who will in turn influence the legislative calendar.  Straus has already pocketed the 49 votes of the Democratic caucus, which is reeling from its epic November 2 defeat all across Texas and looking for ways to retain some relevance.  Should Straus be re-elected speaker, that relevance will come in the form of committee chairmanships: He has already promised that the Democrats will get to chair some committees, though probably not as many as they got in the 2009 session.  Back then, when the House was divided 77-74, Democrats chaired nearly half of the committees.  Among those Democratic chairs was state Rep. Garnet Coleman, atop the County Affairs committee.

Facing a large two-year budget shortfall going into the 2011 legislative session, Republican leaders including Straus have wisely pledged to patch the hole without raising any taxes.  But Coleman, who remains in the House, will vote to retain Straus as speaker and in all likelihood expects to maintain his chairmanship along with picking up vice chair duties in the new federal legislation committee, has other ideas, including raising the state’s sales tax.

While few may bet on GOP leaders backing away from their no-new-taxes stand – or on a GOP-dominated Legislature approving new taxes – some think there’s a chance when the public sees the extent of budget cuts that would mean. Some of those people are talking about a temporary sales tax increase.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who champions those who’d be hardest-hit by state-services cuts, is among them. A 1-cent increase in the rate would yield an estimated $2.5 billion a year. “I think it’s something that needs to be considered before we gut public and higher education and essential services for the elderly, disabled and children,” Coleman said last week. Although he’s got concerns that sales taxes hit the poor hardest, he said a temporary hike could preserve crucial services and be a move toward compromise with conservatives, who see consumption taxes as the fairest.

Don’t you love how the mainstream reporter characterizes Coleman’s liberalism as “championing those who’d be hardest-hit by state-services spending cuts,” as opposed to “championing ever increasing state spending to build and maintain his political power, at the expense of families and businesses.”  But I digress.

Never mind that we’re still in a recession, and that raising the sales tax will probably curb economic activity, leading to lower revenues and an even weaker economy.  Democrats everywhere tend to “champion” tax increases as their default fix for every problem, and Mr. Coleman is evidently no exception.

This tax hike idea is coming from the Texas Democrats’ Shadow Party, in this case the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities.  From the shadows to a powerful Democrat in charge of a major Texas House committee — if Straus remains speaker, that is.  This doesn’t mean Coleman will get his “temporary” tax increase; there’s probably too much Republican opposition to overcome.  But it does say a bit about what might sneak through the next session if the leadership comes to the table proposing bad ideas, and they find time for mischief.

Ambassador Bolton’s endorsement of Paxton is a big one, with two possible immediate effects.  First, it may draw Straus’ other challenger, state Rep. Warren Chisum, out of the race.  Like Paxton, Chisum is challenging Straus from the right, charging that Straus is not conservative enough to lead the new Texas House, but the momentum seems to be going toward Paxton.  Second, it may force Straus to try and grab a major endorsement of his own.  But who is left out there?  Gov. Perry and the other statewides have wisely stayed on the sidelines, and will stay put.  Fellow Texas Republican Dick Armey has already endorsed a candidate, but that endorsement went to Paxton.  Sarah Palin?  It seems unlikely that she’ll get involved.

Bolton’s endorsement also draws national attention to what had been an intraparty, intrastate affair.  That’s unlikely to help Speaker Straus in a year in which conservatives and Tea Party activists are all watching every move Republican leaders make.  The redistricting-as-punishment deal already backfired on Straus.  The chairmanship issue has become a major one now, burning up the talk radio airwaves.  Texans are paying more attention to the speaker’s race than usual, expecting that in the reddest of the large states, their November votes will translate into action.