by Ross Ramsey, Texas Tribune
Brash politicians may have cost us the art of careful listening, even when listening carefully is the only way to understand someone.
This is about Joe Straus, the aggressively reserved speaker of the Texas House. Or is that reservedly aggressive?
Buried in a couple of vanilla announcements this week — one about the state budget, another about some appointments to the Sunset Advisory Commission — Straus gently telegraphed some of his plans for next year’s legislative session.
If you weren’t listening carefully, you probably missed it. But the speaker let his members know that the brakes are on when it comes to state spending, and that he’ll be trying to wrestle reviews of state agencies from the control of paid lobbyists.
It’s possible — as anyone with cable television knows — to make stuff like that bombastic. Not the speaker’s style, kids.
The San Antonio Republican never publicly blows his stack — even when doing so might work to his advantage. The whole “Keep the Scary Man Happy” act that has worked so well for generations of politicians isn’t in Straus’ toolbox.
He’s quiet: Less Trump, more Bush.
To get the drift of Straus’ latest pronouncements, pretend for a minute that your nose for nuance hasn’t been ruined by a year of Ted and Donald and Hillary and Bernie.
The speaker sent a letter to state appropriators — the budget clique — that amounts to a boot on the brake, an early sign that anyone with big spending plans for the next legislative session is out of line.
“Writing a balanced and disciplined budget that appropriately funds our top priorities is going to be a significant challenge,” he wrote, flashing his flair for non-drama.
Ignore the blandness — this is the art of telling people what to do without raising their blood pressure (as opposed to raising their blood pressure without really saying anything, which is more familiar in an election year).
In his letter to the House Appropriations Committee (and by extension, its Senate counterpart), Straus noted the drop in oil prices, job losses in energy and manufacturing and five monthly declines in sales tax receipts during the past six months.
Translation: House budgeteers won’t have as much money as they might have hoped.
He wrote that the crisis in the state’s foster care system “requires new policies and ways of thinking, but will also require additional resources.”
Translation: This is going to be expensive.
He said a pending decision on school finance by the Texas Supreme Court could be costly. And he said a long-term solution is needed for the health care program for retired public educators.
Translation: This is going to be really expensive.
Straus wasn’t finished. He noted the budget pressures that come with continued rapid growth, from schools to roads to other state resources. He bowed to low taxation and “overall fiscal discipline.”
Reading the letter is like sitting through one of those serious family discussions where you get in trouble if you peek at your phone for new text messages.
Straus’ other news release this week announced three appointees to the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically reviews the operations of state agencies, recommends efficiencies and other changes and has the power to recommend closing departments that have outlived their usefulness.
While that sounds like warm and fuzzy good government, sunset reviews have devolved into feeding frenzies for anyone who wants to start, end, tweak or redirect regulations and rules. Lobbyists for competing interests swarm the process. For all of its good intentions, sunset is sort of a mess.
Time for a word from the master of mild admonishment.
In his written news release, Straus didn’t mention the lobby hijackers who have killed or redirected previous sunset legislation. He didn’t say that the Texas Railroad Commission is up for Sunset for the umpteenth time because of such hijackings by oil and gas interests in three previous legislative sessions or that agencies like the Railroad Commission are only supposed to be reviewed every 12 years.
More frequent reviews are disruptive to their missions, the thinking goes; less frequent oversight gives wayward agencies too much leash. And the current process, as Straus sees it, has turned the agency reviews into a circus.
He didn’t put it like that. He put it like this: “I’m going to work with the members of the House to ensure that sunset bills stay specifically focused on improving the agencies that have been under review.”
Keep listening: That’s this speaker’s version of a call to arms.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune.