Texas Tribune

Republican candidates hold substantial leads in the major Texas races, according to a statewide poll conducted from Oct. 10 through Sunday.

The lastest online poll conducted by The Texas Tribune and the UT Texas Politics Project showed Attorney General Greg Abbott has a 16-point lead over State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.

In June, a previous UT/TT poll showed Abbott with a 12-point lead over Davis. 

The latest Texas Tribune poll surveyed 1,200 registered Texas voters. For the lieutenant governor race, State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, trails State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston by 17 points. In the attorney general race, the U.S. Senate race and land commissioner race, all leads were held by the Republican candidates.

“The substantial leads held by Republicans from the top to the bottom of the ballot suggest that the much-discussed demographic changes in the state are unlikely to translate into an immediate reversal of fortune for the Democratic Party in this election,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project and a co-director of the poll.

Daron Shaw, government professor and poll co-director, said in a statement that the results of these statewide race polls had more to do with political affiliations than race.

“Very few race-specific dynamics exist in these down-ballot statewide races,” Shaw said. “They are really just expressions of the underlying partisanship of the Texas electorate, and that’s not good for Democrats these days.”

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn criticized the inefficiency of Congress at his Texas Tribune Festival keynote interview Saturday.

Cornyn, who is also the Senate's minority whip, is running for his third term in the Senate. At the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center on Saturday, he noted that although President Barack Obama’s approval rating is at a low 17 percent, Congress’ approval rating is much lower.

“I agree that Congress is dysfunctional, but largely it’s the Senate,” Cornyn said. “We’ve been largely relegated to showboats and anticipation of the election and not addressing the problems of our country.”

While critical of the 2013 government shutdown, Cornyn said Sen. Harry Reid, who is also the Senate's majority leader, spurs on the dysfunctional relationship in Congress. 

“There is an important difference between what people say and what people do,” Cornyn said. “President Obama has always talked about people working together, but we haven’t see a lot of it. Can we fix this? Yes, we can.”

Congress does not stay in session nearly as much as it needs to, Cornyn said. Congress has not passed a budget since 2009, and, according to Cornyn, there is no excuse for that. He suggested a five-day work week for Congress and said the recess they are taking before elections is unnecessary.

“We just adjourned Thursday night for 45 days now,” Cornyn said. “There no reason why Congress should be out of session. We should be there working. But only Senator Reid has the authority to decide when we should be in session.”

Cornyn also spoke about turmoil in the Middle East and said Obama needs to formulate a plan to deal with ISIS.

“I do believe that it was a mistake for President Obama to not negotiate bilateral security that would have left a small residual footprint for American and NATO troops in Iraq after the successful end of most of what we were fighting over there,” Cornyn said. “You have this radically barbaric Islamist group that is a real serious threat. What we keep waiting for is for the president to come up with a plan. He is the commander in chief. It is his responsibility.”

Cornyn said he does not agree with Obama’s current plan to arm and equip Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State group.

“What we need is a much broader and wholesomer debate,” Cornyn said. Senate is the only body able to declare a war. Secretary Kerry refusing to use that word is disingenuous. When America engages in a fight with a group like ISIS, that is a war.”

Cornyn said Obama needs to gain bipartisan support for his war on the Islamic State group.

“Only by doing that will he get the support of the American people,” Cornyn said. “He seems to go it alone, which means he will be alone and responsible for the outcome.”

Government freshman Madison Albrecht said she came to listen to Cornyn to hear his plans for the future and his stance on different issues.

“I thought he was very good at explaining his viewpoint on various issues and how he felt about the problems in the Senate,” Albrecht said. “I think there are clearly many problems with Congress, and he was able to address concerns.”

Cornyn said once the Senate has been restored to its role as a functioning body, approval rates will go up along with satisfaction rates.

“Whether you’re in the majority or in the minority, it’s a pretty miserable experience,” Cornyn said. “Not only for the voters but also for the people who work there.”

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, speaks at his election party at the DoubleTree Hotel Houston on Tuesday. Patrick led his opponents with more than 40 percent of the vote and will likely face Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a run-off election May 27.

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

As Election Night unfolded, I sat at a watch party glued to my laptop. The first few results rolled in on Tuesday evening, I could not help but be surprised at what I was seeing. Dan Patrick, the ultra-conservative state senator from Houston, was leading incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst 2-to-1 in the primary for that post, flouting both what had been assumed as gospel by the political establishment and reported as fact from a recent Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll.

That same poll showed LaRouche activist (a cabal of conspiracy theorists) Kesha Rogers holding a plurality lead in the Democratic Primary for the U.S. Senate. While she did — somehow — manage her way into a runoff with the establishment candidate, she did so with close to a 20 point deficit to make up, a normally insurmountable task.

The unpredictability of a Texas election is not a new concept, but the extent to which this one caught everyone off guard should serve as a wakeup call for all those who care about politics in this state. Currently, national polling firms neglect Texas elections except — every once in a while — during the immediate lead up to a presidential election. The result is that groups inexperienced in reliable election polling, such as the Tribune, are compelled to pick up the slack and ultimately delegate this important polling to unqualified organizations.

Some of the confusion about which way Texans would vote could stem from the less-than-accurate Tribune/UT poll. The poll was conducted via the Internet — instead of telephones — and allowed for opt-in responses rather than the pollsters going to the respondents. These conditions make for a poll that is slightly more reputable than no-frills Internet surveys.

“[T]he opt-in Internet survey methodology used by the UT pollsters and the Texas Tribune may be one of the most black magic of all the polling methods,” said RG Ratcliffe, a former Houston Chronicle reporter. “It’s a survey methodology so suspect that news organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and Roll Call magazine have refused to use it.”

Indeed, Tuesday night’s results have vindicated what Ratcliffe and many others have said about these polls, which have nearly cornered the market when it comes to tracking the horserace in Texas politics. Accordingly, the question is raised of what attentive followers like me should do so as to not stay in the dark on these events.

In 2012, like many others, I meticulously followed every last turn along the Presidential election campaigns. In the closing days of the campaign, there were three or four reputable polls coming out in swing states every week, not only for the presidential election but for reputable senate races. While there were surely upsets, the plethora of polls was able to paint a pretty accurate picture of the political landscape. But without any of these accurate polls going into election days, even the most experienced political professionals have no idea what is coming after 7 p.m.

The Houston Chronicle wrote Wednesday that Dan Patrick “defies the odds” by winning a plurality, but I am at a loss to understand exactly what odds they speak of. Without consistent and reputable polling, everyone is in the dark.

The solution to this issue is twofold. Either national polling firms could enter the marketplace in Texas, and help to illuminate the mystery and suspense behind Texas politics, or the Texas Tribune could adopt a more trustworthy polling method.

At a watch party Tuesday night, I sat next to longtime press veterans from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and CBS. As we gathered around my laptop to view the first returns coming in, each one of us had the same reaction: shock and surprise.

We all came to the conclusion that the Tribune poll was woefully unreliable. In fact, I would say the same for all the prognostications ahead of this year’s primaries. Texas deserves — no, it needs — better.

Horwitz is a government junior from Houston. 

In Texas, the gender pay gap is still in full force. Women in Texas made 70 cents for every dollar that men made in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Women working in and around Austin didn’t earn much more than the state average. Based on a Texas Tribune interactive map, in Congressman Lamar Smith’s district, which includes UT as well as rural areas to the west of Austin, women earn 68.9 percent of the median annual income. In Congressman Michael McCaul’s district, women earn 75 percent of what men earn. And in Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s district, women earn 73.5 percent of what men earn. 

According to Christine Williams, professor and chair of the department of sociology, this wage gap would be even higher if we included all workers, both full-time and part-time. And although women clearly get paid less for their work as compared to men, this doesn’t seem to be indicative of men having greater expertise in their fields, since women have higher college graduation rates than men.  

In a 2011 report on college completion, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that 18 percent more women than men have college degrees in the young adult population between ages 25 and 29. And, just this past Thursday, the Texas Tribune reported that more than 23 percent of females who finished eighth grade in 2001 received a post-secondary degree within six years of graduating from high school, compared to only 16 percent of males. Even at UT, the student body is slightly more female than male — 51 percent of the undergraduate population is female and 49 percent is male. 

So why the pay gap? After all, if women are earning college degrees at a higher rate than men, shouldn’t females be better compensated than males in the workforce? Williams explained that sometimes the gap occurs because “men and women have different majors, so even when women get higher degrees, they tend to be in lower paying fields” — an answer that seems to be quite popular when the gender wage gap issue arises. 

But this isn’t necessarily the case. Engineering, computer science and business graduates have the highest average starting salaries by discipline, according to a recent article by Forbes. The McCombs School of Business is only slightly skewed toward male undergraduates — with a 55 percent male and 45 percent female undergraduate body as of last spring. At the Cockrell School of Engineering, though, males substantially outnumber females. Only 24 percent of undergraduates there are females

But the wage gap persists, even in business professions. A 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics report comparing the median weekly earnings of full-time and salaried wage workers by occupation and sex showed that female CEOs earn $1,730 per hour while males earn over 30 percent more — $2,275. Female financial managers earn $988 per hour while males earn 42 percent more — $1,405. The trend continues through most professions in the industry.

It’s been close to 51 years since U.S. President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into federal law. For a state whose laws enshrine the concept of equal opportunity, our gender wage gap is downright shameful. And it’s bad business, too. Rather than letting the most qualified people lead, we’re giving in to sexism year after year after year. No Texan should take this inequality in stride. As future leaders, administrators and policy makers in Texas, we need to eliminate the wage gap once and for all.

Horns Down: Texas households are financially insecure 

A report released Thursday by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a national non-profit focused on alleviating poverty, said that 49.8 percent  of Texas households are “liquid asset poor,” meaning they lack funds to pay for three months of basic expenses in the case of a crisis, such as losing a job. According to the Texas Tribune, our state ranks 30th in the country for liquid asset poverty and 37th in overall financial security. In the 2014 Asset and Opportunity scorecard the CFED compiled, Texas ranked 48th in the small business ownership rate, 42nd in the number of low wage jobs and 37th in the number of small business loans made per worker. Considering Republicans often tout our economy as an example that the rest of the nation should follow, these findings are particularly discouraging. We hope that all Texans will soon be able to reap the benefits of our state’s supposed prosperity, rather than just the select few sitting at the top.

Horns Down: Texas’  refusal to Follow EPA Regulations

For the past three years, the Environmental Protection Agency has required energy companies nationwide to apply for greenhouse gas permits, and, for the past three years, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has refused to enact the rules in Texas, arguing it is illegal for the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. As a result, many local energy companies have had to apply for the permits directly with the EPA, leading to a substantial backlog in applications. Sunday, the Texas Tribune reported that this backlog has hurt Texas businesses, keeping them from being able to fully capitalize on the shale boom. For years, conservatives in Texas have argued that the EPA’s regulations cripple the economy, but, in this case, the opposite seems to be true. We find it disappointing that Texas’ ideological battle with the federal government has gone so far as to hurt business in our state, and we hope that this situation will compel the TCEQ to step up and follow through on EPA requirements. 

Photo Credit: Dan Resler | Daily Texan Staff

Our multimedia department visited the Texas Tribune Festival to hear some of the biggest names in Texas politics speak about the issues that matter in the state-wide conversation.  Mouse over any of the images below to see what you might have missed at the festival.

1.  A panel of experts discuss the state of Texas' water issues.  Afterwards we spoke with Mayor J Allen Carnes and State Senator Glenn Hegar for their input on the issues.
2.  We sit down with 2014 Candidate for Governor Tom Pauken to discuss his ideas for reforming Texas education and his run in the Republican primary against Greg Abbott.
3.  We speak with State Senator Leticia Van de Putte to talk about the future of women in Texas politics following her remark that sparked roars of cheering during the fillibuster of Senate Bill 5.  
4.  State Senator Wendy Davis speaks on her recent rise to popularity in Texas politics and her future.  
5.  David Dewhurst speaks on education and the upcoming elections.
6.  Greg Abbott speaks about the state of voting rights in Texas in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act and Texas' new voter ID law.
7.  A panel of experts discuss the state of higher education and predict what the future will entail for Texas Universities.  



UT System Regent Wallace Hall

On Tuesday, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, confirmed to The Texas Tribune that he wrote a letter of recommendation to the University of Texas School of Law on behalf of his son, who was later admitted to the school. The possibilities for an abuse of power in this scenario are obvious, but the answers as to why controversies such as this have dominated conversations about higher education in Texas for the past several months are not. 

Pitts issued his statement Tuesday in response to allegations made by Regent Wallace Hall about state officials influencing the admissions process at both UT-Austin and the School of Law. Hall claims he discovered these abuses of power through documents unearthed in an open records request. 

Hall, of course, is the UT System regent now infamous for being investigated by the House Select Committee for Transparency for possible impeachment.

It’s not quite clear what Hall has done to deserve the threat of impeachment — only two state officials, both of whom were elected, have been impeached in Texas history, and both were impeached for clear criminal activity. There’s no indication yet that Hall has committed a crime. 

It is well known that Hall is a real pest when it comes to plaguing the University with burdensome open records requests. Previous records requests by Hall to UT have been so expansive in scope that they’ve necessitated the hiring of additional staffers in the president’s office just to process them. 

But back to the recommendation letter: Pitts denies having exerted any undue influence on the admissions process at the School of Law, and at present (Pitts hasn’t released the letter itself), there’s no proof that his having provided a recommendation letter for his son is anything worse than misguided and tacky, despite Hall’s allegations. 

“This is nothing more than a pathetic, cowardly attempt by Mr. Hall’s allies — and possibly Mr. Hall himself — to distract from important questions about whether our flagship University System is being run appropriately,” Pitts said to the National Review of the situation. 

Incidentally, Pitts recently announced he is retiring, which he says has nothing to do with Hall’s allegations. He did, however, tell The Texas Tribune that he was tempted to run for re-election because he would “really like to stay and fight this Wallace Hall thing.” 

It’s hard to even begin unraveling the complicated politics that lead us to spend precious time making fights out of people instead of policy issues. But we are sure of one thing: At the height of the regents controversy in 2011, the conversation at least had something to do with important changes to higher education policy. Now, what’s left of the battle seems just as ridiculous as the email Gov. Rick Perry sent to several regents earlier this year that encouraged them to stand strong against “peacocks and charlatans.” 

In other words, Pitts’ influence over his son’s admission to UT's law school — or lack thereof — isn’t worth discussing on a statewide stage, especially in a state with such large higher education challenges. 

Is using your political position to exert undue influence on the admissions process wrong? Absolutely. But is a case of unconfirmed preferential treatment for a single applicant to the School of Law worth debating for two months at the highest level of university system governance? Not for a second. 

The UT System had several victories this legislative session (the establishment of the new Rio Grande Valley university and medical school, for one) as well as painful defeats (the failure of tuition revenue bonds, used to fund campus construction projects). And yet, the conversation seems stuck in the gear of petty political skirmishes. It’s far past time for us to all grow up and move on.

UT cancels regent's open records request

A UT-Austin official informed the UT System that Regent Wallace Hall’s impending open records requests have been canceled, according to the Texas Tribune

In a letter obtained by the Texas Tribune to UT System Interim Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Dan Sharphorn, UT Chief Financial Officer and Custodian of Records Kevin Hegarty explained that the request had been canceled in cooperation with the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations investigation of Hall. Committee Co-Chairs Dan Flynn, R-Canton, and Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, sent a letter to Gene Powell, chairman of the board of regents, requesting that all documents relating to Hall be preserved for the investigation.

“All or part of these files could relate to the investigation to be undertaken by the Committee of Regent Hall and therefore it is necessary to preserve all remaining records in their fully intact and unaltered form,” Hegarty wrote in the letter.

Hegarty said all other open records requests would be carried out by the University.

As part of its investigation into Hall, the House Transparency Committee could begin hearing witness testimony in August or September. Flynn stated at the committee’s July 29 meeting that Hall would likely be one of the first witnesses called to testify.

Follow Jacob Kerr on Twitter @jacobrkerr.

Former UT Law School dean hints at legal action in statement

In a statement to the Texas Tribune, former UT Law School dean and current law professor Lawrence Sager hinted at taking legal action against UT System Regent Wallace Hall.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Texas Tribune published an interview with Hall that stemmed from a current unpassed house resolution that would begin impeachment proceedings against Hall. The interview focused primairly on the possible impeachment, but Hall touched on a 2011 controversy where UT's Law School Dean resigned.

"Almost immediately after the board was told of [University of Texas at Austin School of Law] Dean [Larry] Sager's half a million dollar concealed and unauthorized grant to himself, President Powers gave a statement to the press saying that "nothing illegal or improper" had taken place," Hall said in the interview to the Texas Tribune.

Later in the day, the Texas Tribune published a statement from Sager, who said Hall made several "false and defamatory remarks regarding my actions."

"In the interview, Mr. Hall said that I concealed an unauthorized grant to myself. Both assertions are demonstrably false," Sager said in his statement to the Texas Tribune. "It is hard not to conclude that Mr. Hall has willfully and maliciously misstated these facts to serve some end other than the truth.  His remarks are baldly defamatory and cannot go unchallenged.  Legal action may be the only effective resort."

The Daily Texan has reached out to Sager, but he has not responded yet for comment.

Last Friday, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed Senate Bill 15, a piece of legislation by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) that would have limited the power of governing boards of Texas public universities by,  among other measures, mandating that a board of regents cannot fire an institution’s president without first receiving a recommendation  to do so from a chancellor. In a statement issued on Friday night, Sen. Seliger predicted that the veto of SB 15 would ensure that “the conflicts, controversies, and lack of transparency will continue.”

Of course, it was in the name of transparency that Regent Wallace Hall filed a massive open records request with the University on June 7. The request, which was obtained by the Texas Tribune through an open records request of its own, called for President Powers to turn over an array of documents, ranging from emails to Post-it notes.If this request seemed overreaching to Gov. Perry, his statement on the veto of  SB 15 didn’t betray that sentiment. In that statement, Perry justified his veto by saying that “limiting oversight authority of a board of regents … is a step in the wrong direction.” But if Hall’s open records request is any indication, SB 15 would have done little to limit the power of regents to influence university business through less-than-official channels. But allowing the bill to pass into law would have allowed us all — regents, administrators, legislators, alumni and students — to take a step away from the muddled mess of the Regents v. Powers showdown and focus our energies on the bigger questions plaguing higher education, like the future of MOOCs and fixed-rate tuition.

Wallace Hall is entitled to his Post-it notes, and Gov. Perry is entitled to his vetoes, but the students of Texas are entitled to a change of conversation. In a letter obtained by the Texas Tribune from Regent Bobby Stilwell, who expressed concern over Hall’s most recent open records request, to board Chairman Gene Powell, Stilwell wrote, “There is no excuse or cover provided for personal agendas or vindictive actions.” Stilwell was referring to the ‘fiduciary duty’ clause of the regents’ job description in particular, but we believe it could well be applied to the entire situation. The veto of SB 15 made it clear that Perry is more interested in winning even the smallest battles than swallowing his pride and letting legislators and students mark down a minor victory.