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Texas Monthly: Burkablog

How to Check Whether Anyone, Including Me, Is Telling You the Truth

One of the challenges of covering Texas politics is that during our state’s biennial legislative sessions, especially these frantic final two months, there’s so much happening at the Lege that it’s hard to keep track of anything in the outside world. But Tuesday, as I was heading into the Capitol, I paused to say hello to Brandon Darby and Ildefonso Ortiz of Breitbart Texas, and thereby heard a tidbit I had missed: Judicial Watch, a right-wing website, had posted a story asserting that ISIS has set up a training camp in Juarez.

This is an absurd claim, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. And Judicial Watch’s story was barely posted before it was flatly dismissed by the Mexican Embassy and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Nonetheless, some of Judicial Watch’s readers have taken the story at face value, undeterred by the total absence of evidence and the official denials. An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes, and an official statement is only as credible as the officials offering it.

Darby and Ortiz, I sensed, were exasperated about the situation, for reasons any journalist can easily understand. Many of you reading this are probably skeptical of Breitbart Texas, which is a right-wing news site with a reputation for erratic quality; I get that, but in general  I put more stock in individual reporters than in the outlet they work for, or the ideological affiliation of either, and I have a high opinion of Darby and Ortiz as border reporters. Both have extensive experience and expertise, built up over time. Both have a lot of good sources, including in law enforcement, notably. Both are aggressive and have a record of breaking news—Darby was the guy who exposed last year’s border crisis, and triggered the national focus on it, when he published photos of immigrant children in detention facilities, which a law enforcement source had leaked to him—but have maintained a commitment to accuracy, even when their audience’s attention has been distracted by a lurid internet story about a shadowy menace lurking on America’s doorstep, like the one that Judicial Watch had just made up about the ISIS training camp. The resulting kerfuffle was bound to be a frustrating and thankless distraction. Like all honest journalists they seek to inform the public; that’s hard enough even when the public isn’t being actively misinformed by lies and propaganda.

You may not feel much empathy for the reporters’ plight. But widespread misinformation isn’t just a pet peeve for people like me and Darby and Ortiz. It causes all of us, including you and your loved ones, real harm. It can cause people to waste time and money. It can prevent us from allocating efforts and resources in ways that would actually advance our goals. In some cases it puts lives at risk. This may be one of those cases. There are extremely bad things happening along the US-Mexico border every day. And yet this week, at least, Texas’s law enforcement apparatus had to allocate some of its efforts to debunking a story that is either an error or (more likely) a blatant fabrication. If you care about border security, that should worry you.

Misinformation is not a new phenomenon. Neither is spin. But both are more prevalent today than they once were as a result of technology and politics and the interaction between the two. The decentralization of what we still call traditional media, in conjunction with the increasingly negligible barriers to entry in the information marketplace, means that anyone can disseminate information, anyone can find it, and the people and structures that once served as filters are increasingly irrelevant. That’s not necessarily bad; in many ways it’s great. It maximizes individual freedom and opportunity. But it means that the average reader has to work harder. You can curate your own news feed. In fact, you have to. And in the meantime, an array of third parties—politicians, partisans, advocates—are offering you unsolicited opinions about what to read or listen to. All of these people have their own incentives. Some want your vote. Some want your attention because they can monetize it via advertisers or subscriptions. Some are just sincerely trying to raise awareness of issues they sincerely care about.

Neither aspect of the situation is going to change. And neither is intrinsically sinister; I err on the side of skepticism myself. The problems only really arise when readers are misled, deliberately or not. So I thought I’d take the occasion to lay out the types of claims that are worth double-checking, and offer a three-part strategy for how you as the reader can check for yourself, using the Judicial Watch piece as an example.  

     


For Greg Abbott, Charity Began at Home

Texas Governor Greg Abbott today released his income tax return for 2014, and it is something of a shocker. Abbott paid just $1,752 in taxes on $131,251 in adjusted gross income.

The low tax payment was because he had paid $51,778 in property taxes on his home in Austin and $44,257 in mortgage interest. His mortgage interest was almost ten times as much as the $4,495 in charitable donations he made.

     


Michael Quinn Sullivan, Tax Cuts and the DPS Connection

Michael Quinn Sullivan is using his Empower Texans influence machine to push the Senate’s property tax cut plan over the House sales tax plan, but there also is a connect the dots exercise involving Sullivan that Speaker Joe Straus’ Republicans might want to play before a new state ethics bill comes up next week.

     


DPS Chief Goes Political on Ethics Investigation

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw today proved he can be every bit as political on ethics issues as any Travis County district attorney.

Just hours before the House is set to debate a bill to take public integrity investigations away from the Travis County Public Integrity Unit and transfer that authority to McCraw’s Texas Rangers, McCraw distributed to legislators a letter he sent to the Travis prosecutors demanding they conclude an investigation into a no-bid contract at his agency.

If power to investigate the contract had been under McCraw, as proposed by HB 1690, he could have ordered the Texas Rangers to stand down a long time ago.

I understand the frustrations of Republican officeholders at the prospect of a complaint against them being investigated by a Democratic district attorney and heard by a grand jury likely made up of partisan Travis County Democrats. But moving investigations to the Texas Rangers will be no less partisan. McCraw worked for former Governor Rick Perry prior to taking charge of the state police agency in 2009. The entire Public Safety Commission is appointed by the governor. And McCraw’s chief deputy, Robert J. “Duke” Bodisch Sr., was an opposition researcher in the mid-1990s for Republican statewide political campaigns.

McCraw’s letter critical of the Travis County public integrity unit was delivered to legislators and their staffs under Bodisch’s signature.

     


The Lopsided Fight Over Tax Cuts

On Tuesday, on a 30-1 vote, the Senate passed a budget for the forthcoming 2016-17 biennium. Their version, which proposes $211.4 billion in all-funds spending for the two-year cycle, is almost two billion dollars larger than the House’s, which passed on April 1st, but the spending breakdown is similar, and broadly sound. The most notable and controversial budget-related discrepancy between the chambers has to do with tax cuts. The House is calling for $4.9 billion in biennial tax cuts, as laid out by Ways and Means Chair Dennis Bonnen: a 25 percent cut in the franchise tax rate plus a cut in the state sales tax rate. The Senate proposal, which works out to $4.6 billion, proposes franchise tax cuts and property tax relief.

Both proposals are ominous from a certain perspective. Democrats in both chambers have argued that the money would be better used for critical priorities like public education, higher education, roads, or water. And even Republicans have agreed; Kevin Eltife, in the Senate, has been the most vocal skeptic of the session’s tax-cut fever, arguing that it would be better to use the revenue available to tackle the state’s fiscal obligations, such as public pension liabilities. As I’ve written before, I’m with the skeptics; Texas already has one of the lowest average state tax burdens (and one of the lowest average tax rates) in the country, and one of the lowest rates of state spending per capita. We could always aspire to spend less, like Wyoming, but we have five million children enrolled in public school, and their enrollment is closer to five; more concretely, no one has proposed $4.7 billion in biennial spending cuts, or admitted that they’re happy to let their counterparts in the future take the blame for proposing the tax hikes that will be inevitable in the absence of such cuts.

On the other hand, if you’re in the “death to all taxes” camp, the two proposals may seem equally appealing, because they’re about the same size; as Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson put it, “we’re both right.” And Governor Abbott is apparently similarly agnostic. Back in January, he threatened to veto any budget that didn’t include some business tax relief, and in his state of the state he specifically called for $2.2 billion in property tax cuts. But yesterday, as R.G. wrote, he offered the clarification that he wouldn’t necessarily veto a budget that doesn’t include property tax relief, and indicated that he is open to considering either tax-cut package.

In my view, this was an unnecessary clarification on Abbott’s part. He had never threatened to veto a budget that doesn’t include property tax relief and—state of the state notwithstanding—it doesn’t really make sense to demand that the state cut a tax that it is constitutionally barred from levying in the first place. However, it was probably a worthwhile clarification, because the House and Senate are apparently prepared to go to war over this. Last week, on the day that Bonnen (joined by most of the House Republican caucus) laid out his preferred tax cuts, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick issued a blistering statement about that chamber’s proposal, and yesterday he reiterated the arguments on behalf of the Senate’s plan. Since Nelson is the chair of Senate Finance, her expressed agnosticism is telling. But since Patrick is the lieutenant governor, the Senate can be expected to follow his lead.

In the end, I expect the House to prevail, because Bonnen’s plan is better than Patrick’s for at least half a dozen reasons.

     


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