Now that the legislative session is behind us it’s time to start gearing up for the primary season in Williamson County, and with that comes GOP infighting. The 2012 season is gearing up to be a bonanza of backstabbing. From the vantage point of an outsider it looks as though not long after the 2008 GOP primary there’s been issues between the County Attorney’s Office, the Court At Law Judges and the Williamson County Commissioners Court (WCCC) – see here, here, and here.
Then late in 2010 and early 2011 the County Attorney and WCCC started filing lawsuits and grievances against one other like they were going out of style – see here, here, and here. The latest in the saga is information that has surfaced regarding the WCCC hiring lobbyists to pass legislation through the Texas Legislature and at the Federal level as well. The tab is adding up, and is likley to exceed $200,000. (Go here, July Archive for the WCEA blog. Scroll to the bottom and start reading – Commissioner Valerie Covey and the breaking “Lobbygate” scandal – Part I.)
The lobbying story was broken by a blog of united Williamson County employees. They are fed up with the WCCC’s claims of poverty, while they continue to spend lavishly, and run up historic levels of debt, (that is the GOP way after all). Meanwhile, county employee pay stagnates and the cost of their benefits – especially health insurance – skyrockets. The county employees are feeling the pain average workers have known for years.
From what’s been reported so far, nothing illegal has been done, save for some possible violations of the procurement act and possibly some record retention lapses. The reason this is just now coming to light is the way the WCCC handled the hiring of the lobbyists. Essentially they hired a law firm, to hire the lobbyists, which kept the actual “hiring of lobbyists” off of the WCCC’s agenda, away from public scrutiny, and, they hoped, political liability. Which is why the after-the-fact claims that this was such a financial boon for the county seem so suspect. (As well as initial claims ignorance of hiring lobbyists, which have since been refuted). From the AAS, Williamson officials defend hiring of legislative lobbyists.
The Williamson County Commissioners Court is facing criticism over spending more than $100,000 on lobbyists to help get a bill passed in the Texas Legislature that speeds up the environmental review process for transportation projects.
The bill, which was approved in the regular session, imposes deadlines for the Texas Department of Transportation to complete environmental reviews. Federal law requires an environmental review before the construction of a transportation project by federal, state or local transportation entities.
Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long said the new law was necessary because the Department of Transportation, when it had no deadlines, took several years to approve a review needed before the county could add a median on U.S. 183 between the San Gabriel River and Seward Junction. During the delay, from 2006 to 2010, she said, the costs of purchasing right of way increased from $10 million to $37 million.
“Had this legislation been in place, the county would have saved $27 million,” she said.
The other part to this story is what it says about the state of our political process and what is left of our democracy. Because as much as we may not want it to be true, what state Sen. Kirk Watson says is true.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who was one of the authors of the bill in the Senate, said the people whom Williamson County hired worked with his office and with House members. He said the legislation was important.
“We needed it so that these local elected officials who are on the front line of trying to make improvements on behalf of the counties could get deadlines imposed,” he said.
To get the bill passed, Williamson County had to fight “folks that know this system and know how to kill bills,” Watson said. “TxDOT can create a traffic jam other than on the highway.”
He declined to comment about whether the county needed to hire the lobbyists but said that “this is one of those things that if you’re going to pull out all the stops, it didn’t hurt anything.”
Of course that’s not, in any way, to condone what’s been done or to say that anyone involved in this should not be held accountable for what they’ve done. But it is to say that when we have a state, and local government, whose elected officials have to raise campaign cash from special interests to get elected, we shouldn’t be surprised or particularly outraged when, once elected, they use their power over tax payer money to enrich those who finance their campaigns. Again, not saying it’s right, just that this is how our current system works. And when those working within the system do what’s required of the system, that means we have to change our system, to change what’s going on.
Issues like this will continue to come up as long as we allow special interests to control our political system. Some form of public financing of campaigns would be the logical place to start repairing our democracy.
The fear with what is taking place in this debate thus far, like with the phony debt crisis debate, is that once again we’re getting bogged down in process and minutiae, and not focusing on the big picture. For decades there’s been a concerted effort to demonize government as the problem. That has trickled down to demonizing some of our most important public employees – firefighters, peace officers, and teachers – as greedy for wanting a living wage, benefits, and the pension they were promised when they were hired.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka recently said about public employees:
Quite frankly I find it America is stood on it head when we look at a group of workers and say they have something, and other people don’t and say… well… in America we should take it away form those that have (laughter). Remember when we were at our zenith? When people didn’t have something, we looked at it and said why not? How can we get it for them, not take it away from those that do have it.
I’d ask everybody here that when you hear people making jokes about public employees, I wish you would stand up for them. Because they’re the ones that make the country function. They’re in your hospitals, they’re in your towns. They protect your house, they rush into a burning building. They take care of your sick mother, sick dad. They’re there every single day. They teach your kids and your grand kids.
It’s not just public employees, but workers in general, that have been under attack since the 1970s. It’s always been workers vs. bosses and always will be. The only way the workers can gain an advantage is by working together. Since the 1970s, the bosses – corporations and the wealthy – have been successful at keeping workers fighting amongst themselves instead working together for their common good. As this graph shows, As Union Membership Has Declined, Income Inequality Has Skyrocketed In The United States.
As most know, the GOP is a party that caters to the rich and the corporations. They are not, generally speaking, a party that believes in equality, or democracy, in the work place. They believe, by and large, that workers should be happy with what an employer chooses to give them. And that is essentially what has happened in Williamson County. The bosses (WCCC) believe that its employees are overpaid. They are unwilling, not unable, to raise taxes, especially on the wealthy and therefore workers must pay the price. The WCCC and their supporters have been on a tirade for at least a year, demonizing public employees, and it’s time for it to stop.
This is a fight between our county’s elected officials and the county’s public employees. Bosses versus workers. What’s unique is that it is also a political fight inside the GOP in Williamson County. It’s not likely this will end anytime soon and the only ones likely to suffer – if recent Williamson County history is any indicator – will be the taxpayers and public employees.