`In Austin, Texas, Austin, Texas, owns your trees.’ On the poetry of Gov. Greg Abbott

(TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Good morning Austin:

First Reading has in the past taken note of the found poetry of American politics.

When Donald Trump announced for president on June 16, 2015, the next day’s First Reading  was headlined, `It’s not great again.’ The poetry of Donald Trump

For example, his poetic takes on the flawed announcement events of two rivals.

On Rick Perry

And, I can tell

Some of the candidates,

They went in.

They didn’t know the air-conditioner didn’t work.

They sweated like dogs.

And:

Lincoln Chafee’s Metric of Failure

They didn’t know the room was too big,

because they didn’t have anybody there.

How are they going to beat ISIS?

I don’t think it’s gonna happen.

Hey, look, it’s Ben Jacobs, who was recently in the news himself for getting body-slammed by Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, who has since been elected to Congress, apologized to Jacobs and agreed to plead guilty to assault.

Even  before writing about the poetry of Trump, inspired by a visit to BookPeople in Austin by Mike Huckabee to sign copies of his  book – God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy – in preparation for a second run for the White House, I devoted a February 2015 First Reading to Gravy on a bagel: An anthology of Republican verse from Abe to Huck.

From Huckabee:

Gravy on a Bagel (On first visiting Zabar’s)

Gravy on a bagel

Just doesn’t work for me.

If I want to chew that hard,

I’ll take up chewing tobacco,

Which I won’t.

I’m not even that rural.

Enter Gov. Greg Abbott.

Unlike Trump or Huck, Abbott’s poetics were not so obvious.

That was until last Monday, when I heard him speak at the Bell Country Republican Party Dinner in Belton, where he made his memorable and quite lyrical remarks about Austin, which I have entitled:

The Smell of Freedom (Austin stinks)

As I was coming up here from Austin, Texas, tonight,

I got to tell you.

It’s great to be out of the People’s Republic of Austin.

As you leave Austin and start heading north,

You start feeling different.

 Once you cross the Travis County line,

It starts smelling different.

And you know what that fragrance is?

Freedom.

It’s the smell of freedom

That does not exist

In Austin, Texas.

It turns out, this was not a one-off.

As I listened last week to Abbott on a series of drive-time and conservative talk radio shows – the favored forum of the Republican slam poet – I heard a recognizable style.

In Austin, Texas, Austin, Texas, owns your trees.

We have a problem here in Austin, Texas

I don’t know if you guys have up there.

In Austin, if you buy your own land,

to where you own a house, a ranch, or whatever,

you may think you own the trees on your land.

That’s not the case.

In Austin, Texas,

Austin, Texas, owns your trees.

That is insanity.

And that’s a violation of private property rights

in the state of Texas.

And we want things like that repealed.

Greek Chorus: How did that happen? What kind of law is that?

It’s socialistic,

is what it is.

I had a house.

Because I’m governor of the state of Texas

I live in the Governor’s mansion now.

But, before that,

I had a house.

I wanted to cut down a very common pecan tree in my yard.

And the city of Austin told me,

“No.”

I could not cut it down.

And I had to pay money to the city of Austin

to add more trees to my yard

Because I wanted to cut down

one

very

common

tree

that was in a bad location.

Pretty good, right?

I mean compare that to what is probably the most famous poem of all about trees  – Trees by Joyce Kilmer – a treacly, soft-minded confection compared to Abbott’s muscular verse.

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

And for this Joyce Kilmer gets a rest area named for him on the New Jersey Turnpike?

Credit: AA Roads.

I prefer the Ogden Nash knockoff: Song of the Open Road.

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all.

As is evident in the two Abbott poems, Austin is his muse, if animus be inspiration.

But, I suspect the relationship is more complicated than it at first appears.

From my Sunday story on the governor calling the special session.

Gov. Greg Abbott began his Tuesday announcement in a scolding tone.

“We should not be where we are today. A special session was entirely avoidable,” Abbott said before summoning lawmakers to return to Austin to tackle an expansive conservative agenda. “There was plenty of time for the House and the Senate to forge compromises to avoid the time and taxpayer expense of a special session. Because of their inability or refusal to pass a simple law that would prevent the medical profession from shutting down I am going to call a special session to complete that unfinished business. But if I am going to ask the taxpayers to foot the bill for a special session, I intend to make it count.”

The next 17 minutes, as Abbott unveiled the packed agenda for a 30-day special session to get underway July 18, were probably the best, and for him, the most satisfying, of his 2½ years as governor.

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On a Wednesday appearance with Hal Jay on WBAP radio in the Metroplex, Abbott sounded delighted with what he had wrought and how thoroughly he had blown up under-the-dome assumptions.

“One of the fun things I have is I get to see all the speculation that people have, whether it could be about the special session or other things and, as usual, it turns out all the speculators are wrong,” Abbott said. “No one saw this coming. But I knew if we were going to have a special session, by God, it was going to be on issues that I consider to be important.”

The concern about cost is mostly rhetorical.

The main expense of a special session is the $190 per diem that each of the 182 members of the House and Senate collects for each day they work. That’s $34,580 a day. If the governor had called a special session just to pass a measure keeping the Texas Medical Board and four other agencies operating, he could have had a discount special session for only about a $100,000. If all 182 legislators work all 30 days, the price tag will be a little over a million dollars.

From the Statesman’s Elizabeth Findell: How could Abbott’s ‘war against cities’ special session affect Austin?

A special session of the Legislature that Mayor Steve Adler called a “war against cities” will be fought on at least nine fronts for the city of Austin.

Gov. Greg Abbott called the monthlong session, beginning July 18, after a regular session heavily focused on overturning local measures that Republican lawmakers consider governmental overreach.

Nine of 20 Abbott-proposed bills for the special session specifically target local authority. Some, like a lower property tax increase cap and municipal annexation reform, echo bills heavily debated during the recent session. Others, like calls to speed up local permitting and bar ordinances from affecting already-begun construction projects appear new — and mystifying to city leaders.

And local tree ordinances are on Abbott’s list.

Overturn rules protecting trees

Abbott said he would like a bill preventing cities from regulating what property owners can do with trees on private land. If that bill resembles Senate Bill 782, which never made it out of committee this session, it would specify that a landowner owns the trees on his property and can do as he wishes with them, and it would limit the tree removal fees that cities charge.

About 50 Texas cities have tree protection ordinances, including Round Rock, Pflugerville, Sunset Valley, Lockhart and West Lake Hills. Austin’s ordinance requires landowners to get city permission to cut down any trees with diameters of more than 19 inches and prohibits removing “heritage trees” — certain species with diameters of at least 24 inches — unless the tree is a safety risk or is preventing reasonable land use. From 2014 to 2016, the city preserved 43,000 trees, approved removing 23,000 and required the planting of 24,000 replacement trees.

Well, one of the 43,000 trees Austin saved – that pecan tree that was in a bad location on Abbott’s lawn – may ultimately prove costly to the city.

Or not.

I mean, follow the money, and the anti-Austin special session is revealed for what it really is – an Austin boondoggle, in which Texans from Amarillo to Corpus Christi are taxed $1 million, money that is entirely – and then some – directly injected into the Austin economy.

Where else do you think that $190 per diem is going?

For food and drink in Austin. For new sublets, hotel rooms and Airbnb’s for lawmakers whose regular session living arrangements in Austin have lapsed.

Have an extra room in your house? Put it on Craig’s List. And, whatever you think is a fair price, double it.

And, in the opening shot in his war on Austin, Abbott on Sine Die, in what he called a “celebration of freedom and free enterprise,” signed legislation bringing Uber and Lyft back to Austin just in time to cash in on the special session.

Gov. Greg Abbott used four pens to affix his signature to House Bill 100, taking ride-hailing regulation statewide in Texas, rendering moot the Austin ordinance that Lyft and Uber disliked, and simultaneously removing their reason for declining to arrange rides in Austin, Texas. TRICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Indeed, the positive economic impact on Austin of a special session will undoubtedly far exceed the $1 million in collective per diems.

While I couldn’t find any figures on the Visit Austin website over the weekend, I did find this from a January 2001 story by future Houston Chronicle Pulitzer Prize winner, then AP writer, Lisa Falkenberg.

AUSTIN {AP} — When the great legislative cattle call rings through the Capitol chambers Tuesday, its effects will echo through every sector of Austin, stimulating liquor sales, stocking hotels and restaurants and further-frustrating the city’s trudging traffic.

The Capitol hummed with activity Monday as freshmen found their offices, aides unpacked boxes and workers delivered the last loads of lamps and endtables to offices.

Cynthia Maddox of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau (now Visit Austin) said the Legislature’s impact on Austin will be substantial.

“It’s a huge monster,” she said.

But a generous one.

Entertainment expenditures such as alcohol, food and hotel and housing revenue racked up over 140 days by lawmakers and lobbyists will boost the local economy by at least $50 million, Maddox estimated. That amount will soar higher if tedious debate on issues such as redistricting drags on into special sessions.

“With all the attention on the political scene in Texas with the new governor and redistricting, it could be as high as $60 to $65 million,” she said.

From another AP story in 2005:

When the Legislature is in session, an estimated $26.3 million flows into the local economy, according to a report sanctioned by the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The excitement created around the Legislature being in town keeps us in the spotlight for 140 days,” said Robert Lander, president and chief executive of the visitors bureau.

According to the report, lodging, food, transportation and retail sales stand to gain the most from the biennial lawmaking frenzy.

An estimated $8.9 million will be spent on lodging and $17.3 million on retail sales.

Goodnight said business increases, on average, 25 to 35 percent during years when the Legislature convenes. This year looks to be no different.

From Drew Scheberle, senior vice president for federal/state advocacy with the Austin Chamber:

We certainly welcome the Legislature back to spend their money in our great watering holes and restaurants to figure out how to reduce their reliance on 1.1 billion in Austin property taxes over the next two years to fund the education system.

As Matthew Odam wrote in the preface to his session dining guide earlier this year – Legislative eats: 85 restaurants within one mile of the Texas State Capitol – When the Texas Legislature is in session, the northern parts of downtown are swamped with lawmakers, staff, lobbyists, news crews and concerned citizens.

It is time for all these restaurants to devise some summer special session specials.

And why not some special theme events.

How about a Byron Cook’s Tour of Culinary Austin?

A Four Price Prix Fixe at Dai Due?

A Freedom Caucus Steiner Ranch Steakhouse Sunset Dinner?

What fun!

Or a Dan Patrick inspection tour of outstanding Austin restaurant bathrooms.

The men’s room door at the Russian House in Austin.

If you can name four or more of the men pictured here, the U.S. House and Senate Intelligence Committees would like to speak with you.

And the Texas Chili Parlor really ought to cash in on the notoriety it got from Alex Jones’ suggestion in his testimony at his recent child custody trial at the nearby Travis County Courthouse that it was a place of laughter and forgetting.

But no, that wouldn’t be good. That wouldn’t be in the spirit of Gov. Abbott’s call.

From Abbott’s slam Wednesday on Chad Hasty’s radio show in Lubbock.

Put your work hats on

We don’t need to have them waste time by coming in at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

And then adjourn at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.

They need to come to ‘Austin with their work hat on.

Go to work at 8 o’clock in the morning.

Work all day.

And pass things out.

They’ve got plenty of time to get it done,

If they don’t get it done

It’s because they’re lazy.

It’s because they lacked the will.

They lack the desire

To get this done.

And the taxpayers of the state of Texas

are not going to tolerate it.

Meanwhile:

 

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