Waco native Bryan Christopher spent 18 years trying to change his sexual orientation before finally coming out as gay.
Bryan Christopher was born in 1970 to two Baylor University students in Waco—what he calls “the Southern Baptist epicenter of the world.”
At 13, Christopher realized his dad’s Playboy magazines didn’t appeal to him. But because he’d been taught that being gay was a sin, he’d spend the next 18 years trying to change his sexual orientation through both religious and mental health counseling.
At 25, when Christopher feared he was in love with a fraternity brother at UCLA, he felt the urge to jump off a cliff. He called a suicide hotline and spent three days in a psychiatric ward, but it wouldn’t be until six years later that he finally came out as gay.
Looking back, the now 45-year-old Christopher blames so-called “reparative therapy” for many of his struggles. He’s written a book about his experiences and speaks out in support of bills like one filed Friday at the Texas Legislature, which would ban reparative therapy for minors.
“It’s to protect the children from being forced into a therapy that just reinforces the fear and the shame that most of these kids already have, and it leads to people taking their own lives,” Christopher said. “There’s nothing good that ever comes out of it. … I think if you just were to poll all the survivors, I think they would probably echo what I’m saying, that it was a very destructive and painful chapter of their lives.”
The proposal introduced by out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) would prohibit mental health providers in Texas from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under 18. Those who violate the law would face disciplinary action from state licensing boards.
“I don’t think that they recognize how hurtful these kinds of things can be,” Israel told the Observer. “To suggest that some young kid that happens to be gay is less than normal is very hurtful and harmful and dangerous, and I think I put myself back in those years when I was first discovering who I was. … I felt strongly about introducing a bill that was a counter to that, to say, ‘We don’t need fixing. We just need your love.'”
But David Pickup, a licensed counselor who practices reparative therapy in Dallas and Los Angeles, suggested those groups have a political agenda and haven’t done adequate research. Pickup said bans like the one proposed in Texas violate the free speech rights of counselors, as well as the rights of parents and children.
“It results in further abuse of children because it doesn’t let them become who they actually are,” Pickup said. “It also takes away any possibility at all of children who are sexually abused by same-sex pedophiles from getting any help whatsoever to reduce or eliminate homosexual feelings that are caused by that.”
Pickup, one of the authors of the Texas GOP plank endorsing reparative therapy, was also a plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging a similar law in California. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether to hear a challenge to New Jersey’s reparative therapy ban. The only other jurisdiction to outlaw reparative therapy for minors is Washington, D.C., but several other states are considering it.
Pickup, who describes himself as “ex-homosexual,” said his methods are nothing like horror stories in the media about electroshock and aversion therapy. Rather, he employs “time-tested psycho-dymanic and cognitive behavioral therapies” to address common issues such as “gender-identity inferiority” and “severely unmet male emotional needs.”
“If the gay agenda really cared about children, they wouldn’t create a law that would put children right back in the hands of some of the religious people who supposedly do all this harm that’s being done,” Pickup said.
Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) wants to change the way Texas grades its public schools, and during a hearing today he laid out his plan: grading schools like students, on an “A” to “F” scale.
“Senate Bill 6 provides Texas parents with a more transparent way to determine the quality of their local schools in order to make the best decision for their child,” Taylor said.
Texas’ current rating system includes two categories—“met standard” and “needs improvement.” The ratings are based largely on standardized test scores.
Dozens of people testified against Taylor’s bill, including several school district superintendents. They argued that letter grades would do nothing to improve schools, would punish schools that serve large numbers of economically disadvantaged students and would sidestep the main problem struggling schools face: lack of adequate funding. Democrats on the committee seemed to agree.
“[Poor performance] is more because of lack of resources than anything else,” said Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) said. “I would really caution us from getting into any scheme that redlines school districts.”
Most of the Republicans on the committee supported the idea that an A-F system would better inform parents how public schools are performing, spur parent engagement, and lead to school improvement.
John Bailey of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education reform think tank established by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, testified that the A-F rating system led to dramatic school improvement in Florida. In the program’s first six years, the number of “F”-rated schools fell and the number of “A” schools rose—but much of that change was the result of changing criteria for the letter grades.
Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) pressed Bailey to name specific schools that have improved because of the A-F rating system. Bailey couldn’t name any, but said he would get back to West.
An A-F rating system was adopted in Florida in the late 1990s when Bush was the state’s governor. The Florida Association for District School Superintendents opposed the A-F rating system, saying that it may not be an accurate measure of school performance.
Sixteen other states have since adopted the so-called Florida formula. Researchers have shown that Maine’s A-F rating system tends to track the percentage of poor students in a school. Indeed, research has shown that there is a very tight link between socioeconomic status and academic achievement.
Some say the system can be easily gamed for political purposes. In 2013, former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett scandalously manipulated his state’s A-F system to benefit a major campaign donor.
At today’s hearing, Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) said one of his main concerns was the way an “F” rating would stigmatize schools, making it harder for low-rated schools to retain teachers, staff and students. “In assigning ‘F’ grades to some of these campuses,” Rodriguez wondered, “are we not really consigning them to failure permanently?”
Erick Muñoz, husband of Marlise Muñoz, addresses reporters at the Texas Capitol.
For nearly two months, Lynne and Ernest Machado’s pregnant, brain-dead daughter was kept alive against the family’s wishes. After collapsing in her home and suffering a pulmonary embolism in November 2013, Marlise Muñoz was declared brain-dead by a hospital in Fort Worth and put on life support. She was 14 weeks pregnant with her second child.
Despite her family saying that Muñoz had communicated that she wanted to be immediately taken off life support should something catastrophic occur, the hospital refused, citing a provision of Texas’ advance directive law that states doctors “may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment … from a pregnant patient.” Muñoz’s husband, Erick, and her parents sued the hospital, ultimately winning their case and the right to bury Marlise.
Today, Lynne said her family was put through a “torturous hell” while fighting the hospital.
“It was horrible, it was traumatic, what they did to her body,” she told the Observer. “We knew she had died, we knew she was gone. What we didn’t plan on was that a pregnant woman in Texas forfeits her rights the minute she becomes pregnant.”
Now, more than a year later, Marlise’s family is working to make sure that no Texas family has to go through what they did. Today, they stood alongside state Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) as he announced a bill called “Marlise’s Law,” which would remove the so-called pregnancy exclusion in Texas’ advance directive law.
“Doctors and hospitals should not be compelled by the law to impose medical interventions over the objections of a dying patient and her family,” Naishtat said at a press conference Thursday at the Capitol. “These changes will permit the pregnant patient to control her care, her treatment, by giving instructions to health care providers to administer, withhold, or withdraw life-sustaining treatment.”
Currently, more than 30 states have similar pregnancy exclusion provisions in their end-of-life laws. In Texas, the advance directive document includes this provision: “I understand that under Texas law this directive has no effect if I have been diagnosed as pregnant.”
Rebecca Robertson, a lawyer with the ACLU of Texas, pointed out that the law blatantly discriminates against pregnant patients.
“It makes pregnant women second-class citizens because they no longer have the right to decide for themselves,” she said.
Marlise and her family had decided long ago that should a catastrophe occur, none of them would want to be kept alive by machines. Still, they were forced to endure a weeks-long court battle because Marlise was pregnant. Erick told reporters that his wife was family-oriented, a good mother and confident in her decision to forego end-of-life medical treatment.
“It’s a family matter,” he said Thursday at the Capitol. “It should be handled as such.”
While Naishtat’s bill would remove the pregnancy exclusion provision, a bill by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) would tighten it. Filed at the end of February, Krause’s House Bill 1901 would require a hospital to keep a pregnant woman on life-support “regardless of whether there is irreversible cessation of all spontaneous brain function of the pregnant patient … and if the life-sustaining treatment is enabling the unborn child to mature.” Dubbed the “Unborn Child Due Process Act,” Krause’s bill would also require the Texas attorney general to appoint a lawyer for the unborn fetus from a “registry” that the attorney general’s office would create.
“It’s my position that if a baby is still continuing to grow and develop, then that means the mother cannot be brain dead, there has to be something that’s allowing that baby to grow and develop,” he told the Observer. The lawyer “would just give a voice to that unborn child during court proceedings.”
Robertson called Krause’s idea “unprecedented.”
“The government’s going to get involved on behalf of the fetus, as if the grandparents, husband, were somehow not looking out for the interest of the fetus,” she said. “You can see where that might be applied in much broader circumstances, this idea that when you become pregnant you lose your autonomy.”
Krause’s bill was been referred to the House State Affairs committee.
Gov. Rick Perry attends the ribbon cutting ceremony for a new crisis pregnancy center in Houston in 2012.
The House Appropriations Committee approved a budget rider Thursday that would add an additional $4 million per year to the Alternatives to Abortion program, which largely funds crisis pregnancy centers.
The House base budget, originally introduced in mid-January, includes about $5.1 million per year, a $1 million increase from the previous budget cycle, to the program. The rider, by state Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), increases state funding to more than $9 million per year.
The nonprofit Texas Pregnancy Care Network contracts with the state to distribute funding through the Alternatives to Abortion program to 61 subcontractors, including crisis pregnancy resource centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies. The network purports to “help women in crisis pregnancies via free and compassionate, practical and life-affirming services,” but many facilities do not provide medical care, are virtually unregulated by the state and have been found by various investigations to offer inaccurate information designed to dissuade women from having an abortion.
Bonnen’s rider is described as “increasing funds to pregnancy centers and early childhood care.”
Bonnen says his chief focus is early childhood care.
“One of the main focuses of this is really parenting services,” he said before the hearing. “So, moms that have a newborn that would like to have some guidance in terms of how to care for this child, and how to care for themselves as they’re caring for this child.”
During the Thursday hearing, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) and state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) raised concerns about the sizable funding increase, questioning whether there is enough oversight of the Texas Pregnancy Care Network. Right now, the network reports “deliverables and milestones” to the Health and Human Services Commission on a monthly basis, but beyond that, it’s hard to know how much of the state funds go toward services compared to administrative costs.
“I still have concerns about bang for the buck, so to speak,” Howard said.
State Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) said that 41 percent of the Alternatives to Abortion funds go to crisis pregnancy centers, 35 percent to maternity homes and 25 percent to adoption agencies. He also said that increased funding will lead to an increase in subcontractors with the Texas Pregnancy Care Network. Most of the crisis pregnancy centers and other facilities are located in Central and North Texas, he said.
Originally, Bonnen’s rider called for an additional $9.7 million over two years, but was later reduced to $8 million. Another proposed rider, by state Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), would have increased the funding by nearly $15 million over the next two years, but it was not approved by a budget subcommittee.
While legislators have cut funding for family planning and cancer screenings over the last few sessions, they’ve also pumped more money into crisis pregnancy centers.
From its inception in 2005 to 2012, the Alternatives to Abortion program received more than $26 million in state funding. A 2012 Texas Observer investigation found that crisis pregnancy centers deliver fewer services to women, while spending more per client than family planning providers.
Investigations by NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and multiple media outlets have raised questions about the Texas Pregnancy Care Network’s contract with the state and have found that crisis pregnancy centers use scientifically inaccurate information when talking to women, including telling clients that abortion is linked to breast cancer.
State Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) is member of the subcommittee that oversees the health and human services portion of the budget. He takes issue with Bonnen’s rider, raising concerns this week about the lax accountability standards set up for crisis pregnancy centers.
“I don’t think it’s a wise use of our resources,” he said. “With some of these centers there’s no accountability. Are only they gearing these young ladies to not have an abortion? Do they account for a young lady who might’ve been raped? Or a victim of incest? That’s where I come down on it.”
One of the state’s most anti-gay lawmakers is going forward with a “religious freedom” amendment dropped by another representative earlier this week amid opposition from the Texas Association of Business.
On Wednesday, Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) introduced HJR 125, which is identical to HJR 55. When Villalba introduced HJR 55, he wrote on Facebook it was drafted with the help of Krause and Plano’s Liberty Institute.
Equality Texas rated Krause the state’s most anti-LGBT lawmaker following the 2013 session.
This session, lawmakers are trying to fix one of the biggest gaps in the troubled foster care system: The training requirements for the majority of foster parents, kinship caregivers and adoptive parents are minimal, and the state doesn’t know how closely private placement agencies are adhering to the standards.
House Bill 781, authored by state Rep. Cindy Burkett (R-Garland), would require additional oversight of the 340 private, nonprofit and for-profit agencies that recruit and train foster parents. Burkett introduced the bill Monday evening to the House Committee on Human Services. State child welfare advocates say the bill is a first step in furthering the transparency of the system. Thirteen children died last year while under the protection of licensed caregivers.
“Countless measures have been implemented to assure the safety of children who are in custody of the state,” Burkett said. “We want to feel confident that the best providers are being approved to provide services to children in foster care, and we also want to ensure they acquire the knowledge needed to take on these important roles.”
Currently, the Department of Family and Protective Services has little oversight of the programs that private agencies use to train caregivers, nor does the state know how many training hours each agency requires, or what curricula agencies use for training. There’s also no way to assess whether such trainings are effective or appropriate for the needs of children, many of whom have suffered physical and relational trauma.
The Department of Family and Protective Services requires at least 16 hours of instruction, a woefully inadequate minimum, according to critics.
As part of their training, the state mandates that foster parents be instructed on behavior intervention, psychotropic medicine administration, medical consent, CPR and care for children who have experienced trauma. There’s no state guidance on how much training time is required for each subject, leaving it up to each individual agency.
Burkett’s bill would promote “best practice standards”—undefined in the legislation—by requiring all agencies to tell the state how they’re going to train potential parents. It also mandates that the state evaluate the trainings.
Ashley Harris, with the nonprofit child advocacy organization Texans Care for Children, said the legislation is an important first step in changing how the state trains and regulates private agencies that train potential parents.
“Hopefully in the future we can be able to determine what are some best practices around training and screening [and] what types of trainings are actually resulting in better outcomes,” she said. “We can’t identify what is best if we don’t know what everyone is doing.”
Knox Kimberly, spokesman for Lutheran Social Services of the South, a faith-based organization, said the bill will “provide a needed dose of transparency with respect to training methods.”
Lutheran Social Services operates 16 child-placement programs in cities around the state. Through a program called Foster In Texas, the group provides just under 35 hours of the state-required training, held in both English and Spanish, for potential caregivers. As part of the 35-hour curriculum, the organization includes classes on sexual abuse, disruptive behavior, cultural diversity and self-care for foster parents.
“For our part, we invest considerable time and resources in training, blending a number of different methods that we believe constitute the right combination for training prospective foster parents,” Kimberly told the committee.
Kimberly also pointed out that smaller placement agencies may not have the resources to develop their own curricula. Kimberly said small agencies could benefit from the example of bigger agencies, such as Lutheran Social Services.
He also suggested that the bill could go further by requiring annual caregiver training after children have been placed in the home. Lutheran Social Services, for example, requires annual water-safety training for all its parents. Last year, two foster siblings drowned while visiting Lake Georgetown.
Burkett’s bill would also increase the minimum training hours for foster parents from 16 to 35 hours. (By comparison, the state requires that would-be nail technicians receive 600 hours of training.)
“Why would you only require 16 [hours], when it’s more than obvious—and even on the website for DFPS they say this—it is not enough,” Burkett told the Observer. “We need to make sure that [the kids] are coming into an environment that’s safer. It’s our children, and we’re talking health, safety, lives, so it’s important.”
The Department of Family and Protective Services, apart from contracting out child-placement services, also runs its own service and training for foster and adoptive parents. The department estimates in the bill’s fiscal note that it would need about $268,000 a year to implement the new standards mandated by the bill. At the hearing, no one was able to provide an estimate of the cost for private placement agencies to step up the training of foster and adoptive parents.
Burkett said she is optimistic that budget-writers will find the money.
“I think that [we’ve] got a little bit of give built in the bill for things that are directly related to safety issues,” she told the Observer. “I don’t anticipate a problem.”
On Monday the House Committee on Human Services tabled the bill after 16 minutes.
HB 781 comes in the wake of recommendations from the House Select Committee on Child Protection, led by Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin), which was created after a rash of child deaths within the system. The committee’s interim report suggested that the state review and strengthen foster care screening and training. Burkett said the bill has received no pushback so far. Spokespeople for a gamut of child welfare advocacy and public policy organizations, including the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, Center for Public Policy Priorities, One Voice Texas and Court Appointed Special Advocates, registered as “for” the bill, but did not testify.
Texas legislators of all political stripes have agreed on at least one thing during the 84th legislative session: the need to expand the state’s limited pre-K program.
But, when it comes to just how much to expand pre-K—whether to pony up for full-day pre-K programs or settle for a half-day option—there is less accord.
This divide was on display during Tuesday’s standing-room-only, marathon meeting of the House Committee on Public Education. The committee debated six pre-K bills, but Rep. Dan Huberty’s House Bill 4—the most likely to pass out of committee—got the most attention.
HB 4 would provide an additional $130 million for school districts across the state to improve pre-K programs. Currently districts are required to offer half-day pre-K to English language learners as well as homeless, foster and low-income students—about 225,000 students at a cost of $800 million.
Some say that HB 4, while a step in the right direction, doesn’t go far enough . They’d like to see the state provide enough funding for districts to offer full-day programs.
“It’s crucial to try to get to full-day [pre-K] as soon as possible,” said Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) as he laid out House Bill 1100.
Coauthored with Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown), HB 1100 would provide funding to districts that offer full-day programs, provided they limit class sizes and train teachers.
Research has shown that students in quality full-day pre-K programs outperform their peers in half-day programs on assessments of social-emotional skills, math and language.
Huberty defended his bill as “a first step.”
Dozens of people, including several superintendents, testified in favor of increasing pre-K funding—most of them advocating for full-day pre-K.
The Obama administration has made full-day pre-K for low-income students a top education priority, and dozens of states have expanded spending on early childhood education. Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott named early education one of five emergency legislative items.
In 2011, the Legislature cut $300 million in early education funding. During today’s hearing, Huberty acknowledged that HB 4 would only replace about a third of that.
CORRECTION: Rep. Eric Johnson’s first name previously was incorrect in the story above. It has been updated.
Sen. Jose Rodriguez, Sen. Sylvia Garcia and Sen. Kirk Watson speak at a press conference Monday morning.
Update: Senate Bill 185 has been rescheduled for Monday, March 16 at 8 a.m.
Original: The Senate Border Security Subcommittee adjourned after just six minutes Monday morning as senators delayed a hearing on legislation that would outlaw “sanctuary cities.” Some Democrats were frustrated that the hearing, which was publicly scheduled on Friday, was called with such little notice, especially since the bill is so controversial.
Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) made a procedural move called “tagging” to require at least 48 hours advance notice of the hearing. He said that the last-minute scheduling of Senate Bill 185 violated Senate rules. Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) said in a press conference later that many Texans would have come had they been given proper notice.
SB 185 would prohibit local government from adopting policies blocking police and other authorities from inquiring about immigration status; assisting federal immigration agents in enforcement; or allowing federal authorities to operate in local jails.
The term “sanctuary cities” has no legal meaning, but is commonly used to describe cities that prohibit local law enforcement from inquiring about a person’s immigration status. Some police departments as well as immigrant rights groups say that laws such as SB 185 discourage cooperation with the police and encourage racial profiling. Rodriguez says that Texans don’t want their state to become Arizona, where the notorious SB 1070 passed in 2010.
“We don’t want to become a ‘show me your papers’ state,” Rodriguez said.
He says that “anti-immigrant” proposals like SB 185 should be rejected on economic, legal and moral grounds.
In 2011, Gov. Rick Perry declared sanctuary cities an emergency item, helping to expedite legislation similar to SB 185. The legislation was met with opposition by both business leaders and immigrant rights groups, and failed to get enough votes in the Senate.
Lynn Godsey, president of the Hispanic Evangelical Ministerial Alliance, said in the press conference today that it was a “bad move” to try to slip this hearing through so hastily. He promised to bring hundreds of people to the next hearing on SB 185, which hasn’t been rescheduled. Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), the committee chair, said that the committee probably won’t hear SB 185 next week and didn’t know when the committee might revisit the bill.
Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) said that “because of the way this has played out this morning” he hopes that other legislators will go out of their way to “make sure there’s a complete and robust discussion” during the next hearing on this issue.
“Something of this importance—if you believe in it, then let’s have a full debate,” Watson said.
The new chair of the Texas GOP says if his hometown newspaper ever publishes a photo of a same-sex couple kissing, he’ll cancel his subscription.
Texas Republicans on Saturday selected Tom Mechler, an Amarillo businessman who’s served as the party’s treasurer since 2010, to succeed Steve Munisteri, who stepped down as GOP chair to become a senior advisor to Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign.
Mechler beat out Dallas County GOP Chair Wade Emmert, former Harris County GOP Chair Jared Woodfill and Republican National Committeeman Robin Armstrong in the race to replace Munisteri.
In a column for the Amarillo Globe-News last March, Mechler responded to LGBT activists who objected to a local gym’s refusal to offer a family membership to a same-sex couple.
“We have gone way past the point of reason in the attack by homosexual activists and other liberals who want to manipulate society to serve their purpose,” Mechler wrote. “One of the problems we are experiencing in our nation is that if you say you believe in the biblical definition of marriage (which I do), or if you express an opinion that liberals determine as being politically incorrect, they will attack you—sometimes viciously—frequently making threats against your life and property. They call your comments and thoughts homophobic or hate speech.”
Nevertheless, the outcome of Saturday’s election likely could have been worse for the LGBT community. Woodfill, an anti-gay activist, is suing Houston Mayor Annise Parker over her decision to extend benefits to the same-sex spouses of employees, as well as over the city’s rejection of a petition aimed at repealing an equal rights ordinance. But the outcome also probably could have been better. Emmert has attended meetings of the Log Cabin Republicans, and has questioned the party’s decision to deny the LGBT group a booth at last year’s convention.
Last year, Munisteri provided a glimmer of hope that party leadership was inching forward on LGBT rights, when he responded to the controversy over a GOP plank endorsing “ex-gay” therapy by saying he didn’t believe it was possible for people to change their orientation. But Mechler doesn’t appear poised to continue that progress.
Mechler told the Austin American-Statesman he’ll push to expand the party’s appeal to minorities. But according to his column in the Globe-News, it’s questionable whether that includes gays—at least if they want to get married or even just lock lips.
“I believe that everyone in our country has a right to protection of his or her person and property, and their personal lifestyle choice doesn’t make them a bad person. I also strongly believe that states have a right to decide the issue of marriage,” Mechler wrote in the column. “As a final note, if the Amarillo Globe-News ever publishes a picture of two men or two women kissing each other, I will cancel my subscription.”
The problem with government is that it needs money to run, and that money has to come from somewhere. But people like money more than they like giving it to the government, which is held to be bad by a growing number of people. The social contract in general has taken a bit of a beating recently, thanks in part to successive generations of politicians who have promised the people that the government doesn’t need all that much money after all, and that if they make it to City Hall or the Legislature or Congress, they’ll take a lot less of that money, and schools and roads and fire departments will materialize from fairy dust.
So goes the 84th Legislature. Blessed with a decent surplus this year, legislators and new officeholders, who feel a strong need to reward their bases, are struggling to figure out how much they can offer in tax cuts. The zeal for cutting taxes is so intense that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott have been outbidding each other like they’re at an auction—the former said $4 billion, the latter $4.4 billion, and now, thanks to the Senate, we’re at $4.6 billion. Other tax-cutting bills would push the number far above that.
But members of the Lege, including Patrick, are now coming to terms with the fact that they can’t fulfill the promises they’re making without shorting other budget needs or employing trick-budget math. At this point, it seems likelier that they’ll do either—or both—rather than back down on the size of their promised cuts.
This week included three hearings of the Senate Committee on Finance, responsible for most of the tax-cut agitation. The hearings amounted to a sort of tax-cutting roleplay in which Senators got to fulminate against the government’s power to raise revenue while they also expressed indignation and irritation at those, including a few Republicans, who urged the Lege to slow its roll.
Most of the talk centered around the slashing—and perhaps, the eventual abolition—of two taxes responsible for a lot of the state’s revenue, property taxes and franchise taxes. Property tax cuts are perhaps the most significant politically: Texans, and especially the kinds of Texans who voted Patrick and others into office, are mad as hell about their property tax bills.
Though the proposed property tax cuts would put a substantial dent in state government, they might amount to only $100 to $200 year for the average Texan. Still, emphasized state Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), that money means something to the “neediest among us.” State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) urged Senators to consider the compounding nature of those savings from year to year.
Democrats on the committee were skeptical of the cuts in general, but some are trying to push the Legislature to make “good” cuts—state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), for example, is pushing a larger homestead exemption. But even some Republicans on the committee expressed unease at the cuts. State Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) worried that they would leave the state with too little revenue to make needed investments. But it was state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) who provided the strongest dissenting voice.
“I’m a numbers guy,” Eltife said. “I can’t vote for a tax cut without knowing how we’re going to pay for everything.” Eltife has already been singled out by conservative activists for his unwillingness to go all-in on tax cuts, so his outspoken reticence on Monday was notable. In particular, he worried that the tax cuts would leave too little room under the “spending cap,” the artificial constitutional restraint that limits how much the Lege can grow spending from biennium to biennium.
This year, the state has been promised additional revenue by the comptroller’s office that it can’t touch because of the spending cap—about $6 billion dollars, no small chunk of change. So legislators will either have to vote to violate the spending cap, which would be a very unpopular move with conservative activists, or find themselves constrained in the amount of money they can use this year. The tax cuts would take out a big chunk of that available money.
“My concern is that the money left under the spending cap won’t be enough to fill the needs of the state,” Eltife said. He asked Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), the chair of the finance committee, if she would would consider busting the spending cap for her tax cut package. She’d “consider anything,” she said. It was “ridiculous” that the budget rules treated tax cuts like normal spending, she added, for reasons that weren’t entirely explained.
But Nelson seemed piqued at the criticism, and other senators brusquely dismissed it. The critics were spoiling the party. “We have spent four weeks talking about spending needs,” Nelson said. “I would like three days for tax relief.” Was that so much to ask? Bettencourt warned his colleagues to fall back. “Elections have consequences,” he said. The governor had called for cuts. So grab the hacksaw and get in line. Still, Nelson acknowledged that the budget math was going to be “tight.”
So on Wednesday, a gimmick descended. Evidently, Eltife had been talking to the leadership about his spending cap concern. Patrick, Nelson, Eltife and state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen) held a press conference with a proposal: They’d ask the voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the Lege to use revenue above the spending cap to cut taxes or pay down debt. No other uses would be allowed.
“We have more money on hand than we believe any Legislature has ever had at one moment,” said Patrick. But “there is no support for exceeding the spending cap.” So they would ask the voters to bust the spending cap for them: “Gosh darn, we know our businesses and taxpayers need tax relief,” he said. “But because of the cap, we are limited in what we can do.”
The proposal makes a certain sense from the Democrats’ point of view—busting the spending cap probably means more money will go to state needs like education, even if Patrick wins his tax cuts. And it makes a certain sense for somebody like Eltife, who won’t have to stand in the way of tax cuts while other fiscal needs get attention, too.
But from Patrick’s POV, it’s a weirdly craven move. For one, he’s proposing to bust the spending cap—a sacred cow among conservatives—while saying loudly that he’s proposing to preserve it. And it contains a certain measure of political cowardice; if legislators wanted to, they could vote to bust the spending cap this session with a simple majority vote. Instead, they’re asking voters to make the hard choice for them, a move that seems eerily reminiscent of the dreaded Sacramento style of governance.
Furthermore, the amendment, if it passed, would privilege tax cuts over other kinds of spending. If the Lege ends up with $6 billion in additional revenue over the spending cap next session, it would virtually assure that that money would produce more tax cuts rather than, say, go back to schools or health care or roads.
Finally, it’s a move that’s emblematic of Patrick’s emerging leadership style—impulsive, seemingly thought-up on the fly and done with little consultation with his legislative partners. House Speaker Joe Straus gave an exceptionally cool statement in response: “For 36 years our state spending cap has helped enforce fiscal discipline, and we should be very cautious about any attempt to weaken it.”
But Patrick’s proposal points to a reality about the new era in the Lege: Patrick and the generally suburban-oriented senators who represent the new vanguard are not amenable to government spending and value tax cuts above almost all else.
Indeed, the finance committee’s roleplaying session this week didn’t just focus on cutting taxes, but ending them in their current form. The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Talmadge Heflin told the committee that its proposed property tax cuts would do “for now,” until the property tax could be abolished entirely. He would like to see it replaced by a big statewide sales tax, which would shift the state’s tax burden from the middle class to its lower class.
And senators talked a lot about dissolving the franchise tax. Almost everyone hates the franchise tax, including Democrats, but it produces some $4.7 billion in revenue every year. State Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) and others have filed bills that would kill the franchise tax at the end of this year, leaving a $9 billion hole in the state’s budget. Other proposals, including one filed by state Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) would kill off the franchise tax by 2020, replacing it with, perhaps, yet more sales taxes.
Another TPPF analyst wowed the committee with his franchise tax talk. His “dynamic econometric model”—“We didn’t have those when I was in school,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville)—showed that money would rain from the sky on Texas businesses if the Lege would just kill it off once and for all. And on Tuesday, senators got to boost their fiscal conservative credentials by talking up bills to kill minor taxes the comptroller’s office no longer wants, including one on sulphur producers. Another would repeal a 2 percent tax on fireworks collected for the benefit of rural fire departments.
These conversations are only possible because the state is experiencing relatively good times. But no economic boom lasts forever. When the “Texas Miracle” slows—an idea that seems inconceivable to many of the people running the state—we’re going to wonder where all of that past revenue went.
State government has underinvested in its basic responsibilities for years. Texas’ public education system is a national joke—the judge who found the school finance system unconstitutional recently warned an audience that the state is actively “dooming a generation of these children” through systematic, intentional and needless skinflintery. The roads are in bad shape, and haven’t kept pace with extraordinary population growth. Pension and health care funds for state employees are weak. Even the buildings that house state agencies are crumbling.
But come next year, Texans may have a little bit more cash in their pockets, which they can spend, perhaps, on cheaper fireworks. Let the good times roll!