There would be blood, promised state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford). Lawmakers were fed up. They weren’t gonna take it anymore. But in the end, as if the Texas House was a kindly-treated Carrie, there was none. Just five of 150 reps voted against the $209.8 billion budget—a relatively pitiful showing.
From noon on Tuesday to just short of 6 a.m. on Wednesday, the House worked through hundreds of amendments to its budget, House Bill 1. Although delirium—and perhaps, some more potent intoxicants—brought out the worst in a number of legislators, House leadership was able to avoid most of the pressing fights that might have come before it. Democrats and Republicans voluntarily withdrew many of their most divisive bills over abortion and immigration. Even Stickland played along.
The night’s headlining bout, state Rep. Abel Herrero’s (D-Robstown) attempt to preemptively ban vouchers for the second year in a row, likewise was canceled, though word had it that his amendment came down primarily to save Republicans a tough vote—vouchers being, perhaps, dead in the House anyway.
What to make of it? In previous years—especially in tough budget years, like 2011—the House budgeting process was a carnival. People scrapped over money, and both Democrats and far right Republicans fought the middle, even if just for show. This year, though, the fire is gone from the belly of the tea party to some degree, and there’s a sense among most of the House that the enemy is the Senate.
That didn’t stop a few unusual amendments from getting passed, and a few legislators from saying things they shouldn’t have. At the top of the list in both categories might be state Rep. Stuart Spitzer (R-Kaufman), who authored an amendment to take $1.5 million per year from the state’s HIV/STD prevention program and use it to juice abstinence education.
In the course of the debate, Spitzer—who said the state’s goal should be to ensure no one has sex before marriage—told the crowd he’d only ever had sex with one woman, his wife, when he got married at age 29. He recommended it. For this, he was subject to a mildly ungentlemanly remark from state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston). But Spitzer’s story shows how state government is getting more tolerant—not too long ago, admitting to your colleagues you’d only had sex with one woman would be a serious political liability at the Lege.
Less funny is that Spitzer’s amendment passed easily, though it’s an open question whether his amendment is going to stay in the budget. He did not give any sign of being especially well-liked by those in control last night. When he offered a measure to move money from arts programs to courthouse preservation efforts, another Republican successfully amended his amendment so that the money would instead come from a community college in his own district, forcing him to voluntarily withdraw his bid.
Things got sloppier through the night. When state Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney) offered a bill to put a dent in the Texas Lottery Commission, citing the need to protect the poor, state Rep. Borris Miles (D-Houston), passionate but slurring his words a bit, told Sanford at 2:42 a.m. he was “full of shit.” Hours later, reps called points of order on six consecutive bills, as if just for the fun of it (one killed an ill-conceived attempt to prohibit TxDOT from funding rail projects.)
An attempt by Rep. Tony Dale (R-Cedar Park) to hack more than $50 million out of the Health & Human Services budget to pay for sweet new airplanes for DPS border operations was defeated, though by one of the closer votes of the night. At 3:53 a.m., an angry Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) slammed state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) over his bid to kill the Racing Commission with a sentence that started with “If you had any respect for horses…”
Democrats spent much of the evening trying to add data reporting to the budget. Most of them were defeated. One amendment by state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) aimed to expose gender pay discrepancies in state agencies. It was torched, too. Earlier in the night, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D- San Antonio) offered a series of symbolic amendments, trumpeted by the Texas Democratic Party, to increase school funding and attempt to force the attorney general to settle the state’s school funding lawsuit. These, too, were easily defeated.
A final note—there’s a word for the idea behind debating a budget for 16 hours straight, until the birds on the Capitol lawn are greeting the morning. It’s “stupid.” The 140-day calendar the Lege works with—and stuff is only really happening for 90 days of that or so—imposes a lot of constraints. Even well-informed people can’t really know what’s going on half the time in the Capitol’s dark recesses, thanks to the quickening pace as we head toward June.
But the House easily could have broken this budget debate into a couple of days, so that reps were more sober and less tired and could focus on what’s on the page in front of them. But, you know, maybe that’s the idea. It’s like having toddlers—get them tuckered out.
Ted Cruz receives rapturous applause at a conference put on by Americans For Prosperity in Dallas, August 2014.
Yes, Ted Cruz hails from a foreign land, as late-night comedians and the nation’s hackiest political commentators have been happy to inform you. But the headline is about something else. Something that you wouldn’t normally read about in the Observer: The games great powers play in Asia. In March, we’ve seen some important milestones in the gradual expansion of Chinese state power—events that our state’s junior senator had a small but significant role in bringing about.
If that sounds like a stretch, let’s go back a bit. Over the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed the growth of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an international financial institution first proposed by the Chinese government in late 2013 that really got going in the second half of last year. The AIIB is intended to be China’s answer to other financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, banks in which the United States, Europe and Japan have outsized influence.
The AIIB’s stated goal is to raise and distribute capital for the development of major infrastructure projects in Asia, for countries that can’t afford them on their own. Whatever you think of financial institutions like the IMF and ADB—they have plenty of detractors—the creation of a rival institution through which China can build influence in Asia is clearly suboptimal from the perspective of American power.
The primary reason China wanted the AIIB in the first place is that it has been getting cut out of the decision-making process at the international banks—it was growing wary of the ADB, in which its rival Japan is the biggest stakeholder. And despite putting more and more money into the World Bank and IMF, it didn’t have voting power in the organizations commensurate with its new financial power. This seriously irked China, and there’s good reason to believe that talk of the AIIB might have begun as nothing more than a threat intended to force change.
The thing is, almost everybody was willing to give China more votes. There was a plan worked out years ago to increase the voting power that emerging economies get in the banks—one which barely altered America’s power in the organizations. The IMF leadership endorsed it heartily. It was backed by all of its members, including the U.S. The Obama administration happily backed the deal, but it fell to Congress to confirm the new plan.
Congress being Congress, it went for years without doing so. But then, last spring, it finally looked as if it might act. Senate leadership attached the badly overdue IMF reforms to an aid package to the faltering Ukrainian government, which would be getting assistance through the bank. Cruz played a critical role in killing it. Here’s what the Observerwrote in April about how things went down:
Cruz released an open letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announcing his intention “to object to any floor consideration of Ukraine aid legislation that contains these IMF provisions.” It’s been reported that Cruz asked all Senate Republicans to co-sign the letter. In the end, only five did (stalwart Cruz ally Mike Lee and the idiosyncratic Rand Paul among them.) The letter is full of blank lines for signatures that were not provided. Nevertheless, the bill started to have problems.
House Republicans began announcing their intent to oppose the Senate language. A growing number of GOP Senators began to express disquiet. That left longtime Cruz nemesis John McCain sputtering with fury. Those who were hoping to slow or strip the bill were “on a fool’s errand,” just like the government shutdown. They had left him “embarrassed” by his party.
But the opposition to the bill grew. The aid bill slipped into the next week—then the next. What had begun as an uncontroversial provision had become a poison pill. Marco Rubio joined the crusade, though he didn’t go as far as Cruz. (He’d previously characterized the reforms as “Russian-backed.”) It became apparent that many were willing to kill the Ukraine aid bill rather than accept the IMF reforms. Early last week, Reid conceded defeat—he’d strip the bill.
It was the closest Congress had come to ratifying the IMF reform package, and its failure left congressional Republicans more unified in opposition to the reform measures. The fiasco seemed, to many observers, evidence that Congress would never let China and other emerging economies have more voting power.
And so the Chinese search for an alternative accelerated. A few months later, it unveiled grand plans for its new bank, and observers told the Financial Times the proposal was directly tied to the death of IMF reform:
“China feels it can’t get anything done in the World Bank or the IMF so it wants to set up its own World Bank that it can control itself,” said one person directly involved in discussions to establish the AIIB.
Now, Cruz’s quixotic killing of IMF reform wasn’t the only time Uncle Sam shot itself in the foot over the AIIB: As Dan Drezner writes in the Washington Post, the Obama administration’s hopeless bungling of the issue now means U.S. allies are becoming founding members of the bank against American wishes, while the U.S. is out in the cold—where the smart thing to do might just have been to join the bank, too.
But Congress—and Cruz specifically—bears a significant amount of blame. Plenty of Republicans were happy to vote for IMF reform until it was made a litmus-test issue. Some Republicans now acknowledge stalling on the IMF package was a mistake: Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, no hippie squish, told a policy forum in Brussels recently that the policy fumble was “an unfortunate event and it might be bigger than we understand today.”
Would the Chinese have launched the bank anyway if IMF reforms had been passed? Maybe so—but that’s a question historians might debate someday as they chart the rise of Chinese influence in Asia.
It’s a crummy way to manage a superpower whose influence is in relative, though not absolute, decline. It’s one of the few things Cruz has done in Congress that has had real consequences. Now, of course, he’s asking for control of American foreign policy.
In all things, Cruz and his friends don’t want the branches of American power to bend. They use words like “muscular” to define their approach to the world: They see compromise as a sin. Branches that don’t bend break, of course. But there’s a danger, too, that our friends will just go find another tree.
In the end, the result of the debate over the package of tax cut bills considered by the Senate on Wednesday was pre-ordained—they’d pass. The three bills, beloved by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would cut property taxes and franchise taxes to the tune of $4.6 billion. Even if they face an uncertain future in the House, they’d sail through this Senate, right?
But in the latest installment of this Senate’s continuing difficulties—Senate Republicans’ magical ability to make life harder for themselves than it needs to be—the tax debate on Wednesday produced one of the most revealing dust-ups of the session so far between the tea party caucus and its foes.
Right-wing Senate freshmen, led by state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), threatened to derail the whole thing by demanding that the Senate pass steeper tax cuts. And in response, state Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) gave Huffines what amounted to a public dressing-down that threatens comity in the already uneasy Senate GOP caucus.
Huffines offered an amendment to Senate Bill 7, a franchise tax cut bill shepherded by Nelson and state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), that would phase out the franchise tax entirely over several years. Doing so would blow a giant hole in the state budget. Senate Republicans often talk about killing the franchise tax, and Huffines called their bluff.
Huffines’ amendment put Senate Republicans in the dangerous position of having to vote for the franchise tax—in other words, to keep it alive—or take a politically popular vote that would ruin the state’s finances in a couple of years. In effect, it poked senior Senate Republicans and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the eye. His colleagues pleaded with him to drop it, but he steadfastly refused.
It took quite a while for SB 7 to come to the floor, the first hint of trouble. Senators spent hours on small, uncontroversial bills—like killing a tax on “combative sports events”—or doing nothing at all. Patrick, for his part, stayed away from the freshmen for most of the day. It should have been a proud day for him, but he seemed agitated and unhappy.
SB 7 came to the floor more than three hours after the Senate first came to order. Huffines’ amendment was first in line. But before he could introduce his amendment, Patrick directed the chamber’s attention to Fraser, who had a modest change to Huffines’ proposal. Fraser’s amendment would strike the lines about abolishing the franchise tax, and instead direct the comptroller’s office to study the issue. Fraser, in effect, put his boot down Huffines’ throat, with Patrick’s permission.
Fraser said he hated the franchise tax too, and this study would help them do away with it. State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) rose to have a little fun. “This guts the Huffines amendment, right?” he asked Fraser. Huffines, ready to speak, lowered his mic and looked away in frustration. “No, this helps Huffines’ amendment,” Fraser said. “So you would say this perfects his amendment?” asked West.
Eventually Huffines was recognized to speak, and he started to talk about his proposal. But Fraser immediately jumped on him, with the tone of a father straightening out a young child. Right now, he said, they could only talk about Fraser’s amendment, not Huffines’ amendment. And didn’t Huffines know about Fraser’s hearing problems? Fraser would be much obliged, he said, if Huffines would turn to face him when he spoke.
Huffines turned and spoke slowly. “Senator,” he said. “I move that we table your amendment.”
The motion to table Fraser’s amendment failed 7 to 24, and his amendment passed 20 to 11. In the end, only three Republicans, all freshmen, stood with Huffines and against the Senate leadership: Konni Burton, Bob Hall and Van Taylor. Seven Democrats, hoping to cause trouble, joined them.
With Huffines defeated, the bill passed easily. So why is this important? It says something significant about how this Senate works—or doesn’t.
The freshmen, who are pretty far to the right, have not been getting along with the Senate’s senior figures for quite some time. Behind the scenes, the two groups have been sharply, bitingly critical of each other. They’ve clashed publicly over issues like Abbott’s nominations to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, but this is the first time the division has played out so prominently on the floor.And the humiliation of a freshman senator by a senior one will be remembered.
The dust-up makes it even less likely that the freshmen will play along with their senior counterparts. The only reason Fraser was able to head off Huffines so quickly was because Huffines played by the rules and let his colleagues know his intentions—in the future, he and his friends may be more reluctant to do so.
The disappearance of the two-thirds rule as a factor in Senate negotiations makes these kinds of intra-party rifts more dangerous. Last session, the Republicans could put some blame on Democrats for watering down or killing legislation. Now the Dems are no longer a factor. But to get legislation out of the Senate on a party-line vote, Patrick needs the Republicans who sided with Huffines.
If Patrick were still a senator himself, the freshman would be his ideological allies. But now that he’s lieutenant governor, he needs them to fall in line. Here’s his limp spin on his efforts to preserve the franchise tax:
Is this a terminal condition? Hardly. But it’s something to watch. Deteriorating relations within their caucus could push Senate Republicans in strange directions.
It’s also notable that the House leadership announced a plan to make fixes to the state’s dismal school finance system Wednesday morning, just an hour before the Senate went into session. Is the plan any good? That’s a subject for debate. But as the House and Senate begin to butt heads more seriously over the budget in the last two months of the session, the House is assiduously playing the role of the grown-up in the room. And the Senate is only too happy to help them with that.
Ted Cruz experiences a moment of self-satisfaction at the 2014 Texas Republican convention.
Now he belongs to the ages. Today Ted Cruz, one of the foremost representatives of the state’s persecuted Texan-Canadian community and the junior Senator from the North Texas tea parties, ascended from this state’s low mortal plane and affixed himself to the celestial realm of presidential politics, where he’s always thought he truly belonged. The announcement wasn’t a surprise, but when it happened (earlier than his competitors) and where it happened (at the evangelical Liberty University) was.
What to make of it? Is this the beginning of a long, slow grassroots groundswell of the kind that Cruz harnessed to trample David Dewhurst in 2012? Could 2015 be the year of national #Cruzmentum?
No and no.
Some conservatives—and the Democratic Party fundraising apparatus—would have you believe otherwise, but a bet against Cruz winning the Republican nomination for president would be among the safest possible uses of your money. Cruz isn’t in the same category as the Ben Carsons and Carly Fiorinas of the world—people who are running only to up their future speaking fees and maybe land a Fox News gig—but he has a roughly similar chance of winning the GOP nomination, much less the presidency.
But there’s a simpler reason to doubt Cruz: In almost every presidential election since FDR’s last re-election, Republicans have nominated the more moderate, business-minded candidate over an ideologue, with 1964 being the only real exception. (There’s 1980, too, but that’s something of a special case.) The conservatives who love Cruz are right: The donor class—the people who care a lot about estate taxes and not all that much about the gays—run the national party, more or less. Cruz is a Barry Goldwater in an era that’s not looking for one.
In his address this morning at Liberty, he posited the existence of what we might start calling the “Silent Plurality”—evangelical and other voters who would come out to support the party if it had real leadership. He has, certainly, an almost fanatic appeal to a part of the Republican base, and especially so in Texas.
But winning a Republican primary in this state provides a very particular kind of political experience, one that is not easily translatable elsewhere. For years, he’s been deploying the same one-liners at rallies—his speeches to friendly crowds, who’ve surely heard his zingers many times before, sometimes have the feel of a stand-up comedian’s routine.
But when he puts himself in front of crowds that won’t give him the easy laughs, he often looks lost. He’s more comfortable provoking people than finding commonalities with them. And despite his lauded oratorical skills, he’s never really proved adept at using the politician’s most basic tool: Tailoring his speech to different audiences as the need arises. His base loves him for that, of course.
Cruz’s most significant contribution to the race—apart from the inherent entertainment value—might be his ability to scramble the GOP primary here in Texas, thanks in part to a set of weird new rules adopted for the contest.
Next year, Texas’ primary will be on March 1, much earlier on the calendar than previous years. After the early states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, it will have been the biggest state to vote, and it’ll be rich with delegates. Because the GOP field could easily still be crowded at that early date, the state might play an important role in determining the winner.
Why does that matter for Cruz? The event next year is going to be a bit more complicated than it used to be. The state’s many delegates will be allocated three ways: There will be a pool of delegates that represent the statewide vote, a pool of delegates that represent the vote of each congressional district, and a pool of delegates whose allegiance will be determined at a later date.
If one candidate takes a majority of the vote in Texas next year, or a majority of the vote in one of the state’s congressional districts, they’ll take all of those delegates. But if no one takes a clear majority statewide or in certain congressional districts, the candidates who win more than 20 percent of the vote split those delegates proportionally. Then, a quarter of the pot will be awarded to one candidate at the state Republican convention later in the summer.
This is Cruz country, and if he’s still in the race by the Texas primary—you can bet he’ll stay in till at least then—he’s likely to take a big share of the vote, if not win it outright. If he does, it’ll have the effect of hurting other candidates who might do well here—candidates with Texas connections such as Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul.
With Cruz in the race, some might struggle to pass the 20 percent barrier. And if Cruz can lay a credible claim to having “won” the messy Texas primary, you can bet his supporters will be pushing hard to award those floating delegates to Cruz at a convention if there’s still a contest to be had.
Still, don’t worry too much about President Cruz. But don’t get too eager if you think a failed presidential campaign will knock him out of the spotlight. He’s up for reelection in 2018. Democrats used to fantasize about running a credible challenger against him—particularly, they talked about convincing one of the Castro brothers—but after the Democrats’ 2014 electoral disaster, that possibility seems remote. So despite the hundreds of thousands of words that will be written today, in most of earth’s languages, about Mr. Cruz’s chances, expect everything to stay the same, more or less.
Ken Paxton is applauded by GOP bigwigs at his inauguration in January.
A bill that would give Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office sweeping power to allow or disallow local initiatives and referenda had its first hearing in the House Committee on State Affairs today. The bill is among several in the Legislature squashing local control—and while it got a cautious reception from the committee, it’s supported by some of the state’s most influential business interests.
In recent years, referenda and ballot initiatives have grown in importance as ways for Texans to enact change and hold local governments accountable. The most notable recent example is a ban on hydraulic fracturing in Denton, which passed a fairly conservative electorate by a wide margin. The Denton ban was the subject of much of today’s debate.
House Bill 540, sponsored by Phil King (R-Weatherford), would require any referendum or ballot initiative in one of Texas’ home-rule charter cities to be reviewed by the attorney general’s office. The attorney general would rule on whether the proposed ballot initiative or referendum would violate “the Texas or federal constitution, a state statute, or a rule adopted as authorized by state statute,” or if it would constitute a “government taking of private property.”
That may sound clear-cut, but it’s not. The normal method for deciding whether a law is constitutional involves months or years of careful scrutiny by the courts. Instead, King would give that power to bureaucrats in the AG’s office. If an initiative is detrimental to a powerful and GOP-allied interest group, would the AG’s office really let it slide?
In laying out the bill, King told the committee that Texas was a republic, run by the Legislature, and not a democracy, run by the people. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch,” he said, misattributing the quote—which might have originated with a 1990 Los Angeles Times op-ed—to Benjamin Franklin. In places like Denton, powerful and monied outside environmental groups had agitated for change, he said, and the rule of law had to be imposed—by Ken Paxton.
He ran through the list of possible ballot initiatives that could come to Texas cities: bans on genetically modified foods, marijuana legalization, property restrictions—and, most frightening of all—increases to the minimum wage and new labor laws.
But it was fracking bans that motivated him to bring the bill. There are “almost 14,000 gas wells” in municipal areas, King said, and if what happened in Denton set off a wave of similar ordinances (it hasn’t, yet) all those wells, and the money they generate for their owners, would be under threat.
The fight over “local control” issues at the Legislature—it was once a concept that Republicans loved, but they seem to be turning against it, from Gov. Abbott on down—is in part due to the fragmented nature of Texas state government these days. State government is dominated by the right, but the state’s cities and urban counties are significantly to the left of state government.
Business interests would prefer a regulatory climate designed and maintained by the Legislature, since it’s a lot friendlier to them. City ordinances are a threat to that regulatory framework. Cities have taken action in a number of areas where they feel the state has failed to act—like ongoing attempts to regulate payday lenders—but their legal right to do so is such cases in constantly under scrutiny.
Today’s hearing heard testimony in favor of the bill from the Texas Oil & Gas Association (TxOGA), represented by former Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, as well as representatives from the powerful Texas Association of Business, the Texas Association of Builders and the Texas Restaurant Association. TxOGA fears restrictions on drilling. The restaurant and construction guys fear minimum wage hikes, among other items, and the Texas Association of Business fears all of the above, plus other local regulations such as the plastic bag bans that have passed in big Texas cities.
“You can’t have economic development if state law doesn’t mean anything,” said a Texas Association of Business representative.
A representative from the Texas Municipal League, which represents local governments, spoke against the bill but he was cautious in his condemnation—referenda and initiatives, he pointed out, are usually trying to override the will of the city council.
Among those who spoke against the bill was Mark Miller, the 2014 Libertarian candidate for a spot on the Railroad Commission. He said he thought the Denton ban was “unwise,” but that the referenda and initiative process should remain sacrosanct. “The good people of Denton were let down by government. So they organized for change,” he said. “What could be more American or more Texan?”
“Interference by the state government over local matters is no more wise or more welcome than interference by the state government in local matters,” Miller continued. “A well-functioning judicial system should never be replaced by the heavy hand of the executive branch.”
Curiously, on the same day this bill came before the committee, an op-ed that carried Ken Paxton’s name appeared in National Review. He blasted Obama’s use of his executive power, his expanding interpretation of his own powers and his arrogant overruling of the desires of other branches of government.
In the United States, no individual may or should have that much unchecked power. It flies in the face of the rule of law, which in any government is all that stands between freedom and tyranny.
Will the Legislature grant Paxton power to approve or disapprove prospective city ordinances? The committee seemed a bit skeptical: Chair Byron Cook asked King whether it was possible to “get a fair ruling” by putting the review process in the office of a statewide elected official. King replied that there was no other real option.
But the business groups that endorsed the measure frequently get what they want at the Lege. A representative of Paxton’s office happily told the committee no additional staff was required to fulfill the bill’s responsibilities. Even if King’s bill doesn’t succeed this session, the winds are changing when it comes to the balance between state and local power.
State Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick talk about the Senate budget at a press conference in January
Last week Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did something pretty surprising: He held a press conference with a Democrat and the most moderate Republican left in the Senate, Kevin Eltife of Tyler, to put his stamp of approval on a proposal that would allow the Legislature to use revenue beyond the “spending cap” for tax cuts and debt repayment. The spending cap, a constitutionally enshrined limit on the amount the state budget can grow from biennium to biennium, has been a sacred cow for conservatives for many years. Here was Patrick, elected as a budget hawk, threatening to can the cap while pretending to do the opposite.
This session, budget-writers think there’s about $6 billion in revenue above the spending cap, but unless they take a majority vote to lift the cap, they can’t use it. Patrick wanted to bust the cap so he could get his hands on that $6 billion to pay for his beloved tax cuts, and this was a way of squaring the circle. Senate conservatives were mostly silent on the move, but it was loudly panned by commentators like Texas Monthly’s Erica Grieder, who pointed out that Patrick made a name for himself in the Senate in part as a loud opponent of an imaginary legislative spending spree in 2013, but now was looking for a way to bust the spending cap for the sake of political convenience.
But that was last week: Each week of the 84th Legislature brings to us a New Dan, and a New Day for Texas. Today, Patrick took to the same podium with some of the Senate’s most conservative members with a proposal to greatly tighten the spending cap, restricting even further the amount of revenue future legislators will have access to.
What the hell?
In short, the new proposal, consisting of two bills authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), is a version of an idea long championed by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation and briefly, if only dutifully, mentioned in Gov. Greg Abbott’s State of the State address. Hancock’s Senate Joint Resolution 2 and Senate Bill 9 would ask voters later this year to redefine the spending cap and tie it to state population growth, plus inflation, instead of growth in Texans’ personal income, which rises faster. It would broaden the spending cap to apply to all of the state’s spending, instead of just certain kinds.
That would bind the hands of future legislatures even tighter, while ensuring that more and more revenue would be untouchable beyond the cap. Legislators could still vote to bust the cap—though few seem to have the political courage to do that now—but Hancock would make that harder, too. Right now, the cap can be lifted by a simple majority of both houses. Hancock would make it a three-fifths vote.
If passed, Patrick’s two budget proposals don’t technically contradict—actually, they’d be weirdly toxic (or synergistic, depending on your perspective) in combination, since more and more money would end up on the wrong side of the spending cap, and that money could only be used for tax cuts and debt—but it’s still a weirdly incomprehensible mess from a policy perspective, and put together seemingly on the fly. It’s the art of government as outlined on the back of a Gadsden Flag cocktail napkin.
What’s worse—it’s straight out of Sacramento. You know how the recent recession calcified a Texas meme about the Golden State being the worst place on earth? California is doing pretty well lately, though you won’t hear about it in Austin. But one of the ways California got itself into a mess over the last few decades was by tying the hands of future legislatures and restricting the state’s ability to raise revenue, all the while kicking tough (and easy) decisions to voters. All three are becoming more and prominent parts of the Texas model—paradoxically, done in the name of targeting “California-style” spending.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation-style budget plan has been around a long time, as was discussed at the press conference this morning. “As I found out today as we were moving to get coauthors and joint sponsors for this legislation, about half the Republicans on the Senate floor have filed a similar bill at some point in time since they’ve been in office,” Hancock said. But it’s long been the kind of thing that legislators and statewide officials pay lip service to but never do much about. Is that changing? Has Patrick’s support for the measure been heightened by the flak he caught for his proposal last week? If so, that’s not a great way to run the Senate.
It’s one of the more mystifying turnarounds in what’s proven to be a fairly sloppy first few months for Patrick. He entered the Session full of energy—he promised to pick his committee chairs early and get to work on legislation quickly, so as to put the House at a disadvantage. He’s put on near-daily press conferences to highlight myriad proposals, some of which have no chance of becoming enacted.
But as other commentators have pointed out, his predicted rush of productivity has not materialized—perhaps in part because of Patrick’s poor treatment of the Democratic minority early on. The 60th day of the Legislature is on Friday, after which things will begin to flow normally (there’s limits to what can be done until then). But Patrick doesn’t have all that much to show yet. And senators—even in the conservative wing of the GOP caucus—can’t be too happy with the slightly bizarre way things have unfurled so far.
How is the House doing, then?
Well, today, members of the House put on their own presser. State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton), a conservative Republican, state Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton), a moderate Republican, and state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), a Democrat, held a press conference to announce a plan to make whole the Texas Employees Retirement System, the pension fund for state workers that’s been a mess for years.
Their plan is to raise the state contribution to the fund, and have employees pony up more too—but the state would compensate the employees with a matching pay raise. The pension fund has been underfunded for 19 of the last 20 years, Flynn said. Turner applauded the bill: It was an “important and significant step forward for this state of Texas.” Just two weeks ago, Otto had released a plan to fix the health care plan for retired state teachers, TRS-Care, in a similar way.
So as we slide towards the busier part of the legislative session, the House is emphasizing its work on the bread-and-butter problems of state government, while the Senate has been consumed with weird fumbles, from the leadership on down. (Patrick’s Border Security Subcommittee’s wholly avoidable trip-up among them.) After Friday, the leadership of the two chambers will have only 80 days to learn to work with each other, put together a budget, and advance their agendas—that’s a lot less time than it sounds.
When the NRA shifted its focus from supporting hobbyists to political action in the late 1970s, the gun-rights cause fit neatly within a new Republican ethos. The gun came to symbolize something greater than itself; it became the nucleus of a complete worldview. NRA members styled themselves as self-sufficient, tough on crime, pro-police, hawkish on foreign policy, and the keepers of family traditions. By closely associating themselves with the Republican Party, they’ve found great success.
The same cannot be said for the marauding gun activists that have besieged the Texas Capitol in recent weeks. Seeking the right to carry guns openly in public, without a license, they’ve taken a Legislature that’s pretty sympathetic to their cause and pushed it to the breaking point. Before the session started, it seemed certain that open-carry legislation would pass in some form, but as time goes on, the chances seem increasingly slight.
One reason for that is the tactics employed by the gun-rights crew. C.J. Grisham, who leads Open Carry Texas, has sought to win support the right way: building public pressure, then establishing relationships with legislators. But Kory Watkins, the head of the splinter group Open Carry Tarrant County, has soiled Grisham’s nest. State Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass) had to accept a Department of Public Safety security detail after Watkins and friends refused to leave his office following a verbal confrontation on the first day of the session. Lately, Watkins has been keen to warn lawmakers that they’re disregarding the Constitution, and to remind them that the “punishment for treason is death.” But the reason open carry isn’t gaining as much traction as it should goes beyond Watkins’ well-publicized screw-ups. The open-carry guys speak a slightly different language than the last generation of gun nuts, and it’s a language that sounds pretty foreign in the halls of the Capitol. Watkins and many of the open-carry activists are fed not by talk radio but by the conspiracy-libertarian wing typified by Alex Jones, who’s spoken at open-carry rallies in the past. Most of them are young, white and male, and you’d be more likely to see them on Reddit than at a hunting lease.
Some have criminal backgrounds, but many of them just seem like frustrated young men who see the ownership and display of firearms as a kind of empowerment they’re not getting elsewhere. Watkins, who’s almost never seen without a men’s rights-style fedora, is anti-war and anti-police; he got arrested in Fort Worth last year for hassling cops. None of that plays well at the Capitol. Politics is tribal, and many of the open-carry guys are members of the wrong tribe. So it seems increasingly unlikely they’ll get what they most want: unlicensed open carry. Even some of the most conservative new legislators are admitting it’s DOA, as is Joan Huffman, who leads the Senate committee considering the bills. Will the alienated libertarians learn to play with others in time to get a juicy consolation prize?
Statewide officeholders in Texas have their own .gov websites, usually pro-forma affairs that serve as places to push out statements and provide a place for the public to learn about and interact with their elected officials. Here’s Greg Abbott’s very standard website. Here’s what David Dewhurst’s site looked like in February of last year. Complete with flag clip-art and very wide white side margins, it would look at home on the World Wide Web of about 1999.
Dan Patrick took some time to get his official website ready, which left him with only his campaign website and social media to spread the word about his brief tenure as lite guv. That seemed like a bit of an omen: A lot of people wondered if he’d be in perpetual campaign mode when he picked up the Senate gavel.
But Patrick’s officeholder website went live on Thursday. It looks… a lot like his campaign website! It’s a slick, well-produced affair that works great on mobile and tablet platforms. It’s got embedded video and features that string seamlessly together as you scroll down. It puts Abbott’s and Dewhurst’s sites to shame.
In no way has Patrick put the campaign behind him:
Dan Patrick was elected Lt. Governor of Texas in 2014, winning the general election by almost twenty points, including historic levels of support from Hispanic voters and women.
A principled and committed conservative, Lt. Gov. Patrick is leading the fight to secure the border, reduce property and business taxes, and address our state’s infrastructure challenges to assure that Texas continues to flourish economically.
Tell me more about Dan Patrick, shiny website:
He is a successful small businessman and radio host and is a former television anchor, sportscaster, musician, Christian author and movie producer.
Patrick’s press conferences—and video dispatches from his office on bills and Senate happenings—are embedded on the home page.
And there’s a field to suck up visitor e-mail addresses for Patrick’s updates.
It’s hard to begrudge the man a functioning, modern website—albeit one paid for with taxpayer dollars. Still, it’s so showy as to be a bit weird. For example, would you be interested in finding out more about Patrick’s “constituent services?” Just click the tab at the top.
The Capitol’s IT system appears to continuing its ad-hoc guerrilla campaign against Patrick. As recently as last week, Dewhurst was still listed as a member of the Senate on the Capitol website. (Someone appears to have fixed it.) And if you go looking on Google for Patrick’s new site, here’s what appears:
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!
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.
Ah, love triangles. Throughout history, they’ve provided rich dramatic material. But they’re no fun to be in, and almost as un-fun to be around. Bruised egos, miscommunication and ill will. Matters of the heart get so messy.
The Legislature is also premised on a three-way relationship, though, one hopes, platonic. There’s Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. We know where they stand, roughly—Patrick’s a right-winger who goes with his gut, and Straus is a cautious and analytical moderate. Which of them will form a stronger relationship with the governor?
The answer to that question will say a lot about how the 84th Legislature unfolds. Who’s winning?
1) Dan Patrick has so much love to give, man.
There are many different ways to form a bond with a political partner, but Patrick’s is pretty curious. A few weeks ago, I wrote that the lite guv’s strategy for dealing with the governor appeared to be to “hug him to death and hope compliance follows,” but if anything I may have undersold it. Dan’s mash notes for Greg are getting stronger:
—At a Feb. 10 press conference on extending the National Guard border deployment, Patrick emphasized multiple times that he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the governor. They were in close physical proximity to each other. So good so far, I guess. He was tamer in his words for Straus: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor, and we will work with the speaker.”
—After the State of the State address on Feb. 17, Patrick reported that the two had achieved some sort of mind-meld. “I could have written that speech,” he told a reporter. In a statement, he said that Abbott said “everything I wanted to hear in the State of the State address.”
—Another week goes by, and the two have become even closer, perhaps dangerously so. On Feb. 24, Patrick holds a press conference to discuss his tax cut proposals. Is Abbott on board? “We’re so close shoulder-to-shoulder you couldn’t put a piece of paper between us.”
That’s abnormally close. Patrick and Abbott, apparently, have entered into a collapsing orbit like two doomed celestial bodies. At any moment—perhaps this has happened already—their masses will merge and become one. Has anyone seen Greg Abbott lately?
2) The one with the fear of commitment
The problem for Patrick is that the governor has shown no signs of reciprocating this love. There are even a few signs that he doesn’t particularly enjoy this level of affection.
When Patrick had that press conference on border security—the one where he emphasized over and over that the governor stood “shoulder to shoulder” with him—the press waited most of the day for a corroborating statement from Abbott’s office. But it didn’t come. This was strange. It fell to Straus to reply to Patrick’s event, which was attended by every member of the GOP Senate caucus. And Straus’ response was very, very cool.
The State of the State—the one Patrick says he could have written himself—contained only cursory plugs for Patrick’s policy agenda. He mentioned school choice, sure, but not in the way Patrick would have done. His plan for border security carefully marks the halfway point in between the House’s proposal and the Senate’s. And several of his emergency items come with a price tag, like his university research initiative, which could prove unpopular in the spending-averse Senate, especially since the senators have their own budget priorities.
Meanwhile Abbott and the Senate seem to be competing with each other to offer the biggest tax cut proposals: The original Senate budget included $4 billion in tax cuts; then, Abbott proposed $4.4 billion; and Patrick answered with $4.6 billion. If the tax cut proposals continue to grow at this rate, state government will have abolished itself by May.
Does Patrick’s Senate respect Abbott? We saw one test of that last week, when the Senate Committee on Nominations met to consider Abbott’s three appointments to the University of Texas System Board of Regents. Conservative activists like those associated with Midland oilman Tim Dunn hate Abbott’s nominees.
The hearing was the first public split between Abbott and legislators—Republican senators attempted to tear his nominees to pieces in a five-hour hearing so intense it fell to a Democrat, state Sen. José Rodríguez, to offer Abbott a few sympathetic words.
It may have been the first visible rift between Abbott and his right,but it won’t be the last. There are many issues on which the moderate, responsible governor that Abbott might like to be is at odds with the wingers in his party, Dan Patrick foremost among them.
Patrick’s predecessor David Dewhurst was weak, but desperate to look strong. He had less and less influence as his tenure in office went along, but he was always sure to make himself visible. Patrick, so far, is doing something approaching the opposite—in his series of policy press conferences, he’s been letting the chairs of the Senate committees take point on their issues, even when the bills they’re offering up are effectively his.
There’s been a lot of talk around Austin that Patrick might make a run for governor in 2018, either because Abbott doesn’t run for re-election or Patrick chooses to primary him. If that’s the game plan, it makes sense for Patrick to offer Abbott his loving support now. There’s no point in showing his ambition this far out—it’s a bad look. But if the divide keeps growing between the Senate right-wing, encouraged by enforcer groups that have always had pretty tame feelings for the guv, and Abbott—who could blame Patrick for that?
3) The strong, silent type
Straus isn’t just ideologically different from Patrick, he’s cognitively and emotionally different: He’s cool and analytical where Patrick is hot and passionate.
In this year’s speaker race, which Straus won easily, there was some speculation that Patrick’s arrival made House Republicans less willing to support a conservative challenger to Straus. Patrick was an unknown quantity, and a lot of Republicans in the Lege were skeptical. They wanted a speaker who would stand up for them and ignore the ideologues if Patrick’s Senate threatened rural schools, for example.
Is it possible Patrick’s leadership style will encourage Straus to be more vocal about his beliefs, too? When pressed on this question at a UT-Austin event recently, Straus was mostly mum. But his statement on Patrick’s border proposal was remarkably terse: “I appreciate Governor Patrick’s remarks, but Governor Abbott is the Commander in Chief and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment.” That’s about as close as you get to seeing one politician tell an ostensible ally to go screw himself in an official statement.
On Monday, a key ally of House leadership, Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), appeared alongside what appeared to be three to four dozen reps—including some Democrats—to talk up the House’s border plan. Bonnen laid out a collection of bills that would seek to bolster law enforcement abilities throughout the state while creating a permanent DPS presence along the border. That would allow the National Guard to be sent home quickly and preempt the need for future border “surges,” like the one Patrick wants to maintain.
Those “surges” have always been more about political need rather than practical need, so it’s hard to see how some more state troopers would prevent them. Still, the effort to rally so many representatives to stand alongside Bonnen was a strong visual match to Patrick’s press conference, when he attempted to use the whole Senate GOP caucus as leverage against both the governor and House.
And Patrick is not going out of his way to make himself beloved in Straustown. At a speech Patrick gave to a gathering of the Concerned Women for America, a Christian group, he gave a version of a spiel he’s given at at least two events recently. The gist: Finally, most of the state’s leadership are good Christians.
“I have never seen before in my eight years in the Texas Senate the presence of God in the Capitol like I’ve seen this year,” said Patrick. “Greg Abbott, myself, Comptroller Hegar, Ken Paxton, Sid Miller. I’ve participated in all their swearings-in and inauguration. And I can tell you that every one of them put God first.” They honored Jesus in all they did.
Omitted from Patrick’s list, of course, is Straus, who is Jewish. Those who follow Texas politics know the utility of these kinds of dog-whistles in talking to groups like CWA, though it might seem thin to others—the plausible deniability is precisely why they’re useful.
We’re only a month and a half through the session—this is supposed to be the easy part. And there’s already so much warm feeling! Only 90 days to go.