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.
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.
Wedding vows not good enough for you? State Rep. James White (R-Woodville) has filed legislation that would allow some brides and grooms to one-up regular marriages by choosing to enter into a “covenant marriage.” House Bill 547 isn’t meant to disparage non-covenant marriages, White says.
“A covenant is an agreement not only between two mortal beings, a man and a woman, but it’s also a covenant between a man and a woman and God,” White said. (No same-sex marriages allowed, but throuples are apparently OK as long as they include a higher power.)
A couple who wants to enter a covenant with God will have to participate in premarital counseling, read a pamphlet and swear in an affidavit that they will take “all reasonable efforts to preserve” their marriage. That includes more counseling and a two-year period of legal separation before filing for divorce.
It’s not impossible to get divorced if you’re covenant-married; it’s just really, really difficult. The affidavit warns the couple: “We understand that we can get divorced or separated only for a reason stated in the pamphlet on covenant marriage.”
Adultery, abandonment and abuse are get-out-of-marriage-free cards. So are felony charges.
(You can’t incriminate your spouse just to get a divorce. The bill stipulates that courts cannot order a legal separation if a spouse is convicted of a felony “solely on the testimony of the other spouse.”)
The bill would require only Hardin County to grant covenant marriages. It would allow other counties to offer covenant marriages if they choose. In previous sessions, covenant marriage bills have died in committee.
White says business leaders and clergy in Hardin County have lobbied for the covenant marriage option in the hope that “stronger families” will improve the community’s quality of life by averting many of the problems that weak families supposedly present to schoolteachers and police officers. Two parents, theoretically, are better at watching out for school-skippers (or meth-lab builders) than one.
“Families who are intact tend to weather economic challenges better than other scenarios,” White said.
Will contractual obligations save Texas families and cure society’s ills? Those who opt for a covenant marriage are likely to be members of religious groups that strongly discourage divorce, and already take the idea of marriage seriously. Most of the churches in Hardin County are Southern Baptist or evangelical denominations.
Louisiana was the first state to establish covenant marriage in 1997, expecting that it would lower the state’s divorce rate. But covenant marriages made up only 1 percent of all marriages that first year. Ten years later, that figure rose to nearly 2 percent. Louisiana has one of the higher divorce rates in the country, as does Texas.
But covenant marriages aren’t just ineffectual; they’re also potentially harmful to vulnerable populations. The stipulations for claiming abuse as a reason for divorce, as outlined in the bill, are particularly problematic. A spouse must report the domestic abuse to a law enforcement agency and file for a protective order.
It seems likely that lawmakers, many of whom are working on second and third marriages, may have a simple response to this bill: “I don’t.”
Wimberley citizens express concerns over the Electro Purification water project at Rep. Jason Isaac's town hall meeting in Wimberley.
[Ed. note: The original version of this story ran in the March issue of the Observer.]
Coming into Wimberley from Kyle, the suburban plains subtly give way to the Hill Country. The homes grow fewer, the land begins to ripple, the soil thins and the limestone starts outcropping. For me, the Hill Country begins somewhere around the Hays City Store, near the precinct line, the last stop for a six-pack before you enter the dry part of Hays County.
By the time you pass St. Stephen’s Church and drop down into the little valley that holds spring-fed Lone Man Creek, where, in the fall, the red oaks look like ripe pimento in the green cedar canopy, you’ve reached the Hill Country. It’s in this liminal zone, 10 miles or so west of the roar of I-35, where many people have discovered recently that they reside in what water experts call a “white zone”—a part of the state that has no local groundwater district and therefore no pumping regulation. In the third of the state that lies in a white zone, the 110-year-old Rule of Capture is in full effect.
The Rule of Capture is, in legal terms, a law of non-liability: It holds that you can pump as much groundwater from beneath your land as you want, and there’s not a thing anyone else can do about it. It’s a downright unneighborly law, but it can make for good profit. A private company, Electro Purification, recently moved into the Hays County white zone to take advantage. It plans to pump up to 5.3 million gallons per day from the stressed Trinity Aquifer to supply water to the I-35 boomtown of Buda and two large master-planned communities. That’s enough water for at least 30,000 people.
I’ve seen my share of water fights in Wimberley, where I went to high school and where my parents still live, but the Electro Purification deal has inflamed people unlike any other. There’s the way the company slunk into the area like a thief in the night. There’s the Byzantine nexus of local politicos, engineering firms and wheeler-dealers. But mostly there’s the sense that something precious is being stolen.
“It’s Trinity water, not ‘infinity’ water” is the rallying cry that has brought together a mix of retirees, cedar choppers, Austin expats and various all-purpose weirdos who call Wimberley home. The Trinity is indeed finite—and declining. Like many Texas aquifers, it’s being relentlessly mined. That’s the inevitable result of a growth-at-any-cost, anti-regulatory mentality that, left unchecked, will eventually sap Texas of vitality—first ecologically, and then economically. Overpumping, compounded by drought, is draining our springs, creeks and rivers, and straining private wells. Water marketers such as Electro Purification threaten to hasten the process on an industrial scale.
In early February I attended a Wimberley town hall meeting hosted by state Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs). One Facebook wag had a perfect description of the scene: “It was [a] rollicking good Texas time, complete with traffic jam, packed hall, TV cameras, signs galore, good guys, bad guys, fat cat lawyers, tanned developers, tears, confrontations, and best of all, a couple pissed-off politicians.”
An engineer hired by the city of Buda told the crowd that preliminary modeling showed that at least 30 to 40 private water wells near the Electro Purification pumps would experience a “significant” reduction. “Your well will appear to have gone dry,” he said. But don’t worry, you can just lower your pump, he told the crowd. A presentation by one of the developers focused on amenities at his master-planned community, as if we’d all been lured to a timeshare presentation. The Republican county commissioner called Electro Purification’s CEO a liar and a fraud and said, “We don’t want you here.”
It’s unclear what can be done. Isaac has filed bills that would allow nearby groundwater districts to annex the white zone, but no one knows if that would stop, or even limit, the Electro Purification project. And Isaac and state Sen. Donna Campbell, both tea party types, have in the past shown little appetite for giving local groundwater regulators the funding and tools they need. Isaac has said he’s absolutely against any new property tax, though that’s how almost every groundwater district in the state is funded.
But if any community can beat the odds it’s Wimberley. My hometown has an extraordinary amount of civic engagement on environmental issues, with more than its fair share of affluent retirees who love a good fight. It doesn’t hurt that the natural beauty of the area is known far beyond that corner of the Hill Country.
Citizens have formed the non-profit Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association and are working with Jim Blackburn, a veteran Houston environmental attorney who owns a home on Lone Man Creek, to prepare legal action. One option is to pressure the Edwards Aquifer Authority, the grandaddy of state groundwater entities, to administer the Electro Purification project. Although the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s jurisdiction only extends to the aquifer of that name. The Edwards, which is the primary source of drinking water for San Antonio, is a big aquifer, but it’s also highly sensitive to drought and pumping.
Blackburn claims that the Edwards and the Trinity—both are karsty, “leaky” aquifers—are interconnected enough that what happens in one can impact the other. Blackburn says he’s preparing a letter to the authority outlining a case for regulating the portion of the Trinity in western Hays County not covered by a local groundwater district.
Meanwhile, Blackburn is preparing a lawsuit against Electro Purification that will seek to overturn the Rule of Capture. Blackburn said the Texas Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Day vs. Edwards Aquifer Authority—the last big landmark groundwater case—is at conflict with the way the Rule of Capture works. In Day, the court established an absolute private property right to groundwater “in place” beneath the land but the Rule of Capture permits groundwater to be drained by a neighbor.
“The regulation is piecemeal and the rules are unfair—they allow private property to be taken,” Blackburn said. “If it was a government entity that did that you could sue them for inverse condemnation.”
Overturning, or significantly modifying, the Rule of Capture is a hugely ambitious goal, but Blackburn is no stranger to tough environmental fights. He represented the nonprofit Aransas Project in a federal lawsuit that challenged Texas’ management of water rights in the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers. In 2013, a federal judge agreed with the Aransas Project that the state had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to ensure enough freshwater reached the winter habitat of the endangered whooping crane along the coast. (The environmentalists lost at the Fifth Circuit but are appealing that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Wimberley and Texas need a system—and a mindset—that makes conservation the rule, not a luxury. Some water-stressed areas may have to discourage growth and require rainwater catchment and graywater reuse systems on new homes. I know that sounds crazy in this political climate, but it’s not as nuts as flushing an aquifer away. You don’t miss your water till the well runs dry.
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.”
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!
Jason Villalba photo courtesy Jason Villalba, Donna Campbell photo by Patrick Michels
State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels)
The Texas Association of Business has come out against two religious freedom resolutions that critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the Texas Constitution.
TAB, which is the state’s powerful chamber of commerce, unanimously adopted a resolution last month opposing House Joint Resolution 55 and Senate Joint Resolution 10, by Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), respectively.
Chris Wallace, president of TAB, said more than 100 members of the board voted to add opposition to the resolutions to the group’s legislative agenda at a statewide meeting Feb. 17.
“We feel that this will certainly make our state look very much unwelcoming when it comes to business recruitment,” Wallace said of the resolutions. “We also have several businesses within the state, our large corporations for instance, that have diversity policies already in place, and what we’re hearing from them is they want their state to look the same way.”
Wallace pointed to the example of Toyota, which is moving its U.S. headquarters to Plano and worked with the city to pass an Equal Rights Ordinance protecting LGBT people against discrimination. He also cited damage to Arizona’s business reputation when similar legislation passed last year before it was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer.
In addition to LGBT issues, the chamber is concerned the resolutions would allow people to claim religious exemptions to criminal, tax, health and safety, environmental quality and zoning laws. Wallace said the resolutions would also lead to a spike in litigation, costing businesses and taxpayers.
In opposing the ordinances, TAB joins progressive groups, including Equality Texas, the ACLU and the Texas Freedom Network.
“We are a very conservative business association as the state chamber, and it’s not our typical partners we have at the table with us,” Wallace said. “But we’re proud we have these partners at the table with us because we’re all working together to make sure we keep Texas open for business, and that we are seen as a place that welcomes all people and not one that excludes any groups of people.”
In response to the TAB decision, Campbell issued a statement suggesting SJR 10 is business-friendly.
“SJR 10 is about stopping overreaching governments at the local level from forcing Texans to run their businesses in opposition to their values and principles,” Campbell said. “If not for the protection of religious freedom, our nation would not be as diverse and tolerant as it is today for families, employers, and employees of all faiths. A lot of small business owners are going to be awfully disappointed if business groups start selling individual liberty and traditional family values down the river for an unattainable level of political correctness.”
A spokesman for Villalba said the representative was booked for the remainder of the week and wouldn’t be available to discuss the issue.
In addition to opposing the resolutions, Wallace said TAB has joined the newly formed statewide organization Texas Competes, which is dedicated to making the business case for fair treatment of LGBT people.