Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Fuzzy Math

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Conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan
Courtesy Office of the Governor
Conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan

They call him “mucus.” And not just, or primarily, because of his initials—MQS. In Texas politics, conservative kneecapper Michael Quinn Sullivan inspires more fear and loathing than a special session—not least from Republican lawmakers who’ve been insufficiently radical for his tastes and thus find themselves with a primary opponent to the right of Barry Goldwater.

Sullivan’s bête noire is the Establishment in all its manifestations, the “Libs” who want to allow gays in the Scouts, the #dinosaurmedia, speaker of the House Joe Straus (RINO!!!), certain GOP political consultants and pretty much anyone else who doesn’t follow his ultra-conservative, anti-government agenda to the letter. He is Texas’ answer to Grover Norquist. (Important side-note: Peek behind the curtain of Sullivan’s group, Empower Texans, and you find one Tim Dunn, a Midland oilman with beaucoup dollars.)

Liberals and Democrats don’t care for MQS because he’s helped turn the state budget into a bloodbath. Many GOP-ers can’t stand him because he’s holding them hostage to the fringe of their party. But one thing everyone should be able to agree on is that he’s horrible at math. Twice in the past month, Sullivan’s been thoroughly busted on the widely disseminated, but bogus, numbers that he uses to convince credulous tea partiers and lawmakers that Texas is a profligate spender.

First, former Observer editor and current Texas Monthly Senior Editor Nate Blakeslee profiled Sullivan in the Monthly‘s January issue. The key question Blakeslee ponders, “Can you really build a grassroots movement around a premise that is fundamentally untrue? Perhaps the better question is, Why would you want to?”

Blakeslee looked at figures that Sullivan uses in his anti-government lectures around the state. It is a thorough fisking. (Feel free to skip ahead if you’re not into numbers.)

There were some problems with the math. Adding the growth in inflation between 1990 and 2012 (77 percent) to the population growth (55 percent) gives you 132, which, as Sullivan likes to point out, is a much smaller number than 300, the percentage growth in state spending over that period. Sullivan’s numbers, though he misquoted them a bit in Missouri City, come from a February 2012 report from the [Texas Public Policy Foundation.] The problem is that simply adding the percentage growth in population and inflation does not allow for the compounding effect one figure has on the other. (To accommodate a population increase of 55 percent and an inflation increase of 77 percent, a budget would have to grow by 174 percent, not 132 percent.)

Think about what Sullivan and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, have done here. Instead of multiplying growth rates, they’ve added them, which is the kind of C-student error that’d earn you a wet willy from my high school math teacher. And even after getting called out, they’ve yet to admit or repair the error.

Blakeslee continues his public service of wading into Sullivan and TPFF’s fun with numbers. There are no other apparent math errors, just plenty of sins of omission and commission.

And it doesn’t tell you how much public spending grew during that 22-year period, after adjusting for inflation and population growth. The answer is 63 percent. That may seem like a lot, but there is some cherry-picking going on here. In the early nineties, the Legislature was forced by court order to significantly increase spending on both prison construction and public education. There has not been a significant tax increase since that time. If, instead of a 22-year span, you just look at the past 20 years–as the Legislative Budget Board, which includes the leadership from the House and Senate, did in its most recent report–you see a much more modest increase of roughly 15 percent from the 1992-1993 biennium to the current 2012-2013 biennium. Of course, the recession-ravaged 2012-2013 budget is something of an anomaly. But comparing the baseline with the 2010-2011 budget reveals an increase of only 35 percent.

Yet even that figure is not what it seems. The LBB adjusts for inflation using the consumer price index, a measure of the cost of a “market basket” of goods and services bought by the average family. But consumers and governments don’t necessarily buy the same things–governments spend an awful lot on items like health insurance premiums, for example, the cost of which has risen much faster than prices on average over the past twenty years. (Most consumers, on the other hand, have their premiums paid largely by their employers or the government, if they have insurance at all.) Health care is such a huge part of the state budget–roughly 30 percent–that escalating costs in that sector have a disproportionate impact on state spending, one that is not reflected in the LBB’s inflation-adjusted figures. That’s not the only caveat to that 35 percent figure. In 2007 the Legislature took some of the burden of funding schools off local school districts–which is to say, off property-tax payers–and began collecting the new margins tax and a higher cigarette tax to compensate. On paper that looks like an increase in state spending on public education beginning in 2008, but really it was just a shift in spending from one level of government to another. In fact, if you strip out these types of dedicated funds along with federal funds, which are allocated according to formulas over which the Legislature has little control, you get a much clearer picture of just how thrifty the state of Texas really is. General revenue spending fell 4 percent between 2000 and 2011.

In other words, MQS magically turned an actual decline in spending into a 300 percent increase through the power of fuzzy math. A credulous tea party audience, one already inclined to believe that state government spending is out of control, would of course eat this stuff up. The problem, of course, is that it’s deceptive, as even MQS’s sugar daddy comes to realize.

[Tim] Dunn appeared genuinely flummoxed when I presented him with the stark contrast between the picture drawn by Sullivan’s stump speech and the LBB’s numbers. “Can I keep these charts?” he asked. “I want to make sure the information we are putting out is accurate.”

Math is hard and anyone can make mistakes. Dunn, as Blakeslee notes, seems “genuinely flummoxed” and pledges to “make sure the information we are putting out is accurate.” So, how’s that going?

Judge for yourself. Last week, Texas Tribune reporter Morgan Smith looked at the oft-repeated claim, primarily from voucher and charter-school proponents, that spending on public schools has skyrocketed.

“School spending in Texas has grown rapidly over the last decade, with few academic gains to show for it — and we aren’t a step closer to the change that our students, parents and taxpayers need,” said James Golsan, an education analyst with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Empower Texans, said that Texas “has doubled per-pupil spending over the last decade, but average test scores have remained flat.”

But in his remarks from the bench Monday, Dietz said that the state does not adequately fund public schools. He pointed to a chart from the Legislative Budget Board that shows funding for public schools in 2013 is almost the same as in 2003, though enrollment has grown by almost 700,000 students.

The LBB chart, reproduced below, shows that state spending in 2003 was about $31 billion in “constant dollars” adjusted for inflation. In 2013, it was slightly above that. That’s despite the growth in student population in that decade from 4.3 million to nearly 5 million, according to the Texas Education Agency.

EducatonRevenueGrowth

So, how in the heck do we reconcile TPPF/Sullivan’s contention that per-student spending has doubled with the LBB numbers that it’s been flat?

All of the data the Texas Public Policy Foundation uses on state education spending come from the comptroller’s office, Golsan said. He said in his statement he was referring to “raw dollars” spent on public education over the past decade, which did not account for inflation.

Sullivan said he also based his statement on raw numbers, though his came from the Texas Education Agency. [emphasis mine]

They didn’t adjust for inflation. Repeat: They didn’t adjust for inflation. That’s it. That’s the basis for their argument about the supposed “inefficiency” of public schools.

You know, when I was a kid, you could buy a Big Mac for $1.60. Now it costs $4. That’s a 150 percent increase and just goes to show We the People can’t trust McDonald’s with our money! 

You’d think there would be more to it. But, nope, that’s it. And, still, they won’t cop to their mistake. TPPF’s Josh Treviño, who enjoyed an extremely short foray into mainstream journalism last year, defended TPPF’s numbers as “technically correct” (the best kind of correct).

Sullivan’s explanation (“raw numbers”) is risible. It calls to mind the disastrous Republican effort to “unskew” the polls. Whatever it is, it’s not math; it’s alchemy that turns ideology into objective reality.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DavidNHarley David Harley

    Unfair. The entire Republican Party and much of the Democratic Party in Congress is to the right of Goldwater. Some of the Republican state legislators across the country would denounce Goldwater as a communist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DavidNHarley David Harley

    Does no one understand compound interest? It’s not a matter of multiplication.

    • http://twitter.com/Forrest4Trees Forrest Wilder

      Hi David,

      The proper way, or at least one of them, to account for the compound effects of population growth and the inflation rate as discussed in the TM article is as follows:

      1.77 (inflation) x 1.55 (population incrase) – 1 = 1.74… or 174%

      If you add the two together, as TPPF did, you get 132% instead.

      The key, correct operant is in fact multiplication, not addition.