Interview

Ben Barnes and the Surplus Next Time

In mid-April, Ben Barnes delivered a speech at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at U.T.—Austin, the sort of event that usually passes through the news cycle and disappears. Austin American-Statesman political columnist Dave McNeely took note, observing, “Ben Barnes is back with a vengeance.” In Austin the buzz about “the Barnes speech” continues, almost two months after the fact. The long shelf-life of the speech is, in part, because Barnes continues to flog it. But it also has to do with his delivering a political zeitgeist speech, which connects with the public’s weariness with the war on government that began with Ronald Reagan.

Barnes, who has not held elected office since 1972, when he lost the Democratic primary election for governor to Dolph Briscoe, maintains that his LBJ School speech was not aimed at George W. Bush. But he does address the Bush agenda, in particular the return of more than $2 billion in budget surpluses at a time when public health and public education are drastically underfunded.

In a low-tax state like Texas, Reagan’s “no-new-taxes” argument has resulted in a race to the bottom. According to Barnes, we have arrived. His speech was a programmatic argument for investing – in particular the budget surplus predicted for the next biennium – in nutrition programs, immunization of children, public education, higher education, biomedical research, and the state’s highway system. Barnes is hiring staff and preparing to lobby the next session of the Legislature, on the agenda outlined in his speech.

He is not, he said, running for office. “What I hope is that I am going to make it easier for a lot of other people to talk about these issues. The John Sharps and the Paul Hobbys and the Kirk Watsons,” Barnes said of prospective Democratic candidates for statewide office. What follows is an edited version of a June 6 interview in Barnes’ office.

TO: You served in the Legislature, presided over both chambers. How do you, in a climate where everyone is running on lower taxes, build a constituency that would pass the sort of appropriations you’re advocating?

BB: I’ve made a speech forty-five days ago. I’ve been on a couple of radio talk shows, had some newspaper coverage. It’s amazing what the reaction has been. I was on the “Sammy and Bob Radio Show” here in Austin – a rather blue-collar, or at least conservative, show. A lot of pickup truck drivers and Bubbas love Sammy and Bob. They had the largest number of calls they’ve ever had. They’ve got sixteen telephones lines and they stayed lit up all morning long. I was going to stay an hour but I ended up staying two and a half hours. And we didn’t have any negative phone calls. The phones rang off the wall, with people telling me about education problems, telling me about transportation problems.

You build a constituency by standing up and talking about the things that need to be done. No one has really articulated an alternative. That we could have a public-supported kindergarten – instead of giving thirty dollars back to every person in the state. Nobody articulated that we could have given the teachers $6,000 a year raise– instead of giving thirty dollars back to every person in the state. No one articulated that we could have built another billion and a half dollars of highways and helped solve the traffic problems. Nobody articulated that we need to spend a lot more money on research, on higher education – and that Kentucky is spending more money than Texas is spending on biomedical research. No one stood up and articulated those issues. Yeah, you go run a poll in Texas and ask: Do you want a tax cut and do you want the surplus to be divvied up and sent back? The poll’s going to run 70 or 80 percent; everybody’s going to say, “Yeah, send me the money.”

No one has been out talking about the very serious problems. I think if you take the most conservative voting precinct in Texas – let’s take Highland Park in Dallas – and you said: Okay, we’ve got a surplus. You can get thirty dollars a year – or we can go do something about the fact that we’ve got the highest dropout rate in the United States in our public schools. And in some South Texas counties, over 60 percent of the kids are dropping out before they get a high school education. And that we’ve got 367,000 kids in Texas who are going to bed hungry or somewhat hungry every night. Do you want your thirty dollars a year? Or do you want us to go down to South Texas and try to do something about those kids? I’ll tell you what. I think the most conservative audience in Texas can be convinced that we ought to go do something about those kids. We haven’t had anybody doing that. There wasn’t a political agenda in the Legislature to fight Governor Bush because no one was out talking about this.

TO: Do you think the constituents are ahead of their elected officials on these issues?

BB: I think, when given the facts, the public is always ahead. It was true even when I was in office. The public was always ahead of the Legislature. It’s like liquor by the drink. Everybody said we’re going to get destroyed by passing liquor by the drink. I represented a dry legislative district. And it was supposed to bring down my defeat as speaker – us being for liquor by the drink. I tell you, the public was so tired of the brown-bag law. And they wanted the tax money and the restaurants that liquor by the drink would bring – and the tourism. No legislator got in trouble for voting for liquor by the drink.

And I don’t know of a single legislator in my twelve years of service in the Legislature who got beat voting for a tax bill. I don’t think tax bills beat people. I think Ronald Reagan came along and sold the American people on “no new taxes.” And all the national leaders, and all the state leaders – everybody thought that was magic. I think the public is willing to pay for services that they think their political subdivisions need if they are articulated in the right way. It’s just not been done in Texas.

TO: Bullock made the argument for the income tax…

BB: I think one of the sorriest things that ever happened – Bob Bullock had such a great record and I think he diminished it by passing that constitutional prohibition against an income tax.… He put the future Legislatures in straitjackets. If you’re going to put a ban against state income tax, why not put a ban in the constitution against increasing sales taxes. Or any other taxes. It’s just not good public policy to put prohibition against taxes in the constitution.

TO: Initially, Bullock made the argument for the income tax and nobody responded.

BB: Nobody responded? I think they responded. I think he got a lot of negative response. And as a result, he got concerned and took the action he did.… It was not necessary at all for Bullock to do that.

TO: You’re not proposing an income tax.

BB: I’m not proposing an income tax. I’m not proposing any increase of specific taxes. I’m saying that we’ve definitely got to reinvest the surplus. To give the surplus away at thirty or forty dollars [per person] a year is insane. It’s shortchanging the people of Texas. I’m saying that we’ve got to elect men and women to public office who have the courage to recommend the taxes that are necessary to go operate this state in a way that people want it operated. You can’t operate the second-largest state in the United States, population-wise, on a tax that’s fiftieth per capita in the United States.

I’m proud that our state taxes have remained low in comparison to other states – in some areas. But I’m not nearly as proud of the fact that we’ve got the lowest tax in the United States as I’m ashamed of the fact that we’re thirty-sixth or thirty-seventh in public education. We’re last, as far as taking care of our children and investing in their insurance and medical well-being and education. I’m very, very ashamed of that. I’m also ashamed that we’ve had the priorities of being number one in prisons and not number one in higher education.

We have bought off on these tax cuts. And really, local ad valorem taxes have gone up to a point that is bad. Our ad valorem taxes are so high, and we’re putting the burden on property owners. That is unfair. You know, states have two sources of revenue: state sales tax, business taxes – and the income tax. We now have a corporate income tax in Texas. It’s not called an income tax because it’s not politically smart to talk about income taxes. But the formula of the franchise tax now, a significant part of it, is based on income. Texas is going to some day – here I go using that terrible word – some day is going to have to have all forms of broad taxation to operate state government. [Editor’s note: the terrible word is “income tax.”]

TO: You’ve suggested a gasoline tax, which to me suggests that what you propose is not entirely predicated on a budget surplus.

BB: There’s a reason to use the gasoline tax.

TO: Education?

BB: Public education, and also highways. The Legislature is funding the Department of Public Safety out of highway funds now instead of taking that money and building highways. You’ll never get the Legislature to appropriate money for highways out of the general revenue funds. So you have no choice other than raise the gasoline tax. A fourth of it, fortunately, goes to public education. So you pick up some money that the Legislature has to appropriate it to public education

And you know, only 32 percent of our highways pass national standards – which means 68 percent of our highways are below. The Austin paper had an article the Sunday before last that said that six thousand and something of our bridges were in a state of ill repair and unsafe. We used to have the best or the second best highway system in the United States. Now, what we are spending on highways ranks forty-seventh in the United States.

And a gasoline tax, sure, is regressive. But most forms of taxation are regressive. A gasoline tax is a fair thing because the people who are driving the miles are paying the taxes. Now the people who are poorer, maybe we can get them back some of that tax. Maybe spread it out and amortize it on trucks and airplanes. And do something through some type of program where they’re not taxed as heavy – and spread their taxes out over a graduated period. You could take the poor person who’s making under $35,000 a year and find out what they are spending on gasoline and give them back all their gasoline taxes. It wouldn’t have a big impact on the revenue from the gasoline tax. People would have to sit down and look at the regressive nature of taxes, and see how to accommodate the poor. I want to raise this money to spend more on health care and education for the poor. There’s no reason to make them pay it.

TO: How often have reporters asked you about George Bush on these issues?

BB: Oh, every time. But I’ve got to say this, and I’ve said it in my speech. The Democrats were there. Governor Richards was there. There have been other Democrats. George Bush didn’t walk into the Capitol and all of a sudden there start being a 50 percent dropout rate in a lot of the counties in South Texas. George Bush didn’t walk into the Capitol and cause the kids to be hungry. George Bush didn’t walk into the Capitol and cause our public education system to be thirty-seventh in the United States. George Bush didn’t walk into the Capitol and cause California to spend twice as much money on higher education as we do.

I’m not saying that George Bush is to blame for this. It’s taken a long time for Texas get into this kind of shape.

TO: He is the first Governor to have two back-to-back budget surpluses.

BB: Well, probably since the seventies. Probably since OPEC. Dolph Briscoe had huge surpluses in the seventies. They did put some money in a rainy day fund, which they didn’t spend.

Last session the rainy day fund was zeroed-out. You have to admit that Governor Bush used the tax refunds for political purposes.

BB: I’m not going to say that. I’ll leave that for people to decide. I’m trying very hard not to let anyone make this personal toward Governor Bush. If this looks like it’s a Bush-Barnes thing, I’m going to be a lot less effective talking about the issues. I said in the speech that this is bipartisan criticism.

But I want to go back. John Connally appointed twenty-five leading businessmen and women around Texas to come back and recommend the money for higher education. And they came back and recommended it, and we passed a tax bill. If you go back and look at the votes in the House of Representatives – when we were spending a great deal more money on education and other programs – I was getting 120 and 130 votes for those tax bills. They weren’t seventy-six to seventy-four. That’s because the public saw the need. And those legislators thought that they could go vote for those tax bills and go back home and run.

TO: The fight then was between Tory Democrats and more progressive Democrats. Now it’s partisan.

BB: Yes. But it was the conservative Democrats who ultimately passed the tax bills. The liberal Democrats got mad and put amendments on income taxes and things. And they had a reason to vote against them. Someone recently asked me about the difference between the conservative Democrats and Republicans, because I was in office at a time when the state was all Democrat. I think the main difference is that conservative Democrats would vote for tax bills to fund government. Republicans don’t seem to want to do that.

But again, the Reagan Revolution came along. Now Republicans feel like the no-new-taxes argument is their philosophy and platform for garnering support around the country. You know, Texas Monthly is going to write an article about Bush. And they are calling to see if my quotes were correct. They asked me, if George Bush loses, why do you think he’s going to lose? I think if he loses, it will be because he wants to take all the surplus, or most of the surplus, and give it back to the people – as opposed to funding some programs and paying down the federal deficit. And funding Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. I think if you give the public the choice – to pay down the deficit or get a tax cut of $118 – 60 or 70 percent of them will say that they want to pay down the deficit.

But I want to focus on Texas. On the 2001 legislative session. We don’t have to be the highest-tax state in the United States and do these things. We can be in the bottom 10 percent in tax per capita and still do many of the things I’m talking about.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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