Can the Democrats Win If They Won’t Play?
My latest print column from our March 11 issue:
There have been several House Democratic caucus press conferences already during this legislative session, but there really only needed to be one. Let me recite the script: I watch, baffled, as 25 or 30 Democrats file into the small room set aside for these occasions. As they begin to recite their talking points, I can’t help wondering: Aren’t they going to wait for the others to arrive? That’s before I remember, again, that the Democrats are down to fewer than 50 seats in the 150-member House, so 30 people is actually a healthy majority of the caucus. Kind of sad. But even sadder is how, as they speak, they seem to embrace their own irrelevance.
Always, at these press conferences, the Democrats go through whatever issue they’re concerned about—the budget crisis, the governor’s State of the State address—and they needle and poke the Republican behemoth they’re up against. With the state facing a $27 billion shortfall and the Republicans relying almost entirely on cuts to fix the problem, it’s easy to paint the potentially terrifying impact to children, the elderly and the state overall. The Democrats do this with solemn relish. But then, inevitably, someone asks the obvious questions: How would you fix the problem? Would you raise taxes or do something else to raise revenue?
Cue awkward pause. Then something like this: It “is a question better leveled to those who are in control,” Rep. Pete Gallego of Alpine said at one press conference. Another time, the explanation came from Rep. Dawnna Dukes of Austin: “Those who are in control are the ones who are going to make any decision that is made at any given time.” As for raising revenues, Houston Rep. Garnet Coleman offered no Democratic ideas. Why should he? As Coleman said, Republicans “have the power to raise taxes. We don’t.”
The Democrats’ strategy is clear: Make the Republicans own this budget mess. After all, Democrats say, the GOP proposed much of the taxing structure, they got credit for giving out tax cuts, and now they should take the blame for the consequences.
The problem is that this makes Democrats look like they’re sitting on their hands, playing some version of nobody-likes-me-everybody-hates-me. It leaves them looking like they won’t play ball and don’t want to help with solutions. It’s a questionable message to send. It’s also misleading, because some Democrats are taking innovative steps to chip away at the state’s mountains of fiscal troubles.
Contrast the typical Democratic caucus press conference with a recent one held by Rep. Scott Hochberg of Houston, the Democrats’ chief school-funding expert. With almost no one there—three or four reporters and a few milling staffers—Hochberg laid out an actual plan. Seizing on the budget crisis as an opportunity to limit school testing, Hochberg has co-authored a bill with freshman Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, to exempt certain high performers from taking the statewide annual assessments. For instance, it exempts fourth-graders from taking the state’s standardized tests if they passed their third-grade tests by a wide margin. While the measure wouldn’t save the state much money, it would save local districts a lot of time in test preparation while putting a focus on those students who barely passed or failed their exams.
“It shines a laser beam on those kids who are below grade level,” Hochberg said.
While you wouldn’t know it from the Democratic caucus messaging, Hochberg is hardly the only minority member looking for opportunities to effect change. Despite their numbers, Democrats still have a clear majority of policy wonks in the chamber. On the Ways and Means Committee, multiple Democrats are offering bills to close tax loopholes exploited by businesses. In the words of Rep. Mike Villarreal, the goal is to “make our tax structure look less like Swiss cheese.” Rep. Elliot Naishtat, the Austin liberal, is trying to help the state Comptroller, Republican Susan Combs, collect taxes from Internet companies with shipping locations in the state, like Amazon.
No matter what they do, of course, it’s not going to be a session for Democrats to remember fondly. They’ll have to swallow some major budget cuts to programs that will hurt a lot of folks statewide. But instead of simply pointing fingers at the Republicans, the party might want to spend a little time talking up (and encouraging) its members’ initiatives to make sensible cuts that don’t hurt vulnerable citizens, and to raise revenue by closing tax loopholes. If they can’t take a stand at a press
conference, the Democratic future is bleak.