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.