When the 84th Legislature kicks off next week, the state’s new elected officials will be competing with each other for influence over the state’s finances. Each has proposals and pet policy priorities they owe their constituents—or lobbyists—after a lengthy election. The problem: Almost all of them require money. And there’s not that much to go around. The state’s budget is stretched thin even in good years, and more money is needed all the time to keep pace with population growth—and that’s even before you factor in a potential economic slowdown brought about by the oil slump.
Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick released the first draft of his agenda Thursday, at a press conference at the Capitol. In the plan, Patrick redoubles his call for tax cuts for property owners and businesses, calls for adding new spending restrictions to the state budget process, and pushes for significant changes in education, transportation, energy and border policy.
It’s an ambitious platform.
And it comes at a time when the fiscal situation is tightening. The comptroller’s revenue estimate, which restricts the maximum possible size of the state’s budget, doesn’t come out till next week—but there’s a lot of speculation about how crashing oil prices will affect the Texas economy. In 2011, the comptroller’s office overcorrected for a perceived economic slowdown, and the Legislature cut state services needlessly.
The political perception of the economic climate seems to matter a great deal to the comptroller’s estimates, and some suspect the oil shock will clip the wings of Texas’ recent economic growth. Legislators have been counting on a modest surplus this year—though, because of longstanding accounting trickery, even that would have amounted to less than it seemed. But now, even that small windfall may be dissipating a bit.
In this environment, Patrick could’ve scaled back some of his most expensive proposals—in particular, his calls for major tax cuts. But, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, the Dan is not for turning. He’s going full steam ahead. He won with 58 percent of the vote, he said, and he has a mandate for action.
The “people of Texas are very clear on the major issues they care about,” he told reporters yesterday. In response to their demands, he pledged that a “budget with significant dollars allocated for property tax and business tax relief will be passed.” (During his campaign, Patrick talked about raising sales taxes and lowering property taxes—but that didn’t come up.)
He pledged to expand “school choice” in Texas, and to do right by “parents in the inner cities trapped in failing schools.” By the end of the session, the state would fund “border security at the highest level we’ve ever funded it.” He’d fund programs to support math and science teachers, and medical students, and he’d work the slow the skyrocketing cost of college tuition, calling tuition deregulation a failure.
He called for the state to begin adopting a fleet of natural gas vehicles, and he echoed Greg Abbott’s plan to end road funding diversions and increase transportation funding.
All of this costs money, which either has to come from surplus tax revenue—we’ll find out how much the state actually has next week—or from elsewhere in the state budget. In the case of the transportation funding diversions—money that’s rerouted to the Texas Department of Transportation from other beneficiaries, like the Department of Public Safety—budget-writers have to scrounge up dollars from somewhere else, and so on and so on. Large tax cuts and additional money for services are not compatible goals, especially in a biennium in which the state’s economic prospects are fading a bit.
If legislators end up fighting for pieces of a smaller pie, Patrick will want to ensure that his priorities have a leg up on others. We’ve long known that Patrick would be consolidating GOP power in the Senate—he’s aiming to change longstanding rules that gave Democrats some leverage in the legislative process, and he’s likely to strip Democrats of control of powerful Senate committees.
But there’s another way Patrick is making himself a more important player in the legislative process—the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey reported Wednesday that Patrick was likely to cut the number of Senate committees from 18 to 12, and would be appointing committee chairs later this month, instead of in February, as has normally been in the case.
As Ramsey writes, this means the Senate could be up and running much faster than the House, “perhaps setting up a flow of Senate bills to the lower chamber before the House is ready to send anything back.” It’s a not-so-subtle way of trying to get the jump on Speaker Straus and the House’s own priorities—and it foreshadows an uneasy relationship between the two chambers in the months to come.
There’s one other thing Patrick mentioned today—he pledged to continue the halt in funding for the Public Integrity Unit, the ethics watchdog that operates out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and was at the center of the conflict that led to Rick Perry’s indictment by a special prosecutor.
The fact that the PIU showed up on Patrick’s agenda along with weighty issues like education and transportation tells you how important it is to a lot of GOPers. The Senate, Patrick said, would decide what to do with the PIU’s funding. One option, Patrick said, would be to give it to Attorney General Ken Paxton so he could bolster his own ethics outfit. Paxton, you might remember, stands a good chance of being under indictment himself by the time the Legislature appoints him the new guardian of civic virtue. It’s going to be an interesting year.