Paging Reality Among Legislative Leaders
My latest print column, coming out in our April 1 issue:
Texas’ political leaders have never been known as a reflective bunch. If you wanted to be kind, you’d call them do-ers rather than thinkers. But the GOP leadership team at the Capitol this year takes it to a whole new level. When news first arrived in January that the state’s budget crisis was even worse than expected, with a $27 billion shortfall, no one—and by no one, I mean the governor, the lieutenant governor or the speaker of the House—reconsidered their plan to cut government to the bone and keep taxes scant. When that plan yielded a draft budget full of drastic cuts to education and health and human services, we were told that those who worried about the impact were alarmists, “doomsayers” in Gov. Rick Perry’s words. Like I said, not the most reflective bunch. You’ve got a philosophy, you stick with it, no matter how extreme things get.
If nothing else could shove the leaders from the land of ideological purity back into the realm of reality, you might have thought the Legislative Budget Board had done it on March 24. The LBB, an apolitical arm of the Legislature that calculates the financial impact of bills, reported that the proposed budget could cost Texans more than 300,000 jobs—including more than 100,000 in the private sector. You might have expected the Republican leaders and lawmakers would at least seriously discuss the findings. After all, as Perry said in his inaugural address, “jobs are more than just statistics; they provide wealth and opportunity for our citizens and families.” Surely the LBB provided cause for a little hesitation?
Instead of giving it proper consideration, the Republican honchos rushed to condemn the LBB report. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst dispatched a press release setting the tone, arguing that the nonpartisan policy wonks had failed to consider “the dramatic job losses Texas would suffer if the Legislature raised taxes.” Who knew the lieutenant governor also dabbled in economic projections? He’s not alone. House Speaker Joe Straus—the guy who was too “moderate” for the Tea Party—slammed the LBB report even harder than Dewhurst, saying he would “question the validity of the assumption that requiring government to live within its means will lead to a downturn in the economy.” There was no evidence of the slightest pause to consider the job-loss implications. But, of course, losing jobs by cutting state government simply doesn’t jibe with the small-government mantra. It can’t be considered.
Which makes you wonder: When it comes to legislating in Texas, do the facts matter at all?
Apparently they once did. One veteran reporter told me to consider 1987—the last time Texas faced a budget crisis anywhere close to this magnitude. Lawmakers considered many cuts, but found—like this year—that to get significant savings, they would have to slash areas near and dear to their hearts (and their constituents). You know, stuff like education. After the regular legislative session failed to produce a compromise, the lawmakers came back for special sessions—first one, then another. The hold-up? Republican Gov. Bill Clements adamantly opposed new taxes, and the legislative leadership refused to keep hacking away at government programs. But back then, the Democrats weren’t the only ones scared of devastating cuts. Business conservatives ultimately began appealing to Clements to give ground on taxes. Even one of the state’s GOP godfathers, Peter O’Donnell, pushed the governor to consider about a tax hike. It worked. The lawmakers ultimately passed a $5.7 billion tax hike—and Texas’ schools and health-care systems emerged without grave damage.
New taxes are all but impossible in 2011. After all, our political leaders have their futures to think about. Straus already faces antipathy from hardliners; he can’t back down. Dewhurst wants a shot at the U.S. Senate. God only knows where Perry wants to go next, but wherever it is, his campaigns never end. The Republican leaders have committed themselves to the idea that tax-cutting always improves an economy. Anything that contradicts this is inherently wrong. Or liberal. Or Democratic.
But even if facts are irrelevant in the political world, they do exist in the real one. If the House budget goes into effect, hundreds of thousands of Texans will be laid off, across the economic spectrum. Thousands will be without health care. Basic institutions like schools will barely be able to limp along.
It is not a cheerful future to consider. Which might explain why our leaders are doing so little thinking.