On the heels of a miniature suburban revolt in the midterms, it seems unlikely that Dan Patrick and friends will be able to hijack the session again.
So: The world’s finest deliberative body convened in Austin on Tuesday, and by early summer, if God’s grace once more falls upon this benighted state, the Texas Legislature will leave town. That much we know. What will happen at the Lege over the next five months? Beats me. If you know, you should contact my editor. You should probably be writing this column.
In the past, Lege-watchers could often predict the major plot points well in advance. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, for example, typically advertises his intentions with neon signs. In early 2016, Patrick announced at that year’s demoralized and schizoid Texas GOP Convention that he would dedicate himself to the issue of bathroom policy. For the next year and a half, all the way through a pointless special session in the summer of 2017, he made potty politics his primary focus, with most everything else at the Lege orbiting around that.
Session after session, in the absence of meaningful policy debates, GOP factions have big, stupid fights over big, stupid bills that are sometimes facially unconstitutional — say, hypothetically, punishing abortion doctors by strapping them to the end of a trebuchet, or turning the Houston Independent School District over to Fethullah Gülen. Meanwhile, a lot of the real dirty stuff is happening behind the scenes.
Some of the bills pass. Some never make it out of committee. Some are killed by Democrats on procedural grounds, and others are slow-walked over a cliff by Republicans. Sometimes their most prominent proponents don’t even want their legislation to pass. (Governor Greg Abbott, according to one outgoing state representative, was assuring people that he didn’t favor Patrick’s bathroom bill even as he was promoting it publicly.)
In 2017, the GOP went further down the path of ideological silliness, and, at the end, the party’s hard-right faction got something it had wanted for a very long time: House Speaker Joe Straus announced that he was stepping down. (The question of his replacement by Speaker Dennis Bonnen, and Bonnen’s slowly revealed intentions, may be the most interesting thing to watch this session.) But then something unexpected happened: Texas Republicans got pummelled in the midterm election. The GOP has a slimmer majority in the House than it’s had in a decade, and Patrick squeaked by with less than 4 percentage points. As the session starts, Patrick isn’t even here — he’s at the White House.
No doubt the trouncing was mostly because of Trump’s unpopularity. But the miniature suburban revolt that swept out 12 Republicans in the Texas House can’t be ignored, and Republicans who won re-election by the skin of their teeth are going to be eyeing 2020, when control of the lower chamber is on the table.
For now, Democrats hold 67 seats in the 150-seat Legislature. They need just nine Republicans to kill legislation, and that’s not hard to imagine when it comes to issues like school privatization (a Patrick favorite), or the effort by the oil lobby to wound the wind industry. A lot of House Rs like public schools, and a lot of them have wind farms in their district. In other words, it’s hard to imagine the worst right-wing bills that failed to make it through last session passing in the House this year.
Plus, there’s nothing so far this year that compares to Patrick’s potty talk. (Isn’t it strange, given how forcefully Patrick pledged in 2017 that he was acting to protect children from rapists, that the issue has disappeared from the agenda?) Instead, an actual policy question is getting top billing — the intertwined matters of property tax “reform” and school finance. If that sounds boring, be assured that it is in many ways the most interesting question in Texas politics.
The property tax system in Texas is a mess, but start with this simple formulation: Texas is a high-tax state, not a low-tax state. While state government cuts taxes and adopts the pretend posture of fiscal responsibility, the burden of funding basic services and quality-of-life measures to support the state’s exploding population falls on local communities. As a result, local governments in Texas are extremely indebted and reliant on taxing property at a very high rate to keep up.
As a method of funding government, property taxes are extremely bad. They punish retirees who own their homes and poor people who inherit their homes — a huge undeclared tax on intergenerational wealth transfers. They accelerate gentrification and encourage urban sprawl, which is a policy disaster in its own right. (See: Hurricane Harvey.) An additional bizarre feature of the Texas model is that the state forces local school districts to hand over a portion of the money they’ve raised from angry homeowners and then passes it along to other schools, like one feudal lord paying another.
It’s a long-term policy stupidity whose consequences are felt every day, even if the public can’t always figure out who to blame. But the alternative to the property tax model is increased state taxes, optimally a progressive income tax, which is less likely to pass the Legislature than a joint resolution honoring Hitler’s birthday. Most Democrats fear the electoral consequences of even raising the issue, so it’s not really discussed even as a long-shot alternative. But every year property taxes get more painful, and the strain on Texas public schools gets bigger. If Republicans don’t do anything — and Democrats find a way to pin property taxes on the ruling party — they’re in trouble.
The danger of that seems clear after the 2018 election. Suburban voters have always been animated by property taxes. But the more moderate suburban voters who came out in 2018 also love public schools. Take a look at this campaign ad by fire-breathing tea party Representative Matt Rinaldi, of Dallas, earlier this year, in which he brags about injecting “4 billion new dollars” into public schools, an unusual embrace of big-government spending. (Rinaldi lost his re-election bid.)
The GOP has a chance this year to do something. They can meaningfully increase the state share of funding for education and modestly strengthen public schools, or they can push for a bunch of stupid gimmicks to make it look like they did something. You can guess where this is going:
The House — the politicians in the most immediate danger — wants to do something substantive here. Abbott, Patrick and the Senate do not. This session is a midpoint between a rough election for the party and what could be an even rougher one. What do they do? They’ve got 139 days to figure it out.