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Following the example of the Texas Senate, House members agreed this week to exceed the state’s constitutional spending cap to pay for the promised $14 billion in local property tax cuts. Not to worry, though, since the House Rs assured us in a press release that SJR 20 is merely a “housekeeping resolution.” I’m trying to envision a multi-billion-dollar housekeeping problem, and my most vivid nightmares fall short. And as the mother of three males, all of whom have inherited a paternal trait involving blindness of wastebaskets and laundry hampers, I consider myself something of a veteran of housekeeping war zones. But I digress. All I can say is all those special sessions must have created a lot of nasty dust bunnies, still scuttering around the Capitol complex somewhere.
What’s most amazing is that our fastidious leaders are planning even more tidying up. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s pronouncement on the proposed state budget envisions setting aside $3 billion of this budget cycle’s revenue to be applied to promised tax cuts in the next biennium. This is an unprecedented action that sets up the session’s next important showdown. Senate Democrats are wondering aloud why the money should be set aside for tax cuts promised in 2010 and 2011, when no such special arrangements have been made for other important state obligations. How exactly do you set aside $3 billion for a bill that comes due in 2010-1011? Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, for one, thinks a constitutional amendment setting up a dedicated fund would be required.
The answer to the first question ( why?) is the dead elephant people keep tripping over in the Senate chamber. It’s Dewhurst’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, and the entire session’s agenda has been scripted to accommodate it. In fact, so far, it appears that Dewhurst believes that 181 Texas lawmakers showed up in January as extras in a blockbuster new film production. And who gets top billing as the handsome, fiscal conservative, tough-on-crime Republican who protects the Governor’s Mansion from Democrats and RINOs? Why, Dewhurst, of course.
His legislative agenda reads as if he sent his pollster out to find out what people hate, and formulated policy in response. Taxes? Prisoners? Sex offenders? Immigrants? Check, check and check. Clearly, he’s got taxes covered. And, in case that isn’t enough, he’s supporting the death penalty for child molesters, new prison construction (which is opposed by the committee chairs overseeing corrections policy in both the House and Senate) and increased spending on border security. Taxes, crime, and immigrants: the winning trifecta in the Republican Primary.
Dewhurst and other conservatives have acknowledged the proposed budget will not actually maintain current services. The plan, according to the Dew’s press release, represents an increase “of about 1.6 percent per year, a rate less than inflation.” And an article by former House Appropriations chairman Talmadge Heflin makes the same conclusion: “The introduced version of the budget would increase true general revenue spending by less than four percent over two years. This is likely less of an increase than the state’s population growth plus inflation.”
Well, that should make Grover Norquist happy. By now, everyone has heard Norquist’s line about reducing government to a size that can be drowned in a bathtub. But a more painful explanation of Republican obsession with tax cuts came from the late Republican political guru Lee Atwater. As the New York Times’ Bob Herbert recounted last year, Atwater traced the racial roots of the Republican tax cut strategy in a 1981 interview, during his final illness:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is … blacks [and, in today’s Texas, Hispanics] get hurt worse than whites.”
Let me make this clear: I don’t believe that Dewhurst intends to capitalize on latent racism, but I do believe he cares more about his gubernatorial campaign than about public policy, or anything else, for that matter. What he’s banking on, of course, is that Lee Atwater’s play book still delivers in 2010.
With Texas 50th in tax expenditures per capita (according to the U.S. Census), first in uninsured children, and 47th in SAT scores, could Dewhurst not think of any other way to spend $3 billion? And as for his interest in prison construction, even conservative analysts at the Texas Public Policy Foundation believe there’s a smarter way to approach criminal justice.
Real problems are looming that need attention. The state has still not fully restored cuts to CHIP that were made in 2003. Deregulated college tuition means that Texas higher education is no longer the bargain it used to be, and lower-income kids bear the burden. But there’s some housekeeping that never seems to get done. Before you know it, 140 days will have passed, and the Legislature will have tidied up more tax cuts. But open the door on CHIP and Medicaid and college affordability and all you’ll find is unmade beds and wet towels on the floor and nobody interested in cleaning it up. Damn.