No Quick Resolution to Spending Cap Issue
Tue February 13, 2007 8:23 pm

At the risk of mixing my flag metaphors, David Dewhurst has apparently decided to strike his colors after no one saluted the spending cap proposal he ran up the flagpole this week.

Dewhurst, facing mounting opposition from Senate Democrats and a few Republicans, has abandoned a plan to ask Texas voters permission to break the constitutionally-set state spending cap to pay for property tax reductions. The Senate had been scheduled this week to vote on the constitutional amendment (SJR 13, by Averitt), along with a proposal to extend the property tax relief to senior citizens through a new homestead exemption. Here is the proposed ballot language that you apparently will not have the chance to vote on:

SECTION 4. This proposed constitutional amendment shall be submitted to the voters at an election to be held May 12, 2007. The ballot shall be printed to permit voting for or against the proposition: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for a reduction of the limitation on the total amount of ad valorem taxes that may be imposed for public school purposes on the residence homesteads of the elderly or disabled to reflect any reduction in the rate of those taxes; and providing that state appropriations made for the state fiscal biennium beginning September 1, 2007, for the purpose of directly reducing school district property tax rates do not count against the constitutional state spending limit.”

Translation: Having promised significant local property tax cuts – which count against the constitutional spending limit because the Legislature must spend around at least $6 billion to “buy down” the current tax rate – Republicans (especially Dewhurst, who is already running for governor in 2010) had been hoping to dodge responsibility for busting the spending cap by passing the buck to the voters. They had hoped to preserve their fiscal-conservative bonafides by getting voters to agree that tax cuts don’t count as spending. But fiscal conservatives like Dan Patrick (who may also have his eye on the governor’s mansion in 2010) opposed any effort to lift the cap.

Dewhurst couldn’t get the votes. After marathon meetings Tuesday with Democrats, as well as committee chairs, Dewhurst told senators he would separate the spending cap issue from senior citizen tax relief. Now, lawmakers will resolve the spending cap issue by voting on a resolution rather than send the issue to voters as a constitutional amendment. That last decision gives considerable leverage to Democrats, many of whom say they want to see a budget before taking a vote on exceeding the spending cap. (Because of the need to put the issue on the May 12 ballot, the constitutional amendment strategy required lawmakers to vote on the issue within the next two weeks.) Now, lawmakers have the luxury of waiting to see a proposed budget before agreeing to break the spending cap.

“We’d like to see a little better what the budget would look like,” before voting to break the spending cap, said John Whitmire. “We want to see what the budget writers’ priorities are on social services, education, the general welfare of the state.”

This will sound familiar: Inter-chamber rivalry has also raised its ugly head. Many senators are wondering why Dewhurst wanted their chamber to make the first move, when no one knows if the House, with its obstreporous Democratic minority and a sizeable number of hardline conservative Republicans, can muster the votes for breaking the cap. One thing is certain: Don’t expect quick resolution of the spending cap issue, the session’s most important vote. “I’m of the opinion it’s fluid right now,” Whitmire said late Tuesday.

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