Who has more clout: A fictional Texas Ranger and a former major corporate CEO or a cadre of right wing interest groups?
Texas Senate Republicans gave an unabashed nod to the interest groups this week by passing a state budget that balances without tapping the rainy day fund. Instead, the Senate budget relies on accounting tricks and contingent spending. If an economic recovery fails to materialize, even deeper cuts to public education will occur.
The battle was for the senators’ heads and hearts on one side and fear of political retribution on the other. The public school coalition Raise Your Hand Texas ran television commercials featuring Tommy Lee Jones, who starred in the classic mini-series Lonesome Dove, and former GM and AT&T executive Ed Whitacre urging Texans to press against cuts to education. However, when the smoke cleared from the Senate’s budget debate, it was Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans, Peggy Venable of Americans for Prosperity, and Brooke Rollins of the Texas Public Policy Foundation who had carried the day.
The trio also ran commercials urging Republican senators to stick with state spending cuts proposed by the House. But lobbyists and lawmakers tell me the deciding factor was really the threat that the groups would find Republican primary opponents to run against incumbents and make sure the opponents were well financed. “It’s just intimidation,” said former Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, one of the lobbyists for Raise Your Hand.
Some of the same groups had tried similar pressure tactics to keep the House from re-electing Speaker Joe Straus in January. Many of the freshmen and some of the incumbents had received personal and financial help from Straus in their 2010 campaigns. Balancing the threat of a future opponent against what they owed Straus, debt won out. But in the land of the Senate, everyone was on their own, facing the reality that redistricting will mean every senator faces re-election next year, and many in districts with voters they’ve never met.
Dallas Republican John Carona will gain about 170,000 residents in his new district. West Texans Robert Duncan and Kel Seliger are short 106,000 people and 84,000, respectively. East Texas Republican Kevin Eltife needs another 80,000 people. Meanwhile, Plano Republican Florence Shaprio lives in a district that is a hotbed of Tea Party activism. She needs to lose about 129,000 residents to another district, but she does not know yet whether she will be giving up potential opponents or supporters.
Some senators keep healthy campaign accounts with more than $1 million in them, but others have less than half a million dollars in the bank. That’s good seed money, but some of the hard-right Republican donors are known to write checks for $100,000 at a time. That’s grounds for a lot of political fear, especially going into an election with a presidential campaign at the top of the ballot and continuing economic uncertainty.
“Every member of the Legislature is concerned. It’s a different time. Things are just not predictable about the electorate, where their mood will be,” said Duncan. He told me he believes the news media has given the very conservative groups greater clout by always going them to get the “other side of the story” in the Tea Party environment. “Those folks naturally have been historically taking a very conservative position, not necessarily one that works in managing government and keeping the schools healthy.”
It’s not so much that these groups give money directly, but they network with local activists. Empower Texans spent $115,000 last year, mostly to influence GOP House primaries with direct mail and email. The associated Liberty Institute – once known as the Free Market Foundation – puts out a “non-partisan” voter guide each election that shows where candidates stand on litmus test issues.
But many in the lobby today believe removal of the rainy day fund issue brings the Legislature closer to getting a budget in regular session. There are expectations that Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden will try to put additional money into the supplemental spending bill for the current biennium. That, combined with an expected small revenue increase from Comptroller Susan Combs, would provide enough money to actually pay for the Senate’s version of education spending and keep nursing homes afloat.
But while the eyes at the Capitol were on the Senate vote this week, another vote is coming up that may be just as telling. On May 14, there are 48 school districts that are having bond elections or Tax Ratification Elections, according to a newsletter for school districts: Texas ISD. A quick tour of the Internet, shows anti-tax activists already are busy in many of those districts trying to kill the bond issues. A group of Republican bloggers, called Texas GOP Vote has this to say on its web site: “Liberals are voting May 14th, will you? Early voting starts Monday, May 2nd for the May 14th School Board and City Council elections in many Texas cities. While it is true these are non-partisan races, all candidates bring a political philosophy to the position that will guide the decisions they make once elected.” So while these elections are purely local, they may be the true litmus test for things to come, especially if local school districts start holding property tax increase elections to make up for their lost state funding.
Tommy Lee Jones was famous as Woodrow Call for carrying out a promise to bring home the dead body of his partner, Gus McCrae. In the next several weeks, we may learn whether the next body across the saddle is that of Texas public education.
By R.G. RATCLIFFE