So Long, Texas Senate
After yesterday, I don’t think I’ll have anything to say about this year’s self-discrediting Texas Senate. As R.G. noted yesterday, the Senate was busy in a self-righteous lather of tax cutting: they passed SB1, by Jane Nelson, which calls for the state to provide property tax relief via Obamacare-style subsidies to local school districts; SJR1, the enabling legislation for SB1, which enables the Senate to sneak around the spending cap by exempting the aforementioned state spending from being counted against the spending cap, which Senate Republicans would like you to believe they support; SB7, also by Nelson, which lowers the franchise tax rate; and SB8, by Charles Schwertner, which exempts business with less than $4 million in gross receipts from paying the franchise tax at all. Together, these would amount to $4.6 billion in tax cuts, or more accurately, a $4.6 billion recurring budget hole that Dan Patrick and the Texas Senate aren’t willing to take responsibility for. As previously mentioned, I think SB8 was sound; SB7 was reasonable, but probably not optimal given the circumstances; and SB1/SJR1 is the most ridiculous gibberish I’ve ever seen a grown adult defend with pride.
In addition to that, I was disgusted by the politics I saw in the Senate yesterday. There were two Republicans who acted on principle: Kevin Eltife and Don Huffines. Eltife has repeatedly said that he does not think we should cut taxes without being confident that the state will be able to meet its needs; he therefore voted against all the bills other than Schwertner’s. That makes sense—Schwertner’s bill was the smallest of the tax cuts, and the one most likely to stimulate economic activity—but whether you agree or disagree, I think we can all agree that Eltife’s votes were consistent with Eltife’s stated beliefs.
Huffines stood for different principles, but he similarly stood for them. After passing the property tax relief bills, the Senate recessed for about an hour, while various colleagues tried to dissuade Huffines, who had decided to offer an amendment, to Nelson’s franchise tax bill, that would phase out the franchise tax altogether. It was not a good idea; as Troy Fraser eventually noted, while offering an amendment to Huffines’ amendment, getting rid of the franchise tax altogether would leave a recurring hole in Texas’s budget, to the tune of about $9 billion a biennium. And Huffines, despite carrying around his Senate rule book during the recess, bungled the procedural side of things: Fraser’s amendment effectively gutted Huffines’ amendment, with the result that Huffines himself ultimately voted against his amended amendment. In the process, however, Huffines skillfully exposed the hypocrisy of his colleagues, who were effectively saying, absurdly, that it’s totally fine to create a $4.6 billion recurring budget hole, but $9 billion is a bridge too far. And Huffines paid a price accordingly; as a result of his forcing the caucus to take an unpleasant vote, a number of his bills mysteriously vanished from various Senate committee calendars. The lieutenant governor, by the way, heralded SB7 and SB8 as “the beginning of the end of the franchise tax.” It’s as if he sees no problem taking credit for something that he punished someone else for actually pursuing.
Beyond that, a number of Republicans acted with integrity. Charles Schwertner, for example, voted for everything in the package, even though he seemed ambivalent about everything other than his bill; his bill was good, though, which explains why he would make some political compromises on its behalf. And tellingly, at the end of the day, he didn’t send out a press release touting his role in passing a $4.6 billion tax cut package; he sent a press release about his bills, and didn’t even mention the others. Kel Seliger, to give another example, voted for everything, but at least he registered objections to the scheme as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, by making the straightforward observation, to Nelson’s chagrin, that state spending is obviously state spending, even if it goes to local governments as a subsidy for revenues foregone as a result of local tax cuts established by the state at the behest of the new lieutenant governor, who campaigned for statewide office promising to lower property taxes even though Texas does not have a statewide property tax. I was rooting for Seliger to join Eltife in voting against the spending cap gimmick, at least, but in the end, it would be too harsh to fault him for making a political compromise. All of the Senate Republicans, apparently, are under pressure from Patrick and Nelson to indulge them in this, and as chair of Higher Ed, Seliger has sound reasons to stay on the lieutenant governor’s good side.
Plus, Seliger has never anointed himself the arbiter of conservative virtue, or argued that fidelity to conservative principles precludes any kind of compromise on anything ever. He was one of several incumbent senators who faced a primary challenge from the Tea Party as a result last year, actually, and he was the only one who managed to fend it off: as we’ve seen in recent election cycles, a number of Texas conservatives consider pragmatism a sin, and think that anyone who isn’t tilting at windmills all the time should be purged from the party, and politically ruined.
What I saw yesterday was that for most of these “Tea Party” heros, this supposed fidelity to principle is nothing more than a self-aggrandizing delusion, or a deliberate campaign ruse. Huffines, to his credit was serious, and I would say the same about a number of Tea Party Republicans in the Texas House. But what are we supposed to make of Konni Burton, Donna Campbell, Bob Hall, Lois Kolkhorst, Charles Perry, and Van Taylor? Every single one of them has accused other Republicans of being insufficiently conservative. Every single one has touted themselves as a conservative warrior, a true believer, and will no doubt continue to do so. Some may have had qualms about yesterday’s package. But every one of them voted for it. And none of them have specified which $4.6 billion in state spending they propose to cut. As a matter of integrity, I think, they should: if you vote for $4.6 billion in tax cuts in a state with a pay-as-you-go provision, it follows that you should be prepared to cut spending accordingly or you’re planning to put it on the tab for future generations to pay. Earlier today Luke Macias, who worked as a campaign consultant for several of the senators mentioned, suggested to me that such cuts would be easy to find; after all, we had to cut the budget a lot in 2011, “and yet Texas kept meeting its citizen’s needs.” Personally, I think Texas needs bridges that don’t collapse and a whole lot of math teachers; and I may be a lazy, leftist shill who works for the lamestream media, but if any “fiscal conservatives” disagree, they can easily prove me wrong by proposing their cuts, and none have done so.
The following claims are not my opinions; they are facts, which anyone, even a senator, can easily confirm through cursory research: Texas has one of the lowest state spending rates per capita in the country, and one of the lowest tax burdens per capita in the country. If we’re looking at combined state and local, a fiscal conservative would find plenty to complain about, but the Texas Lege works on the state budget, which is already about as lean as anyone could hope for. It may even be too lean, insofar as investments in infrastructure maintenance, for example, could help forestall bridge collapses, which are expensive, in addition to being lethal. The Senate’s “conservatives” aren’t going to come up with a list of $4.6 billion in proposed spending cuts because they can’t find $4.6 billion to cut. And why would they try? Whatever happens next, they can brag about passing $4.6 billion in their next campaign mailers. If the Texas House manages to fix their mess, they can also campaign against Joe Straus, the RINO, who thwarted Dan Patrick’s heroic effort to cut property taxes. And if the House doesn’t patch things up? That’s okay too; as one appalled conservative noted to me last week, citing California as an example, it can take more than a decade to run a state into the ground. By that point today’s senators will have moved on to higher office or more lucrative work in the private sector, and can blame the next generation of legislators, many of whom will be Democrats, for calling for tax hikes that will ruin Texas.
I was probably naive to expect anything other than politics as usual from any of these people, since all of them are politicians. But since we’re talking about politicians who cite “not being a squish” as their defining virtue, I’m surprised they didn’t keep up the charade a little longer, at least. Maybe they didn’t realize that politics is harder than it looks? Well, now they know. And they should at least have the decency to remember that, even while loudly proclaiming themselves as heroes.