Mon September 22, 2014 10:56 am By Paul Burka

Alas, I was out of the state for the Texas gubernatorial debate on Friday evening, but having watched the replay, I can't say that I missed much. As debates go, I found it relatively low-wattage. Both candidates were articulate and reasonably polite to their opponents, though I thought Davis came across as very stiff--think for a moment how energetically Ann Richards might have talked about her filibuster or the cuts to education in 2011. Davis did appear to be more on the attack than Abbott, whom she criticized for his earlier remark that the Rio Grande Valley was like a third-world country. Abbott appeared to be happy to focus on Obama whenever possible.

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Tue September 16, 2014 6:59 pm By Erica Grieder

In 2011, faced with a projected budget shortfall of about $27bn for the 2012-13 biennium, the Legislature passed a budget that amounted to about $5bn in cuts to public education--that is, $5bn less than the state would have appropriated, in theory, if not for the projected shortfall. Public schools are popular, more or less, and the political fallout would have been worse if not for the fact that the projected shortfall provided some cover. Education is Texas's single largest area of state spending. If you have to cut make serious cuts to the budget, there's almost no way for schools to escape unscathed, and that was the way most Republicans described the cuts at the time: tough, but necessary, and manageable.

Democrats, however, insisted that the cuts would be devastating, and that they weren't really necessary. On the latter point, Democrats were proven correct in 2013, when the comptroller reported an $8.8bn surplus for 2014-15. $8.8bn > $5bn; let's all hope that future generations of Texans are able to understand that piece of math as well as we are. And on August 28th, Judge Dietz's ruling on the school finance lawsuits gave them the upper hand on the first point. Republicans can argue about what the optimal level of school funding is, or might be, if greater efficiencies were realized, and attorney-general Greg Abbott has vowed to fight the ruling, but as it stands, the judge said that Texas's school funding is "inadequate", among other things. 

In other words, the chickens may be coming home to roost on this, or at least the Democrats hope they are. Over the past few weeks Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte, and Mike Collier--the candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and comptroller, respectively--have been hitting their Republican opponents for having supported the school cuts. Broadly speaking, all three are criticizing the 2011 cuts. But in my assessment, Davis's case is weak, Collier's is okaaaay, and Van de Putte's is good, but in a slightly poignant way. I'll explain why, after the jump.

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Tue September 16, 2014 3:39 pm By Paul Burka

Recent actions by state government have reinforced my belief that the state rarely does anything FOR the public; it only does things TO the public. The latest example is that Texas insurance commissioner Julia Rathgeber allowed the three largest home insurance companies to impose significant rate increases. Rathgeber could have challenged the companies' rates but chose not to do so. The state's insurance watchdog,  the Office of Public Insurance Counsel, objected, but Rathgeber allowed the new rates to take effect anyway.

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Mon September 15, 2014 3:39 pm By Erica Grieder

Greg Abbott's new ad focuses on his jobs plan, depicts the attorney-general rolling across a map of the United States as if he himself is an infographic, and elicited the following reaction from Austin-based consultant Colin Strother: "He proposes absolutely nothing. Literally. He proposes inertia. Inertia!" 

That's about right, although proposing inertia, in this case, is proposing that we not mess things up. In the ad, Abbott says that if he's governor, Texas will control state spending, unleash the oil and gas industry, and keep taxes low. That's basically the Texas model. The plan itself--it's the "Working Texans" section of Abbott's "Bicentennial Blueprint" (PDF)--is more detailed but not more radical. Most of its recommendations are focused on tidying up budget process. If implemented they could help constrain both taxes and spending, as the ad suggests; 'could' rather than 'would', because the Texas model of low taxes and low services is already in effect. For example, the plan wants to impose a requirement that the Legislature can only override the state's constitutional spending limit by a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority. The simple-majority provision, per Abbott, means that the constitutional spending limit is only "a meaningless 'safeguard'"--although, as the plan notes, "this provision has never been exercised." 

In other words, as Strother put it: when it comes to jobs, Abbott is effectively proposing nothing. If he was running for president, that would be ominous. But he's running for governor of Texas, and the state's record of job creation since 2000 is nearly dispositive. "Let's keep doing what we're doing" is a good plan in that sense. And it's perhaps worth noting that Abbott is advocating the status quo (more or less) at a moment when criticisms of the Texas model are coming from the right as often as the left. The Texas model calls for a lean public sector, not a negligible one. Reading through Abbott's plan, there are several provisions against the growth of government, but none that would arbitrarily undercut it. (And reading between the lines, Abbott isn't trying to crack down on spending as much as he's trying to crack down on political chicanery and shell games.) 

The next governor of Texas should, of course, resist complacency; the state's economy is more diversified today than ever. That's not a bad thing--it's partly a result of the Texas Miracle--but it does mean that we should make appropriate investments in education and infrastructure. Abbott's jobs plan includes several provisions about ending diversions that would benefit infrastructure--and since the jobs plan isn't explicit about education, I suppose there might be an implied willingness to cut school funding in favor of road funding. On the other hand, his blueprint also includes sections on public education and higher education, and the recommendations there acknowledge and anticipate Texas's changing workforce needs.

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Wed September 10, 2014 9:27 pm By Paul Burka

I was interested by Eric Bearse's piece in the Quorum Report yesterday concerning Wendy Davis and abortion. Bearse wrote, among other things:

"The reason Wendy Davis has never recovered politically from her abortion filibuster is she fought on turf where she couldn't win. Outside of San Francisco and New York, most Americans oppose late-term abortions. In winning the public relations battle at the time -- becoming the national darling of the leftist intelligentsia -- she set herself up to lose the political war."

I don't take issue with the fact that most Americans oppose late-term abortions. But that wasn't what the debate in the Senate wasn't about. It was about whether one woman could stand up to the Senate bullies.

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