Tue April 28, 2015 8:26 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

For some childish reason, the theme song to the movie High Noon keeps playing in my head as I think about today’s upcoming House debate on sales tax cuts. Senator Jane Nelson is like the lonely sheriff going from the meeting hall to the saloon looking for someone to help her fight for property tax cuts. House Ways and Means Chair Dennis Bonnen is the bad hombre arriving on the noon train, holsters full of sales tax cuts, with his posse of tax-cutting Republicans backing him up for the final showdown. (Update: The House ended up giving initial approval to its sales-tax cut plan today by a vote of 141-0.)

Off to one side, tea party groups are backing Nelson, as is Michael Quinn Sullivan and his Empower Texans. His group ran one of those Internet surveys over the weekend asking whether Texans would prefer sales tax cuts or property tax cuts. Surprisingly, the first return was overwhelmingly for the House sales tax cuts.

Empower Texans “corrected” the posting, blaming the original results on technical problems. Here’s the revised version of the Empower Texans survey:

Sullivan, in an analysis, called the sales tax cuts “compelling,” but makes the argument for the Senate’s property tax cut plan as more in keeping with the Republican Party of Texas platform.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Nelson and the rest of the Senate tax-cutters made one mistake as they designed their tax cuts for the homesteaders and the folks who run the general store. They left out the ranchers with the big spreads.

Not to be outdone, the consortium of the big spreads launched their own web site, called taxrelieftexas.com. It’s being paid for by the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Association of Manufacturers, the Texas Restaurant Association, the Texas Retailers Association, the Texas Oil & Gas Association, the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association, the Texas Chemical Council and the Association of Electric Companies of Texas.

You see, homestead tax breaks and franchise tax breaks for small business, as in the Senate plan, don’t do much for the refineries, or the commercial real estate owners or those payers of the oil and gas severance taxes that have filled up the Rainy Day Fund. So here’s what the big spreads are saying on the web west of the picket wire:

Robert T. Garrett of The Dallas Morning News reported on an analysis showing sales tax cuts will be of most benefit to those earning $147,000 a year or more. The tax equity note on the Bonnen sales tax bill, HB 31,  shows business would receive a $602.7 million tax reduction in state fiscal year 2017 by lowering the sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 5.95 percent, while households would receive a $867 million tax cut. The Senate plan, SB 1, would save homeowners an average of about $210 a year by increasing the homestead exemption, but it also would increase the state’s share of financing public education by about $1.6 billion a year by 2020. 

The high sheriff of them all, Governor Greg Abbott, is leaning toward those property taxes and yet also has declared himself neutral for the moment. However the dust settles, Abbott can claim victory by signing it, vetoing it or calling a special session to give him tax cuts. There was a blow-up at the leadership breakfast last Wednesday, as first reported on Burkablog. It usually takes something like that to get things moving.

To conclude the corny western movie theme of this tax cut item, the story awaits the action of the House today and how the two chambers come together to solve the impasse between the homesteaders and the ranchers. In the meantime, this seems appropriate: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Mon April 27, 2015 10:28 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

At the Tax Day Capitol rally earlier this month, Representative Jonathan Stickland demonstrated why the hard-core tea party members of the House can’t gain traction with enough mainstream Republican members to get anything substantial accomplished.

Stickland complained to the crowd that legislation in the House was being “micromanaged” to delay bills, including proposals to revoke in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, to allow the so-called constitutional carry of handguns, and to eliminate toll roads. “Conservative legislation is dying every single minute that ticks by, and we’re not going to take it any more, are we?” intoned Stickland, the Howard Beale of the Texas Legislature. Complaining about the leadership and bills stuck in committee is every member’s right. But then came the part of Stickland’s speech that distances the hard-core from the mainstream. 

“Everybody sounds like a tea party Reagan conservative during the election process, but when we force votes on this Texas House and we force representatives to pick a side, it lets you know back at home what’s really happening here in Texas,” Stickland said. “We are going to find conservatives to challenge RINOs in the Texas House.”

So much for Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment not to speak ill of other Republicans. Stickland declared war and promised re-election fights for the mainstream House leadership Republicans.

Contrary to the dreams of Stickland and other tea party activists, an analysis of the 2012 elections tells me the tea party has peaked in the gains it has made in the Legislature and actually may face setbacks in 2016. If the GOP primary between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst is any indication, tea party strength in the Legislature has peaked.

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Thu April 23, 2015 8:01 pm By Erica Grieder

As we all know, thanks to R.G., shots were fired at yesterday’s weekly statewide bigwig breakfast meeting, with Dan Patrick ultimately objecting that Greg Abbott and Joe Straus were “picking on” him. Among the issues of contention, bizarrely, was the Lege’s push to expand pre-K. Doing so is a stated priority of the governor. A bill to that effect passed the House several weeks ago with broad bipartisan support after substantive debate about the size and scope of the proposal. Its companion legislation, similarly, is expected to pass the Senate. And so Abbott, as R.G. reports, was not amused at the broadside issued Tuesday by the Lieutenant Governor’s Grassroots Advisory Board.

Patrick had swiftly issued a statement disavowing any prior knowledge of the council’s letter and expressing his support for “a pre-K program”–hence his dismay, presumably, that Abbott would still be irritated the following morning. Today the Lege was full of rumors about what Patrick knew and when he knew it, but I doubt we’ll ever know the truth, and don’t think it matters. Even if he was blindsided by the letter, he was the one who noisily established the advisory board and empowered the grassroots activists in question to represent themselves as his official advisors. At the same time I don’t see why he would have encouraged them to send this particular letter. As I suggested in my post about the Senate’s vouchers proposal, conservative advocates for education reform fall into two camps. Some, probably the majority, want to improve public education. Others want to end it. Those in the latter camp are a problem for people in the former, like Patrick.  

His grassroots advisors seem to be in the latter camp. The letter is basically a collage of internet rumors, backwards reasoning, paranoid suppositions and lies, marshalled to make the case against a relatively modest proposal to authorize an additional $130 million to expand Texas’s longstanding public pre-K program so that thousands of students who aren’t currently eligible will have the option of attending. The Grassroots Advisory Board elides the “optional” aspect: “This interference by the State tramples upon our parental rights.” It misrepresents Dan Huberty, the author of the House bill. He did say, during the House debate, that Texas hasn’t been able to assess the outcomes of its current program, but he wasn’t saying that outcomes don’t matter. He was explaining why his bill requires school districts to provide such data, as a condition of participation—in other words, he was saying the opposite. (Abbott, similarly, has always insisted on accountability measures in this context; that’s why Wendy Davis charged him with trying to subject 4-year-olds to standardized tests.)

It would be a long and thankless task to fully annotate the letter, so I’ll just summarize the argument: according to the Grassroots Advisory Board, the state’s effort to expand pre-K is part of a long tradition (“historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights”) in which governments seek to remove children (“even younger and more malleable” children as socialism creeps across the land) from their parents’ care and install them in a “Godless environment” and mold them according to the government’s own preferences.

Their overarching concern is one that most Texans share: “TEXAS LEGISLATURE SHOULD PROMOTE HEALTHY FAMILIES, NOT BREAK THEM UP.” Many of us, however, would be hard-pressed to explain how expanding access to public pre-K is an effort to break up healthy families, or how doing so would be “sending a message to the rest of the Nation that parents do not or cannot care for their children as well as the State can.” I was confused by this line of argument the first time I heard it too. Over the years, however, I’ve puzzled out the reasoning, if we can call it that:

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Thu April 23, 2015 9:10 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Democrat Bill Hobby was Texas lieutenant governor when the current cap on state spending became law during the seventies. Hobby, in an op-ed in today’s Houston Chronicle, contends that proposals for additional caps go too far and would harm the state’s ability to recover from recession cuts. He is particularly critical of SB 9 by Kelly Hancock. The entire piece is worth a read, but here’s an excerpt:

But at the same time, SB 9 and other proposals made by Senate leadership would exempt certain items from the cap, such as tax “rebates” or general revenue appropriations that would be used to pay down state debt. So the overall result would be a tighter cap with more loopholes. Not surprisingly, this has drawn criticism from fiscal conservatives who see the Senate exemptions as “gimmicks” that threaten fiscal discipline.

The House, meanwhile, has not seriously entertained any spending cap changes as ideologically motivated as SB 9. But one proposal by the House transportation chair would constitutionally dedicate some existing general tax revenue to highways, in effect creating a way around the spending cap while further limiting future legislatures’ budget flexibility. The House’s chief budget writer has yet another constitutional amendment that would have the effect of exempting some state debt service from the spending cap.

In my legislative experience, one person’s worthwhile exception is another person’s gimmicky loophole. If exceptions for tax cuts or debt payments are such a good idea, why not make exceptions for education or border policing or mental health?

There will be a tendency to dismiss Hobby as a big-spending Democrat. I couldn’t find earlier numbers, but during Hobby’s final years in office when the state was in a recession, the budget grew by less than 5 percent. So even if, in the end, you don’t agree with Hobby, his arguments are well worth considering.

Wed April 22, 2015 3:45 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

greg abbott dan patrick joe straus breakfast blowup

The weekly kumbaya breakfast between the big three Texas lawmakers broke down today into a round-robin of recriminations that concluded with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick declaring he was tired of Governor Greg Abbott and Speaker Joe Straus “picking on me.”

The blow-up, confirmed by multiple sources, represents the boiling point of long-simmering disputes. The House has been upset that Patrick declared his inauguration marked a “New Day” in Texas and that he pushed a conservative agenda quickly through the Senate with expectations that the House would just pass his legislation. But, instead, most of the Senate’s bills on tax cuts, licensed open carry of handguns and moving the Public Integrity Unit have languished in the House without even being referred to committee by Straus.

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