Thu March 26, 2015 5:50 pm By Erica Grieder

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.

Wed March 25, 2015 4:18 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Former Governor Rick Perry’s mantra was that the Texas economy is served best when state lawmakers “don’t spend all the money.” That doesn’t mean Perry was against spending money, and he exploded when one legislative session ended with the Legislature leaving unspent $2.2 billion in general revenue and $4 billion in the Rainy Day Fund. “Generally speaking, it’s not the investments made in the budget that concern me,” Perry told the Austin newspaper. “It’s the charades; it’s the accounting sleights of hand; it’s the budgetary wizardry that gives me pause, especially with the state awash in revenue.”

Some things never change. The House Appropriations Committee this week sent the full House a $210 billion, two-year state budget that looks less like a paragon of fiscal conservatism than it does like a candidate for a reality television show on hoarding. The proposed House budget leaves $2 billion unspent from general revenue and $11.1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund. The budget also includes $4 billion in retained dedicated funds that can be used to certify the budget as balanced.

House leaders today announced they are going to add $800 million to the state’s budget in an effort to settle a school finance lawsuit brought by districts after the state cut $5 billion from education funding in 2011. That would leave $1.2 billion unspent. The yet to be seen House tax plan will whittle this amount down some, but overall this is a budget to make the legislators who ticked off Perry look like pikers.

Meanwhile, the Senate today took up legislation to reduce homeowner property taxes and lower franchise taxes for small businesses. It was a tax cut field day for the Senate’s Republicans, with votes they can carry to the electorate next year. Senators also approved a proposed constitutional amendment to bar the taxation of real estate transfers – that’s a tax that has never been collected. They also eliminated the estate tax, which has not been collected on any death since 2005. Senators also gave a $1.2 million tax break to the industry of boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts. Ki-ap! Take that House! 

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Tue March 24, 2015 12:52 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

The Texas path to the Governor’s Mansion or the U.S. Senate for decades has followed two paths: First, be wealthy. Second, win election to a lower state office before running for higher office.

As U.S. Senator Ted Cruz launched his bid for president this week, I was struck by the idea that there is a new third path: the unelected post of Texas solicitor general, an office that did not even exist before 1999.

Cruz’s 2012 victory in the Senate race marked the first time in almost five decades that a Texas politician has won high office without following one of those two traditional paths. College professor John Tower won a special election to the U.S. Senate in 1961, and John Connally jumped from Secretary of the Navy in 1962 to the governor’s office.

The Texas solicitor general argues cases for the state on appeal, including before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. That job was Cruz’s from 2003 until he resigned in 2008. So who have been the solicitors general who have followed Ted Cruz in office?

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Tue March 24, 2015 8:52 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

The climate change deniers of Texas can cling to their position if they want, but in the future it may cost the state tens of millions of dollars in lost weather hazard mitigation money from the federal government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is holding out this money as a carrot, a lure, to get Governor Greg Abbott and other Texas officials to embrace climate change as a reality and plan for it.

FEMA earlier this month released new rules that will require Texas to factor in climate change as it plans for weather disasters such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires. If Texas does not do so after the rules take effect in March 2016, the state stands to lose millions in federal mitigation money. Inside Climate News reported that the new rule will especially impact states with governors who deny the existence of climate change.

“This could potentially become a major conflict for several Republican governors,” said Barry Rabe, an expert on the politics of climate change at the University of Michigan. “We aren’t just talking about coastal states.” Climate change affects droughts, rainfall and tornado activity. Fracking is being linked to more earthquakes, he said. “This could affect state leaders across the country.”

Among those who could face a difficult decision are Republican Governors Rick Scott of Florida, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Greg Abbott of Texas and Pat McCrory of North Carolina—all of whom have denied man-made climate change or refused to take action. The states they lead face immediate threats from climate change.

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Mon March 23, 2015 5:30 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Several hundred Christian fundamentalists gathered on the south steps of the Capitol today in a rally that was less about the defense of traditional marriage than about preparing for civil disobedience if, as expected, the U.S. Supreme Court later this year declares bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Beneath a sweltering sun on the first truly hot day of the year, the preachers who spoke at the rally alluded to the idea that a nation that allows same-sex marriage is one teetering of the edge of a fiery maw. “It’s hot,” said Rick Scarborough of Vision America. “I don’t know if it means we’re closer to the sun or closer to hell.” The Bishop Sterling Lands of the Family Life International fellowship told the crowd “family is a Kingdom priority,” and added, “Satan holds marriage as high a priority as God does.”

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