So Far, So Bad

It's a new era in Texas politics, but Republicans have been too busy fighting Democrats—and each other—to get anything done.

May 2003By Comments

“CAN THE REPUBLICANS GOVERN?” FOUR months ago, at the start of the legislative session, I asked the question in this space and went on to say, “To some, the question may seem condescending. But rookies always have to prove themselves. The Republicans have never had control of the entire process before. They have never had the sole responsibility of preparing a budget, of determining the state’s priorities, of finding a balance between politics and policy.” Now, almost one hundred days into a desultory session, the answer to my question is becoming clear: No. Not yet.

The first one hundred days serves as a checkpoint in American politics, a moment to take stock of how a new administration has defined itself and what it has produced. Okay, let’s take stock—using 1995 as a benchmark for comparison, when another Republican governor reached the one-hundred day mark. By that time, George W. Bush had defined himself as an effective, bipartisan governor, having forged close ties with Bob Bullock and Pete Laney, the Democratic legislative leaders, and his program, headed by education reform and tort reform, was moving toward certain passage. How has the new Republican administration defined itself? It hasn’t. The central issue of the session is how to deal with the $9.9 billion budget shortfall—whether the Republicans will cut spending or seek new, non-tax revenue to keep programs alive—but the leadership has been unable to reach an agreement. Governor Rick Perry wants to cut, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst wants new revenue, and Speaker Tom Craddick started out with Perry and moved toward Dewhurst. What has the administration produced? The House passed a sweeping tort-reform bill (the Senate has yet to act) but at a very high price: two weeks of spiteful partisan debate and lots of collateral damage to reputations, including Craddick’s abilities as a leader.

The Republicans can still have a successful session. But a lot depends upon the three leaders. Here is a look at what they have done so far and what they will have to do to bring about a happy ending.

Rick Perry. Following the 2001 session, in which the governor played virtually no role until he vetoed a record 82 bills after the lawmakers had gone home, I criticized Perry for his lack of leadership. Be careful what you wish for. This session he is leading, all right; the problem is where he is leading us—and that is down a path that Texas has not followed in the modern era, toward deep cutbacks in state government. Perry wants to erase the shortfall by cutting spending rather than raising new revenue. He did bless closing some tax loopholes in his State of the State address in February, telling the Legislature, “In my book, it’s not a new tax if you should have been paying it all along.” But his main message to the lawmakers was “We can balance our budget without raising taxes.”

Sure we can. How about starting with a video lottery, a recommendation of comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn (who is part of the leadership on budget issues)? That’s worth $700 million in revenue to the state. And joining the multistate Powerball lottery, another Strayhorn recommendation, worth $100 million? And implementing Dewhurst’s idea to defer some state payments by one day (to school districts, for instance), shifting them into another fiscal year? These moves free up at least $1.5 billion. For that matter, why not increase the cigarette tax by a dollar, netting $1 billion without, one would hope, enraging the Republican base? The trouble is, Perry regards them all as bad ideas. And you know what? He’s right. But are they worse than children losing their health insurance? Worse than community colleges closing for a summer semester? Worse than having 55,000 elderly and infirm people lose their nursing attendants? Governing is not about saying no to an evil. It is about saying yes to a lesser evil.

For some governors, Perry’s objections might be considered negotiating tactics, but not this governor, who believes he has a mandate to reverse the growth of government. Furthermore, as he demonstrated with his vetoes, Perry is the kind of politician who enjoys saying no more than yes—and so is his chief of staff and closest political ally, Mike Toomey (see “The Enforcer,” page 128).

A frequent criticism of Perry over the years has been that he puts politics ahead of substance, and it is not far-fetched to find a political motive for supporting cuts over revenue-raising measures. If he gives in to the pressure for higher spending, he could open the door to a Republican primary challenge in 2006. U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison makes no secret of wanting to return to Texas to run for governor, and Strayhorn is known to have ambition for higher office as well.

At the moment, however, the governor’s main concern is Dewhurst, the leading advocate for spending on the leadership team. Recently, a story circulated in the Senate that the State Republican Executive Committee participated in a conference call to discuss getting GOP state senators to oppose Dewhurst’s position. One of the conference-call participants spilled the beans to his senator that the idea came from the governor’s office. (A Perry spokesperson denied any involvement, adding, “There have been times in the past when the SREC disagreed with the governor’s stand on some issues without the governor getting all bent out of shape over it.”) Either way—the governor or the Republican party as the perpetrator—this is an astonishing story and one that will not make it easy for the state’s two top elected officials to work together at crunch time.

David Dewhurst. A political novice, Dewhurst was expected by many to be a figurehead lieutenant governor this session while veteran senators ruled the upper chamber. The learning curve was too steep for him to be a player, or so everybody thought. Wrong. Instead, Dewhurst changed the entire tone of the session in late March, when he went public with his plan to generate $5.5 billion in new spending without raising taxes, adding that he had the support of at least 23 of the 31 senators. When House members saw that senators were getting credit back home for saving the day, they dropped their hard-line stance and jumped aboard the spending bandwagon. Dewhurst has taken on the traditional role of the office as characterized by longtime lieutenant governors Bill Hobby and Bob Bullock, which is to be the most influential leader in the Capitol, the person who sees the big picture and is ready with an answer for any problem.

Dewhurst’s reason to support more spending isn’t entirely an altruistic one. Senate rules require that at least two thirds of the senators must vote to debate a bill before it can reach the Senate floor. Democrats hold only 12 of 31 Senate seats, but that is enough to block any bill from being considered. Dewhurst has to seek a bipartisan consensus or risk that a bloc of Democrats could prevent passage of the budget. By finding ways to save programs from the governor’s ax, Dewhurst has found enough Democratic votes to assure passage of the budget. Now, however, he has to worry about a group of conservative Republican senators, at least one of whom refers to Dewhurst as “the only statewide elected Democrat.”

Yet another threat to Dewhurst in his battle to preserve state programs is Strayhorn, who must certify that there is enough money available to fund the Legislature’s proposed budget before it can take effect. The two officials have been fussing throughout the session, ever since senators chastised the comptroller’s top deputy during a committee meeting for not letting them know earlier about the size of the shortfall. In early April Strayhorn issued a press release in which she took issue with deferrals and use of the state’s Rainy Day Fund, without mentioning Dewhurst by name. Dewhurst, who compiled a nine-figure fortune in business, is adamant that his budget techniques make good sense. Strayhorn is said to be eyeing Dewhurst’s job as well as Perry’s, and if she is so inclined, she could throw the end of the session into chaos by refusing to certify the budget or by increasing her estimate of the shortfall.

Tom Craddick. If Dewhurst, the rookie, has been the biggest surprise of the session, then Craddick, a 34-year legislative veteran, has been the biggest disappointment. He presides over the House, but he doesn’t lead it. One of the main duties of the Speaker is to preserve the institutional integrity of the House as a place for fair play and open debate, which Craddick failed to do during a prolonged battle over tort reform. With the Speaker’s acquiescence, Republicans employed a parliamentary maneuver that allowed them to avoid answering Democrats’ questions about the bill—a gratuitous, in-your-face signal to the opposition that the majority intended to run over the minority, without engaging in serious debate or the usual legislative courtesies. And so they did. So much more could be written about this—how the Republicans completely prostrated themselves before the tort-reform lobby (Democrats called the area of the gallery where the lobbyists sat “the owners’ box”), how Craddick undermined his leadership by trying to pass the buck on a parliamentary ruling to the members—but let’s just leave it at this: It was the ugliest scene the Legislature has witnessed in years.

Craddick’s political instinct, normally his greatest asset, had deserted him, and not for the first time. Earlier, he had embraced a school-finance bill by one of his lieutenants that set a death date for the much-criticized Robin Hood law, only to find out that he didn’t have the votes to pass it. More than 80 percent of school districts benefit from Robin Hood, and the many Republicans who represent them weren’t about to vote to get rid of it without knowing what was going to take its place. The House leadership’s record on the major issues to date is: outmaneuvered by Dewhurst on the budget, out of touch with the members on school finance, out of control on tort reform.

The lesson here is that governing is hard, and it only becomes harder when one is motivated by payback and posturing and politics. David Dewhurst has figured this out. Let’s hope that Rick Perry and Tom Craddick do so as well.

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