Call in the lawyers. Check the prenuptial agreement. Cancel the credit cards and put everything in writing.The political honeymoon for George W. Bush is definitely, irrevocably, terminally over. His once-cozy relationships with the Democratic legislative leaders, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and Speaker of the House Pete Laney, which were so crucial to the success of his legislative program in 1995, are on the rocks. Property tax relief, his number one priority for the legislative session that begins January 14, is all headache and no relief. Everything, including Bush’s presumed presidential ambitions,is now caught up in Washington-style partisan politics—which has now come to Texas.
A few months ago the 1997 session was shaping up as one of the most ho-hum in years. Some long-standing battles figured to be renewed: deregulating electricity, allowing homeowners to borrow against their equity, adjusting the balance of power between doctors and HMOs, continuing the job of tort reform, maybe alleviating water shortages. And that was about it. The treasury will have a sizable surplus, around $3 billion. No taxes had to be raised, no prisons had to be built, no court orders had to be obeyed; just spread the goodies around and go home. Then Bush announced in November that he wanted $1 billion of the surplus to be earmarked for reducing local school taxes, and suddenly, in place of a lot of little issues, there was only a big one.
The reason is one simple word: t-a-x. Anytime it gets inserted into politics, it creates winners and losers. As far as Bullock and Laney are concerned, the governor is the one who inserted it, and he ought to say who the winners and the losers are. “Somebody is going to pay less taxes,” Bullock says, “and somebody is going to have to pay more, and I want to know who the governor thinks it should be.” Bush wants to leave the details to the Legislature. “My job is to think strategically for the state,” he says, “not to engage in number bashing.” Maybe so. But to Bullock and Laney, this sounds as if the governor is positioning himself to take the credit for property tax relief if it passes and duck the blame if it fails or has unforeseen consequences. This is how suspicions begin to creep into political marriages.
Bullock is derisive of the governor’s lack of specificity. “He doesn’t have a plan,” he says. “He just has ideas. He says he’ll give us an outline. When you pass a tax bill, you better know what you’re doing, because Texas is stuck with it for a long, long time.” Laney objected when Bush, without consulting legislative leaders, staked his claim to the billion dollars and thereby put property tax relief ahead of all other state needs: You need to stop listening to your political advisers and start listening to your legislative advisers, he told the governor.
Bush doesn’t want his two-year honeymoon to end. He sounds very much like someone who has been jilted when he professes his personal fondness for Bullock and Laney, his belief in their mutual partnership of bipartisan government, and his puzzlement at their recalcitrance. They were so happy back in 1995, when the three of them stood together and the lieutenant governor and the Speaker praised his legislative program. Why can’t it be that way again? Why won’t they stand by his side?
The answer is that Bush’s situation has changed, his legislative program has changed, and Texas politics has changed. Two years ago Bush was a brand-new governor whose announced intention was to govern as an ideological conservative rather than as a partisan Republican. Today he is on every short list of likely contenders for the next Republican presidential nomination, and everything he does is scrutinized for possible political motives. Such as: positioning himself to compete with other Republican governors, like John Engler of Michigan, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, and William Weld of Massachusetts, who have already cut taxes and spending in their states. Two years ago Bush’s legislative agenda called for lawsuit reforms, more local control of education, cracking down on juvenile criminals, and getting welfare recipients off the dole and into jobs—issues that moderate and conservative Democrats could enthusiastically embrace. This year, by making property tax relief his top priority, he has chosen an issue that very quickly gets to the heart of the philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans. Such as: whether a budget surplus should be spent on important services like colleges and nursing homes or returned to the taxpayers. Two years ago Texas politics seemed relatively stable, with a gradual trend toward Republican dominance that didn’t threaten the current generation of Democratic legislators. Today, after an election campaign of unprecedented expense and partisanship, the Republican party can claim a majority of the state Senate this session and could take control of the House in 1999 with the help of the right issues. Such as: property tax relief.
Ironically, property tax relief itself is not controversial. No one could dispute that Texas is too dependent on local ad valorem taxes to fund education. (The state provides just 47 percent of the cost of running public schools; school districts collectively have to come up with 53 percent.) Overreliance on property taxes caused the Texas Supreme Court to declare the state’s school-finance system unconstitutional in 1989 because it enabled rich districts to raise and spend far more money than poor districts. That crisis was eased by the notorious Robin Hood law of 1993, which takes money from the rich districts and gives to the poor, but a new crisis looms in the distance: In a few years, maybe as soon as 2000, most school districts in the state will be taxing at the maximum rate allowed under the Texas Constitution and will be unable to raise more money. It would, of course, be noble, farsighted, and responsible to act before the emergency arrives. But it is always risky in politics to be right too