Opening Moves

I was leaving the Capitol yesterday evening when I saw Chairman Pitts standing outside his office. I asked him some questions about the timeline for the supplemental appropriations bill. He told me that the bill had to lay out for six days, so any action on it is likely to be thrown into next week. I asked him if he expected any opposition to the bill. He smiled, and it was clear that he does. I asked him if he thought the opposition might come from a Democratic amendment to restore the education spending cuts. Another smile.

Some comments about the supplemental: First, it requires a simple majority to pass. Second, it has to pass. The Legislature must pay for items that were not funded during the 2011 session. Democrats have 55 votes, so they have some leverage.

Then, after I returned home, I saw this press release in my e-mail inbox:

HOUSE DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS’ STATEMENT ON SCHOOL FINANCE:WE MUST ACT NOW AND RESTORE FUNDING TO PUBLIC EDUCATION


Representative Yvonne Davis, Leader of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, released the following statement on behalf of the House Democratic Caucus today regarding Judge John Dietz’s ruling on Texas’s school finance system:

Judge John Dietz’s recent ruled [sic] that Texas’s school finance system is unconstitutional. This ruling reaffirms what the House Democratic Caucus has been saying for years. Our school finance system is broken! The Legislature most act now to fix it.

Members of the House Democratic Caucus strongly urge Attorney General Greg Abbott to accept the ruling. Texas school children should not be forced to wait for relief while the state pursues a lengthy and costly appeals process.

The House Democratic Caucus will continue to provide innovative solutions. In fact. Representative Donna Howard’s 2011 amendment funded enrollment growth, but it was rejected by the Republican majority. We know what is at stake and stand ready to work with our colleagues to find a permanent solution.

Rather than continuing with the Republican agenda of massive cuts to public education, the House Democratic Caucus stands poised to meet our constitutional obligations by providing quality education to all children. 

Today, the House Democratic Leader and Democratic members announce their intent to offer an amendment to the supplemental budget. This amendment will utilize the budget surplus and restore $5.4 billion in funding to public education that was cut last session as well as pursue ways to fund education this biennium.

The House Democratic Caucus remains committed and ready!

Democrats have signaled their intention to offer an amendment to restore the spending cuts. The debate on the supplemental will be a baptism by fire for the large contingent of freshmen and sophomore Republicans. That’s a $5.4 billion spending bill. Even pro-school Republicans are going to be caught between a rock and a hard place. If they vote to restore the cuts, they can be attacked as big spenders. If they vote against the Democrats’ amendment, they can be attacked as anti-education.

Charters v. PEG

As most readers know, one of the battles of the 83rd Legislature is likely to occur over the use of public funds for private schools. Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst and Senator Dan Patrick are backing the proposal. (At a recent Texas Tribune event, Speaker Straus urged caution on the issue.) The rationale for the use of vouchers is that students should not be stuck in failing schools, a proposition that is hard to argue with.

What many lawmakers may not know is that the Texas Education Agency has a school choice program intended to ensure that no student is stuck in a failing school. The program is called PEG, short for Public Education Grants. PEG permits parents to request that their children in failing schools be allowed to transfer to schools in other school districts after meeting a set of requirements. A “failing school” is defined as one in which 50% or more of students did not pass any of the TAKS and STAAR subjects in two of the three preceding years, or any school that was rated “academically unacceptable” in 2010 or 2011.

Guns, Ho-Hum

Open Carry passes Texas senate. While the House was busy debating Dennis Bonnen’s border security bill, which ultimately passed with overwhelming bipartisan support on a 131-12 vote, the Senate was tackling Texas’s top priority: guns. Craig Estes’ SB 17, which would allow licensed open carry, passed on third reading, despite vigorous and occasionally inventive but ultimately futile opposition from Democrats when it came to the floor on Monday. Brian Birdwell’s SB 11, which would allow campus carry, still needs a third reading but is as good as passed despite vigorous and occasionally inventive but ultimately futile opposition from Democrats on the floor today. 

I have a long story on the 84th Legislature’s great open carry debate in the April issue. It will be available online pretty soon and on newsstands next week. So for today, I’ll just give away the plot twist: this entire saga has effectively been the result of a Freaky Friday-type confusion, in which “open carry” has been used interchangeably to mean “licensed open carry”, as in the Estes bill, and “constitutional carry”, as in the arguably radical belief that insofar as the Second Amendment is a license to carry, no further such license should be required. The Republican Party of Texas’s platform, however, helpfully refers to both “constitutional carry” and “open carry”; the logical implication is that licensed open carry is the real open carry, or real enough. In other words, Dan Patrick has now fought for open carry, and won. Congratulations, Governor Patrick.

I don’t have much to say about campus carry, either, other than this: gun laws are like abortion laws. Both are emotive, divisive, and don’t have many effects in practice.

What's at Stake

It’s probably clear enough at this point that I’m against the Senate’s proposals to exempt tax relief and debt service from being counted against the spending cap for a number of reasons. I see no good purpose for them. Although lessening property taxes and paying down debt are honorable goals, neither seems critical enough to warrant overriding the spending cap, especially this year. In calling for more spending, the Senate is not being frivolous: Texas has one of the lowest spending rates per capita in the country, and has maintained fiscal discipline even as the budget has come under pressure for a variety of reasons (the soaring costs of Medicaid, the growth in school enrollment). However, the Lege has some breathing room this session; the spending cap allows for $107 billion in general revenue-related spending, compared to about $97 billion last time around. That would leave $4 or $5 billion on the table, but it’s worth resisting the temptation to splurge. The Lege will probably need to top up school finance next year, and a surplus might be a lifesaver when the next regular session rolls around, in 2017: the Texas economy’s rate of growth is slowing.

If these proposals somehow made it into the Constitution, I think we’d be effectively undermining the spending cap itself. I know some people think that’s overly pessimistic; among Michael Quinn Sullivan’s many grievances with me is that (in his view), the proposals are about “redefining” the cap, not busting it. Sorry, no. The proposals are attempting to redefine spending, not the cap, and I think it would be naïve to look at this as an abstract intellectual exercise, or one that wouldn’t set a risky precedent. If the 84th Lege can “redefine” certain types of spending, future Legislatures can “redefine” others. And I don’t see why they wouldn’t try, if Texas’s self-professed “conservative” leaders set such a precedent this year–especially if they concurrently make the spending cap more restrictive, thereby making these gimmicks more tempting. That’s why, although I doubt this was the intention, I think the Senate’s leaders are putting Texas’s spending cap at risk.

But there’s a more serious problem with these proposals. They undermine Texas’s fiscal integrity. And that is, to me, one of our greatest virtues. Sometimes I think it’s the only one worth being called a virtue. By “fiscal integrity,” I mean something that encompasses fiscal discipline and fiscal responsibility but goes even farther and matters more than discipline or responsibility on their own.

Bad Reasons to Sacrifice the Spending Cap

As I said on Wednesday, the politics of the Texas Senate’s proposals to bust the spending cap are clear and unmistakeable: the budget chiefs want to exceed the spending cap, but they’re not willing to be transparent or accountable about it. That much is clear from Dan Patrick’s comments at the press release: unless they exempt certain types of spending, “when we leave, we will have approximately $4.5 to $5 billion in the state’s checking account.”

The only slight variation on that explanation that I can see would be that the Senate’s budget chiefs expect these proposals to fail. They can be killed by the House or by the governor’s veto or by voters, who would have to approve constitutional amendments before the proposals could take effect. Such a stunt may seem like a win-win for conservatives: either they succeed in providing property tax relief and paying down debt or they tried (at which point they will, perhaps, claim to have been thwarted by RINOs led by Joe Straus or by Abbott, who may, for all we know, face a 2018 primary challenge from Patrick).

Such a stunt might be an effective short-term political gambit. Immediately, Michael Quinn Sullivan of EmpowerTexans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility approved the proposals; as predicted, he either fell for the ruse or is willing to play along out of tribal solidarity. Or it may not: the number of senators who have refrained from commenting makes me think that many of them are ambivalent, at least. And either way, I don’t think it’s respectable.

Meanwhile, on further reflection, I’ve become convinced that these proposals, if passed, would be profoundly damaging to Texas’s future, far more than simply overriding the cap would be. And I’ve become sincerely distressed that state leaders are willing to put so much at risk for no good reason—at the risk of being melodramatic, this is basically how I feel right now.

But I’ll address that tomorrow. Today I want to address the proposals themselves, because I’ve heard from a number of fiscal conservatives who are torn over the suggestion: they don’t like the idea of busting the cap, but they do like the idea of property tax relief and paying down debt. I understand that reaction, but if you look at the proposals in more detail, I’m not sure that either is a worthwhile reason to override the spending cap—much less sabotage it—from a fiscally conservative perspective.  

So Much for Fiscal Responsibility

This morning Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, joined by Senators Jane Nelson, Chuy Hinojosa, and several others, unveiled a proposal that can only be described as craven.

Aman Batheja, at the Texas Tribune, summarizes the idea: the Senate’s budget writers are suggesting that money spent on paying down state debt and lowering property taxes not be counted towards the spending cap. This is an alternative to the current options: spend less money, or voting to bust the cap. Patrick’s explanation is telling:

“We have more money on hand than we believe any Legislature has ever had at one moment in time dealing with budget issues,” Patrick said. “There is no support for exceeding the spending cap but that also means that when we leave, we will have approximately $4.5 to $5 billion in the state’s checking account.”

Well…yes. That is, as it happens, how the spending cap is designed to work. It’s also why voters amended the Texas Constitution to include a spending cap in the first place. As Batheja notes, the spending cap has often been redundant, historically: the Texas Constitution’s pre-existing pay-as-you-go provision means that the Lege doesn’t necessarily have enough money to write a budget that would bump up against the cap, which is set by the Legislative Budget Board based on projections about population growth, incomes, and inflation. Sometimes, however, the state coffers are flush; in those cases, the purpose of the spending cap is to keep the government from going on a spending spree.

The fact that we have such a provision in the Texas constitution is a measure of the state’s longstanding commitment to fiscal discipline. Do you remember back in the olden days, which ended about six weeks ago, when Rick Perry spent years as governor saying, ad nauseam, “Don’t spend all the money”? That’s the concept behind the spending cap. It was literally Perry’s first principle of governing. It’s not a hard concept. Some Republicans still remember it, like House Speaker Joe Straus, who issued an icy statement about the rambunctious Senate: “For 36 years our state spending cap has helped enforce fiscal discipline, and we should be very cautious about any attempt to weaken it.”

Democrats, who generally would like Texas to spend more money on things like schools, may disagree; they have often called on Republicans to override the spending cap when the state has enough money to do so. And overriding the spending cap isn’t unduly arduous, in theory: it just requires a simple majority vote in both chambers, the same as passing the budget itself does. To put the previous point differently: the fact that we have a spending cap reflects the state’s historic commitment to fiscal discipline, and the fact that Republicans have resisted overriding it suggests that the commitment remains. In 2013, for example, Patrick was among the senators standing for fiscal discipline, despite being sympathetic to priorities such as school funding: “I cannot vote to break the Constitutional spending cap. If we do that then we will be on the same road to financial disaster that our federal government is on.”

Just two years ago, in fact, Republicans were so committed to maintaining fiscal discipline that a number of them went to the mattresses to fight a “spending spree” that wasn’t even real. So the proposal unveiled this morning is quite a change of tune. Let’s break this down:

Come and Take It, or Not

On Friday evening, Dan Patrick’s office sent an announcement: on March 2nd the lieutenant governor, along with Senator Charles Schwertner and “other senators”, would hold a press conference on the subject of Medicaid flexibility. The topic was an intriguing one. Texas, of course, is one of the states that has declined to expand Medicaid under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Efforts to consider the subject, in 2013, were unceremoniously squashed, and nothing has happened in the interim that would make Texas more receptive to the federal government’s preferences. Schwertner, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services committee, dismissed the idea bluntly months ago: “expanding Medicaid in its current form is a nonstarter for Texas.” Plus the date, March 2nd, was a dead giveaway.

The press conference confirmed the Senate’s position: Texas will not expand Medicaid in its current form. The idea of doing so, Schwertner added, “is simply not worth discussing.” And if the president doesn’t like that, apparently, it’s incumbent on him to be flexible. Patrick and Schwertner produced a letter to Barack Obama, signed by all 20 Senate Republicans, laying out their list of demands. They want the federal government to give Texas the latitude to implement ten reforms (“at minimum”) in the current Medicaid program, then, and only then, Texas would come back to the table—maybe.

It was an aggressive approach, considering that the Texas Senate can’t force the federal government to accept its conditions; but a defensible one.

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