The Plot Against Public Education

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:

The Lopsided Fight Over Tax Cuts

On Tuesday, on a 30-1 vote, the Senate passed a budget for the forthcoming 2016-17 biennium. Their version, which proposes $211.4 billion in all-funds spending for the two-year cycle, is almost two billion dollars larger than the House’s, which passed on April 1st, but the spending breakdown is similar, and broadly sound. The most notable and controversial budget-related discrepancy between the chambers has to do with tax cuts. The House is calling for $4.9 billion in biennial tax cuts, as laid out by Ways and Means Chair Dennis Bonnen: a 25 percent cut in the franchise tax rate plus a cut in the state sales tax rate. The Senate proposal, which works out to $4.6 billion, proposes franchise tax cuts and property tax relief.

Both proposals are ominous from a certain perspective. Democrats in both chambers have argued that the money would be better used for critical priorities like public education, higher education, roads, or water. And even Republicans have agreed; Kevin Eltife, in the Senate, has been the most vocal skeptic of the session’s tax-cut fever, arguing that it would be better to use the revenue available to tackle the state’s fiscal obligations, such as public pension liabilities. As I’ve written before, I’m with the skeptics; Texas already has one of the lowest average state tax burdens (and one of the lowest average tax rates) in the country, and one of the lowest rates of state spending per capita. We could always aspire to spend less, like Wyoming, but we have five million children enrolled in public school, and their enrollment is closer to five; more concretely, no one has proposed $4.7 billion in biennial spending cuts, or admitted that they’re happy to let their counterparts in the future take the blame for proposing the tax hikes that will be inevitable in the absence of such cuts.

On the other hand, if you’re in the “death to all taxes” camp, the two proposals may seem equally appealing, because they’re about the same size; as Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson put it, “we’re both right.” And Governor Abbott is apparently similarly agnostic. Back in January, he threatened to veto any budget that didn’t include some business tax relief, and in his state of the state he specifically called for $2.2 billion in property tax cuts. But yesterday, as R.G. wrote, he offered the clarification that he wouldn’t necessarily veto a budget that doesn’t include property tax relief, and indicated that he is open to considering either tax-cut package.

In my view, this was an unnecessary clarification on Abbott’s part. He had never threatened to veto a budget that doesn’t include property tax relief and—state of the state notwithstanding—it doesn’t really make sense to demand that the state cut a tax that it is constitutionally barred from levying in the first place. However, it was probably a worthwhile clarification, because the House and Senate are apparently prepared to go to war over this. Last week, on the day that Bonnen (joined by most of the House Republican caucus) laid out his preferred tax cuts, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick issued a blistering statement about that chamber’s proposal, and yesterday he reiterated the arguments on behalf of the Senate’s plan. Since Nelson is the chair of Senate Finance, her expressed agnosticism is telling. But since Patrick is the lieutenant governor, the Senate can be expected to follow his lead.

In the end, I expect the House to prevail, because Bonnen’s plan is better than Patrick’s for at least half a dozen reasons.

141-5

At roughly six am this morning, after about 18 hours of debate on more than 300 amendments, the House voted on HB1, which the general appropriations bill for the 2016-17 biennium. Official passage, on third reading, will have to wait until this afternoon, but the preliminary vote makes a dispositive statement: 141 in favor versus 5 against.

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.

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