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.

Welcome News

BurkaBlog readers, I bring you good news. In light of my colleague Paul’s pending retirement, my colleague Brian Sweany’s promotion to editor-in-chief, and my apparent inability to write daily posts without shirking my other assignments or giving up my hobby of railing against Obamacare on Twitter, the blog itself has been a little short-staffed.

The House Committee Assignments

Joe Straus has unveiled his committee assignments for the 84th Legislature, and the most shocking thing about his announcement, in my opinion, is the Speaker’s passing comment that there are still 118 days left to go. Really? Surely we’ve been at this longer than three weeks. Nandita Berry’s opening-day speech alone took at least two days, as I recall. 

A New Day, This One With Muslims and Bigotry

Today was Texas Muslim Capitol Day, meaning that several hundred Muslims (and friends) traveled from around the state to spend a day “to learn about the democratic political process.” Among the things we all learned is that Texas, such a big state, also includes a number of people who would take this as an occasion for a protest. The speeches, songs, and prayers on the south steps of the Capitol were, at many points, drowned out by the shouts of anti-Muslim protesters—a smaller group, but louder. One exception that I saw came when the Muslims sang the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Since at least some of the protesters were working on the assumption that being Muslim and being American are incompatible, the fact that these Muslims were singing the national anthem created some confusion, and the protesters quieted for a few minutes, until one of them shouted: “There’s no ‘twilight’ in sharia!” 

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