The Next UT President

UPDATE: This blog post has been update to correct an error about Bill Powers and the AAU, which I said he was leaving to lead as president. I regret the error.

The University of Texas presidential search appears to be focusing on the vice chancellor at the University of Oxford, Andrew Hamilton, according to a report in Saturday’s American-Statesman. I’m not surprised. I can think of two reasons why UT-Austin would want Hamilton as its next president. The most obvious is that UT would love to have the prestige of Oxford rub off on the campus after such a tough run with the regents and the media over the past few years. The other is that Hamilton is a chemist, the same academic discipline as former UT-Austin president Larry Faulkner.

If You Can't Govern, Spin the Media

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is reaping a systemic failure in the Senate that he helped sow. And he made up for it this week with a public relations campaign of daily topical news conferences.

The Texas Senate once roared like a lion in the early days of every legislative session, priding itself on swift passage of numerous bills. Senate reporters often spent the end of the session lining the back walls of the House to watch bills from the Senate get debated. Angry senators would storm the House, demanding to know what had come of their bills. But this year, the Senate passed its first bill – an emergency transportation item – just this week.

The Monumental Ego

Among Dan Patrick’s less desirable qualities is his monumental ego. A case in point. Patrick wrote a letter to President Obama in an attempt to get the federal government to agree to certain things Patrick wanted them to do for Texas. What’s wrong with that? Well, the person who is authorized to communicate with the federal government is not the Lieutenant Governor, it’s the governor. If anyone were going to write the feds seeking concessions, it should have been Greg Abbott, whom, you may have heard, is the actual governor of Texas.

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:

Clinton and Perry are Birds of an Email Feather

As Texan George W. Bush’s eight years as president wound down in 2008, Bush told Politico that there was one thing he was looking forward to in a return to private life:

“Emailing to my buddies. I can remember as governor I stayed in touch with all kinds of people around the country, firing off emails at all times of the day to stay in touch with my pals One of the things I will have ended my public service time with is a group of friends. And I want to stay in touch with them and there’s no better way to communicate with them than through email.”

Bush, the email addicted Texas governor, had gone cold turkey on taking office as president, knowing his email accounts would be public record and thus fodder for reporters and opposition researchers to pore over looking for material that could be used to embarrass him.

Apparently, rather than follow the path of this Texas governor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to follow the path of another Texas governor, Rick Perry, and engage in removing emails from public scrutiny. While each used different techniques, Clinton and Perry both found ways to make public disclosure of their emails difficult. When it comes to the public’s right to know what their government officials are doing, Clinton and Perry seem to be birds of a feather.

Harvest of the skinflint

State expenditures adjusted for inflation and population growth

Texans historically are misers when it comes to state spending. They applauded Governor William “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” Lee O’Daniel in 1939 when he vetoed funding to build new state hospitals and asylums for the insane and slashed the public safety budget in half, a cut so deep that Texas Rangers had to borrow bullets from the highway patrol. Little wonder that the past decade of budget and tax cuts have caused scarce consternation among the populace.

A Republican legislator once told me he opposed tax increases in times of revenue shortfalls because once the tax increase was in place it did not go away, even when the economy rebounded to restore funding for state programs. That certainly was the approach in the 2011 session as lawmakers dealt with a major shortfall, but now that times are flush again, Governor Greg Abbott has asked state agencies to cut their budgets by 10 percent while Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and the Senate are pressing for public school property tax cuts that will have to be made up from state funding.

What has been established since 2003 is a cycle of ratcheting state government down in staffing and services. Small-government conservatives are sure to welcome, but it also has set up a cycle of penny-wise, pound-foolish governing. The cost of this frugality may run into the billions of dollars.

Bob Armstrong

It is with considerable sadness that I received the news of the death of Robert Landis Armstrong, a former commissioner of the General Land Office, who was a major force in bringing about the addition of Big Bend Ranch State Park to the Texas Parks & Wildlife System. (TEXAS MONTHLY was an early champion of the  effort to make Big Bend Ranch part of the state park system.)  As my colleague R.G. Ratcliffe noted yesterday, Armstrong was a widely liked and respected Democratic legislator from Austin, who would qualify as a gentle giant. He gained local fame by having the queso dip at Matt’s El Rancho Restaurant named for him. I knew him very well, as he occupied an office not far from the space where I began my tenure in the Capitol.

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