The closer we get to the March 6 primary election, the more we should expect to see the conflict between centrist Republicans and far-right conservatives grow more intense. Already the intra-party struggles are increasing. Texas Right to Life is supporting four challengers to incumbent legislators deemed insufficiently anti-abortion. In Tarrant County, four Republican state senators have denounced a county judge for saying that the current state budget is balanced on the back of local taxpayers. A Republican state senator from Lubbock calls claims that the state’s share of public education funding has dropped to 38 percent “fake news.” And the governor is wading into House races.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this all sounds like poltics as usual. Except that the four incumbents that Texas Right to Life is challenging are all Republicans, and each received a 100 percent “Pro-life” rating from the group last year. The Tarrant county judge—he’s a Republican who correctly pointed out that the state budget writers assumed a 14 percent increase in local property taxes over the next two years. That allegedly fake number for what percentage of public education funding comes from the state wasn’t supplied by us no-good, dishonest hacks in the lamestream media but by the Texas Education Agency and the Legislative Budget Board. And Greg Abbott has released a new ad comparing Houston state Rep. Sarah Davis to Wendy Davis, the former state senator whose dramatic filibuster made national news but who then ran against Abbott for governor in 2014 and lost. “You said no to Wendy Davis,” the ad says. “Now it’s time to say no to Sarah Davis.”
These are the new flash points in an already pitched battle between moderate and tea party members of the Texas Republican party, a battle that has already claimed House speaker Joe Straus, who has announced that he will not seek re-election after his term ends. In the last session, Straus emerged as the champion of moderate Republicans and the most dogged opponent of social conservatives. How these primary battles shake out is likely to shape the coming legislative session. Will the social conservatives advance their steady march toward more power in Austin, or will moderate business-minded Republicans stage a comeback?
Let’s start with Texas Right to Life. It has endorsed challengers in four state House races, although the group gave perfect “Pro-life” scores to incumbent state Representatives Chris Paddie of Marshall and Giovanni Capriglione of Keller for the past three legislative sessions; Wayne Faircloth of Galveston for the past two; and Dan Flynn of Canton, three of the past four. Paddie, Faircloth, and Capriglione all received Texas Right to Life endorsements in the 2016 elections.
It is worth pointing out that the ardently anti-abortion group raised 95 percent of its $1.9 million in political funds since January 2017 from just four families: the hydraulic fracturing millionaires Dan and Farris Wilks, $1.25 million; Ralph Schmidt, retired head of Western Refining Co., $300,000; and Midland oilmen Kyle Stallings, $150,000, and Tim Dunn, $100,000. For several years, Dunn has been financing the effort to defeat Straus as House speaker. And it appears that no matter how good some of Straus’s allies may have been in voting with Texas Right to Life, they are now considered the enemy.
But when asked how Flynn could have a perfect record and still be opposed, TRL Political Director Luke Bowen replied that Flynn had not helped get anti-abortion legislation to the House floor. “In fact, Dan Flynn supported and propped up moderate House leadership that obstructed strong Pro-Life bills,” an apparent reference to his support for Straus.
The second round of prevarication comes from the Tarrant County state Senate delegation responding to a story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram called “For one Republican, a day of truth-telling about Texas, schools and taxes” by columnist Bud Kennedy. The story focused on lectures given by Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley on how state lawmakers reduced the state’s share of public education funding in each of the past several sessions and then try to blame local officials for higher taxes:
He struck a nerve when he talked about local school property taxes.
In one PowerPoint slide, Whitley noted that for the last 10 years, the state’s share of local school financing has decreased by almost the same amount lawmakers deposited into their now-$10 billion “rainy day fund” piggybank.
Then came the stinger: He showed the line from the state budget where Austin lawmakers figured on a 14 percent local school property tax increase.
That’s right: Your Texas Legislature passed a budget that assumed your school tax payments will go up 14 percent.
Kennedy reported that state senator Konni Burton walked out of Whitley’s presentation, while state Senator Kelly Hancock challenged Whitley on his fact. Whitley responded by pointing to his presentation showing the part of the state budget that was dependent on local public school property tax increases.
There’s not much that politicians hate worse than being hoisted on their own petard. Burton and Hancock fired off an angry letter to the Star-Telegram, saying Whitley had told a “bold-faced lie.” They were joined by senators Brian Birdwell and Jane Nelson, who was the primary author of the Senate budget.
“Let’s set the record straight,” the senators wrote. “Local property tax rates are set by locally elected officials. Period. They are not determined by an informational rider in the state budget as Judge Whitley dishonestly suggests.” They went on to say the state budget increased state funding for public education by $5.2 billion.
Such obfuscation! The judge did not claim the budget rider was setting local property tax rates. He was stating, correctly, that the state budget was balanced by assuming local school districts would raise their property tax rates, thereby reducing how much money state government had to put into the system by law. The funding formulas did require additional state funding because of student enrollment grown, but the Legislature, at the Senate’s insistence, did not put money into the budget to ease the pressure on local school districts to raise taxes.
In short, because of the policies pursued by Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, the state budget was balanced in 2017 on the backs of local property tax payers–especially those in the 264 “Robin Hood” districts that have to give a portion of their property tax money to poor school districts.
Whitely is not the first Texas county judge to criticize the state’s leadership. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, also a Republican, let loose in his state of the county speech last fall: “State leaders and some in the Legislature are proposing to tinker with the property tax at the expense of efficient, forward looking local government. Harris County has low taxes and exemplary financial ratings, but some state officials want more restrictions on our ability to meet the needs of our residents. Those same state leaders have shifted the public school tax burden more and more from the state onto local school districts. Then, in an effort to stir up voters, they have attacked counties and other local governments, all the while offering no real solutions.”
That brings me around to state Senator Charles Perry of Lubbock, who recently told an association that media reports that the state share of funding for public education is “fake news” created by the news media. In reality, those figures come from state agencies that advise the Legislature on school finance: the Legislative Budget Board, the Texas Education Agency, and the aforementioned Texas Commission on School Finance’s reports.
According to the political newsletter Quorum Report, Perry told a Texas Association of Counties official he thinks it is inaccurate to look at state data on how the state’s share of public education funding has declined from 48 percent in 2011 to a projected 38 percent in 2019.
The state’s actual contribution to school finance is somewhere between 48 and 52 percent, once the portion of the tax rate for debt is excluded, Perry argued. For instance, state lawmakers never agreed to pay for a $60 million stadium; that responsibility lies with local voters, he said. Brick-and-mortar construction always has belonged to local taxpayers.
“We’re not the bad guys in this deal, and, frankly, some of us are getting a little tired of our local officials making us out to be the bad guys,” Sen. Perry said. “We work really hard to control spending and control taxes.”
The school districts with those embarrassingly expensive football stadiums—$60 million in Allen and $70 million in Katy—built them with the approval of local taxpayers. Texas Education Agency records show that no state money is used to help pay for the stadiums.
The current estimate for local school district spending for the next two years is $59 billion from property taxes, or about 58 percent of the total. Perry would argue that figure is unfair because it includes the bonded debt of the school districts. Most of that debt was taken out to build classroom buildings—and the dollar amount only includes interest payments, not the full value of a building.
To subtract it from the local share of spending would be like saying the state should only be held liable to provide money for instruction, and that the construction of brick and mortar school houses is not part of the total cost of public education in Texas. The small amount of money spent by two districts on debt service for swanky football stadiums is a red herring to distract from the fact that state legislators have shifted the burden of paying for schools onto the local property tax payers.
Disputing statistics is not new in politics. When we published an obituary last year on former Governor Mark White, we included this: “At the end of White’s term, the state paid 67 percent of all education costs in Texas. Today, the state’s share is down to 38 percent. One could reasonably argue that local property taxes are rising in part because no politician today has the courage to say, as White once did, ‘Blame me.’”
Some of the responsible Republicans such as Judge Whitley are now using that line and getting pushback from the hard right. The first statistic was drawn from a 1985 study of the education reform House Bill 72, a study paid for by Texans for Quality Education and the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation. The report stated: “The local share is calculated so that the state funds 70 percent of the statewide costs associated with the adjusted basic allotment plus transportation aid, falling to 67.7 percent in 1985-86 and thereafter.”
An education reformer yesterday gave me a current Legislative Budget Board spreadsheet that recalculated the state share differently from the 1985 report, basing the change on current public education funding formulas. But it still showed the state share of public education spending at 52.2 percent in 1985. Whichever way you calculate the state share of public education spending under Governor White, it was far higher than the LBB’s projected figure for 2019: 38 percent.
Straus may soon be retiring, but he is far from bowing out of these latest intraparty fights. Sure, Chris Paddie is not getting the endorsement of Texas Right to Life—even with his perfect voting record—but thanks in part to Straus he is receiving the backing of the business leadership. This past Monday, a fundraising reception was held for him at the home of Houston beer distributor John Nau. Others on the host committee included the owners of Gulf States Toyota, the Friends of Baylor Medicine, the Marathon Oil PAC, the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, and its head, Dick Trabulsi.
Abbott may be attacking Sarah Davis, but Straus has given her $50,000 from his campaign war chest and has helped her raise more than twice that for her reelection bid. It’s still too early to tell whether Straus and his moderates or the tea party wing of the party will prevail. But regardless, the outcome has the potential to determine the future of Texas Republican politics. For now, the war rages on.
R.G. Ratcliffe can be reached at [email protected] or 512-320-6961.