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:
–The Senate is proposing a scheme for skirting the spending cap, so they can spend all the money.
–They’re doing this even though they already have the option of writing a significantly bigger budget than they did last time around. This session’s spending cap is 11.68%, which would allow for $107 billion for general spending, up from about $95 billion two years ago.
–Since the Senate is presumably planning to pass a budget, Patrick’s comment that there’s “no support for exceeding the spending cap” is, at best, a polite social fib. The Senate budget writers apparently would like to exceed the spending cap. Otherwise there would be no reason to offer such a proposal. And if they have enough votes to pass the budget, they should have enough votes to override the spending cap, in order to pass the budget that a majority of them support. So it would be more accurate to say that the Senate is reluctant to exceed the spending cap if they have to be transparent or accountable about it.
–If the Senate is willing to exceed the spending cap, but not to be seen exceeding it, they have no possible motivation here other than politics (or, in Kevin Eltife’s case, a stoical resignation about politics, perhaps): if they vote to exceed the spending cap, they won’t be able to grandstand about being fiscally conservative.
–Somewhat poignantly, the specific political concern is probably maintaining the ability to grandstand among a specific subset of “fiscal conservatives” who either need remedial math help, as Perry put it in 2013, or don’t actually care about fiscal stewardship, but have nonetheless appointed themselves the budget czars of the Texas Lege. Those “conservatives”, incidentally, are being conspicuously quiet about today’s proposal.
There may be a good case for exceeding the spending cap in the forthcoming biennium. But it’s hard to assess a case that the Senate budget chiefs aren’t willing to make. In the interim, as long as we’re offering nonsense proposals, why should the Senate have all the fun? Mine, at least, has a prophylactic benefit: Let’s amend the constitution to say that at the beginning of every regular session, all legislators are required to vote for a measure creating a burdensome new tax on, let’s say, life-saving medicine. The measure will pass into law, and they’ll be allowed to proceed to the regular business of the session, at which point they can repeal the tax immediately. Since everyone will have been complicit in instituting the tax, no one can really be blamed for it, as in the case of the murder on the Orient Express; and once the tax is summarily repealed, everyone in office can describe themselves as a fiscal conservative with a record of cutting taxes, in case they need to check a box on a scorecard. As a result, the Lege will have a greater chance of going about its business without being hamstrung by politics, as currently seems to be the case.