In 2011, faced with a projected budget shortfall of about $27bn for the 2012-13 biennium, the Legislature passed a budget that amounted to about $5bn in cuts to public education–that is, $5bn less than the state would have appropriated, in theory, if not for the projected shortfall. Public schools are popular, more or less, and the political fallout would have been worse if not for the fact that the projected shortfall provided some cover. Education is Texas’s single largest area of state spending. If you have to cut make serious cuts to the budget, there’s almost no way for schools to escape unscathed, and that was the way most Republicans described the cuts at the time: tough, but necessary, and manageable.
Democrats, however, insisted that the cuts would be devastating, and that they weren’t really necessary. On the latter point, Democrats were proven correct in 2013, when the comptroller reported an $8.8bn surplus for 2014-15. $8.8bn > $5bn; let’s all hope that future generations of Texans are able to understand that piece of math as well as we are. And on August 28th, Judge Dietz’s ruling on the school finance lawsuits gave them the upper hand on the first point. Republicans can argue about what the optimal level of school funding is, or might be, if greater efficiencies were realized, and attorney-general Greg Abbott has vowed to fight the ruling, but as it stands, the judge said that Texas’s school funding is “inadequate”, among other things.
In other words, the chickens may be coming home to roost on this, or at least the Democrats hope they are. Over the past few weeks Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte, and Mike Collier–the candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and comptroller, respectively–have been hitting their Republican opponents for having supported the school cuts. Broadly speaking, all three are criticizing the 2011 cuts. But in my assessment, Davis’s case is weak, Collier’s is okaaaay, and Van de Putte’s is good, but in a slightly poignant way. I’ll explain why, after the jump.
First up: Davis v Abbott. You would think Wendy Davis would be in a good position to make this argument, because she was one of the Democrats who spoke out most publicly against the cuts at the time, with a filibuster against the budget that forced the Lege to come back for a special session. The first problem is that her 2011 filibuster was kind of a mixed bag. Although Democrats were right that the cuts weren’t really necessary, they were technically unavoidable in the sense that the Lege is constitutionally prohibited from writing a budget that exceeds the comptroller’s projection in the Certified Revenue Estimate, which in this case was off by, oh, billions and billions of dollars. That being the case, Davis’s fillibuster was obviously doomed. The Democrats who had the smartest responses to the whole budget mess of 2011 were Mike Villarreal, who added a little amendment to House rules that enlisted the Legislative Budget Board to predict the consequences of the appropriations bill, and Donna Howard, who offered an amendment calling for surplus revenue be directed to schools rather than the Rainy Day Fund–an amendment that succeeded by failing, in a way, because if Republicans were really so sad about cutting the schools budget they wouldn’t have quashed it. The second problem for Davis is that it’s never been entirely clear how she proposes to provide more funding for schools. Texas has a lean budget and one of the lowest tax burdens per capita in the country; if anyone’s calling for a multibillion-dollar expansion of funding without saying what other core service they’d gut or which taxes they’d raise, they’re being sketchy. The third problem for Davis is that Abbott is the attorney-general, not a legislator. He didn’t have a thing to do with either of the budgets in question. He is a Republican, but his culpability is limited.
Collier’s version of the critique is that Glenn Hegar, the Republican candidate for comptroller, said that he was “proud” of the 2011 cuts. PolitiFact Texas looked into this and rated Collier’s claim “true”. And they’re right: at a Montgomery County Tea Party meeting in 2013, Hegar doubled down on the cuts, saying that despite some Republican claims that the 2013 budget restored the cuts, the restoration was only partial, and that since the cuts of 2011, he had heard from some superintendents who said that they were actually relieved to have a chance to find some efficiencies in district spending without taking the heat themselves. “I was happy to be the scapegoat,” Hegar adds. So Hegar did say he was proud of the cuts, and Collier was right to swat him for it: the cuts were either opportunistic or they were an accident, and Republicans shouldn’t be proud of either. At the same time, I can see why Hegar’s campaign pushed back. Hegar was vice-chair of the Senate Finance committee chair of the Senate Finance subcommittee on fiscal affairs and he clearly understands the budget process. He did vote for the cuts in 2011, but then he voted for the partial restoration in 2013, and rather than giving a little song-and-dance about how the 2011 cuts were awfully unfortunate but luckily the Republicans were able to restore the funding in 2013, as many of his peers have done, he’s going out of his way to point out that the cuts weren’t fully undone, and defending that decision. He’s actually one of the few Republicans who’s describing the party as having been responsible for the cuts rather than reluctantly accepting the situation. That’s respectable.
And then there’s Van de Putte and Dan Patrick. In one of her first TV ads, Van de Putte goes after Patrick for having voted for the budget in 2011 and having voted against it in 2013–in other words, he voted for the budget that included the cuts, and against the budget that restored much of the funding. (He was one of four senators, all Republicans, who voted againt the budget in 2013.) Making matters worse for Patrick is that in August, in response to Judge Dietz’ finance ruling, he issued a press release saying that “As chair of the Senate Education Committee, I led the charge to restore most of the education cuts from last session.” PolitiFact Texas rated this as “Pants on Fire”, despite explanations from the Patrick’s campaign that he worked for and supported the public education part of the budget. The burning fire graphic might be a little harsh; in response to Van de Putte’s ad, in an emailed statement to the San Antonio Express-News, former Senate Finance chair Tommy Williams defended Patrick: “Despite my frustration at the time over Senator Patrick’s decision to vote against the final version of the budget it does not change the fact that he supported new funding and restoration of the cuts.” I’m inclined to give that a fair amount of credence, because Williams is excellent on budget matters and because I really doubt that anything could compel Williams to defend Dan Patrick on anything other than Patrick actually being defensible. Still, Patrick did vote against the final budget, and education is the biggest thing in the budget, and so Van de Putte’s critique of Patrick is plausible. Of the three Democrats making versions of this argument, her version is the strongest.
The strongest, but also the only one that’s slightly poignant. Patrick’s concern for public education is sincere; I’ve always thought that, even as I’ve always disagreed with some of his preferred policy reforms. I don’t doubt that, as a legislator, he’d be willing to spend money on schools, and if both he and Williams are saying that he led the effort to restore funding to schools, I believe it. That scenario, though, raises the possibility that despite working on the biggest part of the budget, Patrick felt some pressure to oppose the budget, and specifically that Patrick was among the Republicans overly influenced by certain right-wing groups that were banging the drum about a supposed statewide “spending spree”, and calling on conservatives to stand against it, at the risk of being rated a RINO. Patrick’s claim that he led the effort to restore school funding, despite having voted against the budget, suggests something about his priorities, something most Texans would agree with. Van de Putte’s criticism of him suggests that the groups with the scorecards may be undermining their own people.