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.
Fiscal discipline is the baseline. Texas has always had that. In the Republic of Texas it may have been nothing more than a brag to console ourselves about the necessary rectitude of chronic privation: we run out of money, we disband the Rangers. From there we evolved to fiscal responsibility. By the end of the 19th century our state constitution had given the government a few major tasks, while also enshrining sweeping restrictions against reckless taxing, spending, borrowing, or governing. The lean-government framework we now summarize as the Texas model had been deliberately adopted, and we’ve never abandoned it, although we’ve tinkered with the details continuously since then. The pattern is absolutely clear: as the state has grown, Texans have given the government more power; we’ve also, concurrently, taken steps to keep it in check and to guard against future excesses. We’ve stayed the course. In the 1970s, for example, the state was awash in oil, and revenues were flowing in, and so the Lege proposed, and the voters approved, another constitutional amendment: the spending cap, b. 1978.
In Texas, in other words, fiscal responsibility is more than just a tradition or an accident or a marketing slogan. It’s a commitment that has been affirmatively and deliberately confirmed and reinforced over and over again. Like all humans, we fall short of our aspirational ideals. But the evidence is all around us. We have one of the lowest tax burdens per capita in the country. We have one of the lowest spending rates per capita in the country. We have one of the lowest state debt burdens per capita in the country. We’re one of only four states that still have a biennial legislature. Last year, at a moment when demographic trends seemed inexorable to national Democrats, we doubled down on Republicans, giving them a 20 point margin rather than the usual 12. Sorry, Battleground Texas: Even our Democrats are fiscally responsible.
And those are only the most high-profile indicators. Other reminders of stewardship have come up in recent years. “It turns out to have surprisingly strict regulation of mortgage lending,” wrote Paul Krugman in 2008, attempting to dismiss the Texas Miracle as a mirage. Surprising to a New Yorker, perhaps; after the 1980s Texas was bound to take a “fool me once” approach to certain things. Similarly, in January, I was easily able to predict that low oil prices wouldn’t spell disaster this time: a lot has changed since the 1980s, plus the Texans who came before us took steps to secure the future. Even more such provisions lie dormant, as the spending cap did for several decades. If the worst comes to pass this year, for example, I’ll be thankful for another seemingly gratuitous restriction on the growth of government: the Texas constitution pre-emptively limits how much debt the state can carry.
Progressives are often critical of Texas’s fixation on fiscal responsibility, not unreasonably. But it is what it is. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, when someone shows you who they are like a million times, believe them. As Texans we have reupped our commitment to fiscal responsibility so consistently that in recent years, more often than not, we’ve been like Lloyd Dobler, standing alone with the trenchcoat and the boombox, defiantly belaboring the point.
And I’ve come to believe that politics aside, there’s an advantage to the Texas model: it’s incontrovertibly a model, and we’re clearly committed to it. This is what I mean by fiscal integrity. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been going around for my entire adult life confident in the knowledge that regardless of what people are trying to slip into the textbooks or shouting at Muslims, and even though our budgeting process is byzantine and sometimes skews into penny-wise-pound-foolish territory, and despite the fact that it’s not always kittens and rainbows, it’s a safe bet that Texas is more or less on course and doing fine. I’ve also felt confident that Texas will always, more or less, be on course: even if we start electing Democrats, they’ll probably be responsible, and if they’re not, they’ll have to be, because we’ve established so many safeguards. I would bet on Texas either way, for patriotic reasons, but I’ve felt that Texas is an unusually safe bet: you can set your watch by this state. You can take it to the bank.
And my confidence in Texas is not unusual. This is a real and measurable phenomenon. Last month the UT/TT pollsters found that 50% of Texans think the state is headed in the right direction. Only a quarter said the same about the country. We’ve seen proof in the economic data for years–people are voting with their feet, people are investing in Texas. And we don’t see this kind of confidence anywhere else in the country: outside of Texas, Americans don’t put much stock in anything other than the military.
Our fiscal integrity isn’t the only reason that Texans are confident about Texas, obviously. We have a ton of reasons to be confident. But it’s a dynamic and uncertain world; surely we’ve been blessed to live in such a clear-sighted, resilient, stalwart state. Surely we owe it to tomorrow’s Texas to act with as much responsibility and integrity as our predecessors have done–to do our best to keep the miracle going.
And hey, maybe that means someday we override the spending cap or even get rid of it. We’re pilots, not drones. But the Senate’s spending cap gimmicks? They’re a joke, and everybody knows it. That that they were proposed at all makes me want to throw up. That some conservatives are manfully trying to spin them as part of a brilliant, synergistic spending cap overhaul makes me worried for the future and vicariously embarrassed. Texas, thankfully, will survive: if SJR3 and SJR4 get through the Senate, the fiscally responsible House can step in. But in the meantime, the idea that any Texas leader would barter our principles, would trash our heritage and gamble our future, for nothing better than politics, or by mistake—I love this state, and that is breaking my heart.