The first time the Three Jefes had held a press conference together was on a chilly day in January. Now they were in warmth and light, and they had brought the state with them. On Thursday afternoon, Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen gathered on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion to declare victory—they had reached a grand bargain to invest in public education and provide property tax relief. The white smoke had been sighted. All was well.
The Big Three spoke in unusually triumphal language. Abbott told the assembled press that the trio had solved “challenges that have plagued our state for decades.” Patrick said he and his buddies had “taken a hundred years of policy and reformed it in a transformational way in less than 140 days.” Bonnen said they had shown that “we have all been together, we have stayed together, and frankly, we’re more together than we’ve ever been.”
They shook each other’s hands for the cameras as if they weren’t noting the conclusion of a conference committee on a major bill but signing the Dayton Accords. Birds chirped, a bipartisan set of lawmakers behind them smiled, and Abbott’s golden retriever, Pancake, a.k.a. @texaspancake, meandered across the lawn during the press conference, buttering up reporters. At one point, Pancake wandered up to Bonnen for a pat. “I love you too,” he said. Sweetness and light, puppies and butterflies. It all sounded pretty good, but what had been agreed to?
The three spoke in broad terms. They had agreed to commit $5 billion to try to reduce Texans’ property tax burden. They had agreed to spend a little less, $4.5 billion, on education. Teachers’ pay would go up; taxes wouldn’t go up quite so much; schoolchildren would get more support; the state would seize half as much money from local school districts; and, perhaps most importantly, Texas Republicans would have something to boast about when they go home to their districts, at a time when suburban anger has put their majority in the Texas House in theoretical doubt.
But, uh, how is it gonna be done? Where does the money come from? Is it a permanent fix or just a one-time deal during a flush time in state finance? Apart from the dollar amounts and the back-patting, the main takeaway from the press conference is that Pancake is a very good boy.
There’s a big difference between spending money and “fixing” school finance and Texas property taxes. The latter means making substantive, structural changes to the system, and to make those changes self-sustaining. The three had attempted to make the thing sustainable with a mid-session blitz to raise sales taxes, but that imploded. What a lot of people suspected the three had agreed to do, as the negotiations came to a close, was to spend a bunch of surplus money the state had this year on schools and tax “relief” in order to agree to go home. In the event of a future budget shortfall, the framework the three are building might start looking pretty rickety.
The three didn’t talk much about stuff like that, preferring simply to take credit. Abbott let Patrick and Bonnen field questions. When one reporter asked about an item that had been a sticking point in the negotiations, Bonnen, who likes to joust with reporters, nipped the line of inquiry in the bud. “I want to just shut it all down right now,” he said. “We won the Super Bowl today. And we’re not going to talk about whether the quarterback or the running back had more of the success in our win.”
Traditionally, school finance has been politically hard to do because there are winners and losers with each plan. Property tax “relief” is hard to do because the state can’t cut a tax it doesn’t levy (school districts and local government do), and the money the state spends to buy them down gets swallowed up by rising property values. At one point, Patrick shared with reporters the powerful sense of completion he felt about this deal. Last night at the Capitol, he found himself “overwhelmed by the moment,” he said. “I came up here in 2003 with a couple of busloads of citizens from Harris County who wanted a change in property taxes.” He had become a senator, and then the lieutenant governor, partly to make their dreams a reality.
He had now succeeded: A job well done. But in almost the same breath, he described the provisions of the compromise as setting the stage for “a dramatic cut in future tax increases,” a peculiar phrasing that calls to mind President Obama’s pledge to “bend the cost curve” on health-care spending. Huh.
Tomorrow we’ll get the text of the three big bills—the budget, the property tax bill, the school finance bill. And then they’ll get votes on Saturday or Sunday, giving lawmakers a day or so to think over the consequences. By the time they cast them, a few lawmakers may even have a pretty good understanding of what’s in them. And then we’ll go home and figure out who the winners and losers are and what the political impact will be. As the old saying goes: Success has three fathers, and failure means control of a few marginal House seats.