Every legislative session in Texas, taxes are a pretty big deal. A legislator’s position on how the state spends and collects money can have huge implications for their future as an elected official, and certain legislators who return to their districts with reputations as “fiscal hawks” are frequently greeted with a hero’s welcome.
This has led to several distinct fiscally conservative developments within Texas state government. One of these features is spending caps, a provision passed 37 years ago within the Texas Constitution that stipulates that the growth of state spending may not grow beyond the state’s expected economic growth. That means that state spending can’t grow faster than its taxes come in.
Although Texas may have its fiscal issues from time to time, this provision has served the state well in preventing quick growth in tax rates. Unfortunately, this provision is being undermined this year by the exact kind of people who herald themselves as “fiscal conservatives” during election season.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced a plan last month to circumvent the cap, effectively allowing certain types of spending to not count against the cap.
Issuing debt is an important tool for the state to use to pay for things that are necessary but aren’t in the budget this year. The spending cap holds legislators responsible by ensuring that in future sessions the payments on that debt aren’t somehow magically not considered spending. Additional provisions within the Senate budget and its accompanying legislation, SB 1 and SJR 1, would cut property taxes, typically collected by school districts, and compensate the school districts with state money that is similarly not counted toward the spending limit. If these legislators were arguing in good faith that spending needed to be increased and the spending cap compromised, they could make a very good argument. Instead they are trying to herald their status as fiscal conservatives while actually adding tax cuts to the budget that the state isn’t prepared to pay for.
Changing the definition of “spending” is good practice for writing a budget, but cutting taxes without changing spending just for the sake of political favorability is shortsighted. There is tremendous pressure in the Capitol for tax cuts every biennium, but part of the hard work of governance is deciding whether or not you can deliver on that. Cutting taxes isn’t inherently bad — a comparatively low tax burden is part of the reason the state is so popular for business and individuals — but cutting them just to say you did it is disingenuous.
Texas faces a litany of issues related to money every year that might be more deserving of tax cuts. It ranks 46th out of the states and D.C. in spending per pupil and ranks first out of every state in percentage uninsured.
Whether or not the state will choose to fully fund the pension systems is a big question mark. Texas seems to be constantly embroiled in lawsuits over school finance, and just last August was found to be in violation of the Texas Constitution for failing to “provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texans,” according to the Austin-American Statesman.
Most notably, a group of six trade organizations, representing entities like the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association and the Texas Oil and Gas Association, signed a letter calling for investing in Texas infrastructure and education before cutting taxes. In light of ongoing problems like these, it is imperative that legislators take note. When the state grapples with health care, infrastructure and education problems, all Texans bear the costs. The Senate needs to reconsider its shortsighted bid to cut taxes before they’ve taken care of the difficult business of addressing ongoing fiscal problems.
Tax cuts have a special place in the hearts of Texans, but trying to redefine “spending” to bring about those cuts is irresponsible. Senators are elected to do the people’s work in the Capitol, not cravenly manipulate the budget as a kind of political tool. The legislature should pass a budget that will help Texas stay the great place it is long into the future, where students leave public school ready for the world and sound infrastructure creates an environment where businesses can thrive.
Maybe that’s a naïve thing to want. Maybe I have a bias as someone born and raised in Texas, who’s seen the boundless frontier of opportunity that this state has to offer, but I want legislators intent on fixing problems, not selfishly laying the groundwork for future ones.
Matula is a finance senior from Austin. Follow him on Twitter @chucketlist.
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has been on a roll recently. At the beginning of this year, he annihilated his competition in an attempted palace coup for control of his gavel. By a 127-11 margin, Straus brought together all the Democrats and a healthy majority of his party, the Republicans. Only the most zealous, obtuse and obstreperous Tea Party-backed rabble rousers opposed his bipartisan mandate to rule over the House. For the first month of the session, Straus has focused on neutralizing not only the right-wing's representatives, but their key policy points as well.
This has stood in sharp contrast to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, elected last year in a contentious Republican primary predominantly because of those same ultra-conservatives. Patrick, in his dual capacity as the President of the Texas Senate, has pushed for increasingly out-of-touch right-wing pipe dreams in his brief time in office. These include allowing open carrying of licensed handguns and allowing handguns on college campuses, as well as rescinding the 2001 Texas Dream Act, which allows for undocumented students to be granted in-state tuition at public universities, including this one. In doing so, Straus has not only stood up to both Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, but also the platform of the Texas Republican Party.
Straus has always stuck out as a moderate on many issues, but he has only recently begun to show his true colors. He first elected in 2009, deposing the previous Speaker, Tom Craddick, R-Midland, by cobbling together a bare-boned coalition of the most moderate Republicans and Democrats. Thereafter, Straus embarked on a noble experiment: he let the House members run the House. A diverse selection of legislation, some of which I definitely found myself opposed to, came to the floor and was passed by a majority of the members. In the three speaker's elections that have followed, Straus has been re-elected unanimously or nearly-unanimously.
But the right-wing has never been fully comfortable with Straus. Part of this has to do with his comfort working across the aisle with the Democrats. Part of it has to do with his religion: Straus is the first Jewish major officeholder in Texas. In 2010, when a few high profile contenders first flirted with short-lived candidacies to depose Straus, the crux of their complaints chiefly revolved around the need for Texas to be lead by a "Christian conservative." A few weeks ago, when I was in a Capitol elevator, I overheard two lobbyists for a gun rights organization make anti-Semitic remarks about Straus.
Perhaps Straus has gotten tired of attempting to mollify enemies who intrinsically loathe him, perhaps from a position of bigotry, and is thus becoming more forceful in his assertions. In 2011, Straus was notably more hesitant on taking a position on campus carry, when pressed by the Texas Tribune. Recently, however, he was far less ambiguous.
"Personally, I would caution anyone to ignore [UT Chancellor William] McRaven when you’re talking about arms and ammunition," Straus said in recent comments at the Texas Politics Project on campus. McRaven, of course, recently came down forcefully against the campus carry proposal, arguing it would makes campuses "less safe."
Straus was similarly forceful in his opposition to repealing the Dream Act.
"These are young people who have played by the rules, who've qualified for admission at our colleges, who've gone to our public schools and, personally, I can think of a lot worse things these people can be doing with their lives than pursuing higher education and becoming engaged citizens in our economy and paying taxes," Straus said in the same interview.
Now, if Straus' history at the helm of the lower house is any indication, the body may very well still pass these right-wing bills, given Straus' preference to be a hands-off leader. But his willingness to come out for pragmatic and centrist causes, in a state whose leadership is all racing as far as they can to the extreme right, is a breath of fresh air.
UT Chancellor William McRaven said he supports allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates to attend UT System universities at an event hosted by the Texas Tribune on Thursday.
McRaven said the state already pays for the education of undocumented students and questioned the idea the state shouldn’t continue to provide similar assistance for those students as they pursue higher education.
“The state of Texas has paid to get [undocumented students] through high school, and, to think that we are not now going to help them get a college education, to me as an educator, I think it’s not right for us to do that,” McRaven said.
McRaven emphasized that undocumented students will still be required to pay tuition for their education.
“If it is about educating the young men and women of Texas, young men and women who are — oh, by the way — going to pay in-state tuition, it’s not like we’re giving them a free education,” McRaven said. “I think it is the morally right thing to do.”
McRaven said his position as chancellor means his first priority is assuring quality education for all Texans.
“My job is to help educate the young men and women of Texas; that’s what I do — it’s why I took this job,” McRaven said. “All the other things that are along side this, all the other issues that kind of circulate around it — [they are] not as important to me as educating the young men and women of Texas.”
Gov. Greg Abbott partially endorsed the law, signed by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2001, which allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition when attending public colleges and universities across the state. This was the first such law signed in the United States.
According to a statement from Abbott’s office, “Governor Abbott believes that the objective of the program is noble, but the law as structured is flawed, and it must be fixed.”
In an interview last week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said denying undocumented students in-state tuition rates was a question of fairness to the students who are fully documented citizens.
“Simply put this way: You have one spot left; you have a student who is not a citizen [and] a student from Oklahoma, who wants to come to a school with one spot left,” Patrick said. “That child from Oklahoma is going to pay out-of-state tuition, and that child is a citizen, and maybe that child is a Mexican-American citizen, maybe that child is a citizen of one of our soldiers fighting for our country. And we’re going to charge that family $20,000 more?”
Patrick said he thinks the legislature should end in-state tuition for undocumented students.
“I think anything the United States gives away free to people who don’t come here legally, you could argue, is a magnet,” Patrick said.
In response, McRaven said he wants to see the proof that higher education acts as a magnet for undocumented immigrants.
“I think it goes back to, how do you disprove this negative?” McRaven said. “Can you show me the statistics that say people are coming across the border in order to get a higher education? I mean, I haven’t seen those statistics.”
The Texas Legislature is an ironic place. Historically, U.S. governments have been set up that are composed of a pragmatic upper house (Senate) and a radical lower house (House of Representatives).
In Texas, the opposite is true. Nowhere has that become clearer than in the way the leaders of the two respective chambers — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Senate and Speaker Joe Straus in the House — have selected the composition and heads of pertinent committees, the lifeblood of legislatures in the modern era.
Patrick, a bombastic right-wing activist elected last year, quickly made good on his promise to slash the number of committees and boot most all of the Democratic chairs from power. Straus, on the other hand, elected by the House's members in bipartisan fashion, largely retained the pervasiveness of Democratic influence in the lower house. Furthermore, for those Republicans selected to lead committees, many moderates received the most plum assignments.
State Representative John Zerwas, R-Richmond, for example, was chosen to lead the House Higher Education Committee. As most media sources quickly noted, Zerwas has recently been a supporter of the Texas Dream Act, which grants in-state tuition at state universities such as this one to undocumented immigrants. State Representative John Otto, R-Dayton, meanwhile, was selected as the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which is tasked with the enviable position of writing the state's budget. In a recent analysis by Rice University, Otto was noted as the fifth most liberal Republican in the legislature while Zerwas was rated the third .
Roughly a third of committees will be headed by Democrats, mirroring the proportion of the House itself occupied by the minority party. Most of these committees are rather insignificant, but others are invaluable. The transportation committee will be chaired by state Representative Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. State Representative Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, the second-longest serving member of the legislature, will continue at the helm of Local & Consent Calendars, one of the most powerful committees under the dome.
The most zealous conservatives, specifically the ones who voted against Straus last month for speaker, were unsurprisingly punished. Special Purposes Districts Committee immediately comes to mind.
In continuing his pragmatic and bipartisan approach to House administration, Straus has sent a message back to Patrick: The House will continue being a bastion of real government solutions to problems and not just a breeding ground for right-wing pipe dreams, no matter what the Senate descends into.
The start of the 84th Legislature, with the introduction of both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has prompted countless lamentations about the treacherous road ahead for this state. I even penned one such gloomy prognostication last week. But in at least one area, higher education, things are actually looking up for Texas; indeed, for this university in particular.
First, as the Texan reported last week, Abbott has made his first picks for the UT system Board of Regents. He re-nominated Vice Chairman Steve Hicks, a pragmatic and dependable voice of reason on the board, as well as nominated David Beck and Sara Martinez Tucker. All three were commended by individuals from UT System Chancellor William McRaven to Senate Democrats. In making these picks, Abbott not only repudiated the anti-education zealots ubiquitous among Tea Party groups such as Michael Quinn Sullivan's Empower Texans, he sent a message that UT Austin in particular would be protected.
Perhaps more telling, Patrick announced on Friday that state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would retain his post as chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. This, despite the fact that Seliger has historically looked upon UT-Austin President Bill Powers favorably and Regent Wallace Hall unfavorably, while Patrick approaches the historical kerfuffle from an opposite perspective. Even an ostensible successor to former Governor Rick Perry's ideological battle against UT-Austin, such as Patrick, did little to put his money where his mouth was, so to speak, on that issue. This, coming from a man who has done so on effectively everything else in his short time in office.
The next few months will be enormously important for the future of this University. The search for Bill Powers' successor will have ripple effects for decades to come. Luckily, from what has been observed thus far, the newly appointed regents in Austin will be in a position to constructively assist the university in its transitions, instead of the sabotage inflicted from the governor's mansion for the past few years.
On Wednesday, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick took his new position on the dais as President of the Texas Senate. Just one day into his new term, Patrick set his sights on rule changes within the upper house of the State Legislature. Chief among them was a long-standing promise to reform the "two-thirds rule." By a 20-10 vote, nearly among party lines, the Senate scrapped a 68-year-old tradition that had been unanimously reaffirmed just two years ago.
The rule, which was formulated back when every single member of the Senate was a Democrat, places a "blocker bill" ahead of all other legislation at the start of a session. Only by a supermajority may any other legislation surpass this blocker bill on the calendar. Under new rules adopted Wednesday, that threshold has been lowered from 21 votes (two-thirds) to 19 (three-fifths). This is conveniently one vote lower than the number of Republicans in the chamber.
A year ago, I wrote a column about this rule and the bipartisan backing it had until recently among political types at the Capitol. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the dean of the Democratic caucus, noted at the time that geographical minorities — as well as political ones — could be adversely affected by the rule change.
Even defenders of this rule from the recent past had apparent changes of heart before Wednesday. State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, was reported by the Houston Chronicle last March to "oppose any change to the two-thirds rule because it has allowed lawmakers representing rural areas to protect their interests."
But Eltife, like every fellow Republican (with the exception of state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls), voted in favor of the new rules. In fact, Eltife sponsored the pertinent resolution and said, "Today's action will make the Texas Senate even better."
The new reality in the Texas Senate is that it will become ever more dysfunctional, just like Congress in Washington. The Senate no longer must rely on any semblance of bipartisanship, a decision it will likely come to regret one day.
Horwitz is an associate editor.
Greg Abbott waves to supporters at the inaugural parade Tuesday afternoon. Abbott is the first new governor of Texas in 14 years, replacing fellow Republican Rick Perry.
As Texans from across the state gathered at the Capitol to watch Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s inauguration Tuesday, the duo emphasized their goals of limiting government involvement in job growth and education.
“We will promote policies that limit the growth of government — not the size of your dreams,” Abbott said in his speech.
Abbott emphasized that he believes Texas must lead the nation in distancing state politics from federal influence.
“As governor, I will continue my legacy of pushing back against Washington — if they spend too much, regulate too much or violate our state sovereignty,” Abbott said.
Abbott said his path to the governor’s office was an improbable one.
“I am living proof that we are living in a state where a young man’s life can literally be broken in half, and yet, he can still rise up and be governor of this great state,” Abbott said.
According to Abbott, state leaders must focus on improving education — and unshackling education from overly restrictive federal control — in order for job growth to continue in Texas.
“These great minds will not be molded by a cookie-cutter approach of teaching,” Abbott said. “Instead, they will be the product of great teachers that recognize the value and uniqueness of each student.”
Patrick emphasized similar issues in his inauguration speech: border security, lower taxes, education and Second Amendment rights. He also said he would work to reduce the cost of attending college.
“In higher education, we must reduce the cost of skyrocketing tuition that is pricing many middle class families out of college and saddling students with huge debt upon graduation,” Patrick said.
Patrick also included a running call-and-response chant in his speech, continually asking the crowd, “What day is it?” and prompting the response, “It’s a new day in Texas.”
Some Texans, such as Ed Stein from Fredricksburg, drove hours to attend the day’s events.
“I hope that they live up to what they say,” Stein said.
The Longhorn Band also attended the ceremony, playing classic songs such as “The Eyes of Texas,” at the ceremony.
“It is an honor for the Longhorn Band to be invited to participate in historic events such as these,” Longhorn Band director Robert Carnochan said. “The fact that Governor Abbott is a UT alumnus makes it that much more special.”
Greg Abbott waves to supporters at the inaugural parade Tuesday afternoon. Abbott is the first new governor of Texas in 14 years, replacing fellow Republican Rick Perry.
Texans from across the state gathered in front of the Capitol Building Tuesday to watch Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick take their oaths of office as Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Texas. Abbott is the state's first new governor in 14 years.
In his inauguration speech, Abbott established some of his goals as governor. Following the ceremony, attendees gathered on the capitol lawn for a barbecue and parade. The Future of Texas Ball, an event that takes place after the governor’s inauguration, will be held this evening.
Abbott said his path to the governor’s office was an improbable one. Abbott is paralyzed and in a wheelchair after a tree fell on him while jogging in Houston 30 years ago.
“I am living proof that we are living in a state where a young man’s life can literally be broken in half, and yet he can still rise up and be governor of this great state,” Abbott said.
As governor, Abbott said he plans to focus on policies involving infrastructure, water, education and job growth, among other issues.
Abbott said that in order for job growth to continue in Texas, there must be a focus on education during his term as governor.
“These great minds will not be molded by a cookie cutter approach of teaching,” Abbott said. “Instead, they will be the product of great teachers that recognize the value and uniqueness of each student.”
Patrick emphasized similar issues in his inauguration speech — border security, lower taxes, education and second amendment rights.
He also said he would work to reduce the cost of higher education.
“In Higher Education we must reduce the cost of skyrocketing tuition that is pricing many middle class families out of college, and saddling students with huge debt upon graduation,” Patrick said.
Patrick also included a running call-and-response chant during his speech, continually asking the crowd "what day is it?" and prompting the response "It's a new day in Texas."
Some Texans, like Fredricksburg resident Ed Stein, traveled hundreds of miles to attend the day’s events.
“I hope that they live up to what they say,” Stein said.
The Longhorn Band also attended the ceremony, playing classic songs such as “The Eyes of Texas” at the ceremony.
“It is an honor for the Longhorn Band to be invited to participate in historic events such as these,” Longhorn Band Director Robert Carnochan said. “The fact that Governor Abbott is a UT Alumnus makes it that much more special.”
Governor-elect Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference following his victory over Wendy Davis.
Associate Editor Noah M. Horwitz put it well Tuesday in his blog post when he noted the departure of outgoing Gov. Rick Perry’s moderate conviction politics and the arrival of incoming Gov. Greg Abbott’s brand of right-wing lunacy.
“Fast forward to today, and everything has changed,” Horwitz said. “Compared with Abbott and Dan Patrick, the new lieutenant governor, Perry is on the centrist end of his state party.”
The new governor bore him out on this point Tuesday morning. If you want any indication of where Abbott’s moral compass lies, look no further than his inaugural address.
While unsurprising for its policy proposals, including unsnarling traffic, implementing new solutions for drought-stricken towns and lessening the creeping influence of the federal government on state affairs, the “More We Must Do” speech, so titled for the anaphoric exhortations to do more for and better by the people of Texas, was shot through with references to religion, the Scriptures and, surprisingly but tellingly, the modern evangelical anthem “You Raise Me Up.”
We’ve reviewed each of Perry’s inaugural addresses, and as we suspected and remembered, none were as overtly religious as Abbott’s was Tuesday.
Much was made during the gubernatorial campaign of Abbott’s rock-ribbed conservatism and whether or not it would exceed Perry’s. Abbott has left us in absolutely no doubt about that. If he can be said to have done one thing extremely well Tuesday, it was to have differentiated himself right out of the gate from his predecessor.
We do not grudge the man his religion. He is entitled to it just as anyone else is. But the effects of his infusion of religion into the office could be manifold. As Abbott has made abundantly clear, his religion drives everything. That wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t harm the less privileged so disproportionately and lead to policies that skirt the First Amendment. His faith is the justification for his objection to abortion rights and climate change policy, to name just two issues, as well as his support for such overtly religious displays as the Ten Commandments on state property.
The U.S. Constitution enshrines the right of the people to be free from “law[s] respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The idea was that no one should be punished for not adhering to the dominant religion.
But under Abbott, as well as fellow traveler Dan Patrick, who was sworn in as lieutenant governor Tuesday, we have to wonder even more than we did with Perry whether that will remain true. We fear what this will mean for the future course of Texas politics, because while Abbott is just one man and will only be governor for so long, his actions could have ramifications that could be felt for decades to come.
This January, the state of Texas will inaugurate a new Governor for the first time since I was in the first grade. To put that in perspective, the current freshmen had not started school yet and some kids currently in high school had yet to be born. On Tuesday night, we found out that Texans had chosen — rather decisively — the incumbent Attorney General, Greg Abbott, to be that individual, our state's 48th Governor.
Governor-elect Abbott received a mandate from Texans; to argue otherwise is just plain silly. He won Tuesday's election by a higher margin than Governor Rick Perry ever won by, in all three of his gubernatorial races. Abbott won more total votes than any other person who has ever run for governor. Accordingly, even though voter turnout was down, it is just naïve to claim the new governor will be riding into office with anything short of the backing of a majority of Texans.
Concurrent with Abbott's election as governor was Dan Patrick's election as lieutenant governor, a powerful position with almost despotic powers over the state Senate. Lieutenant governor-elect Patrick, a bombastic and tea party state senator, has already suggested he would bring up a plethora of conservative pipe dreams in the upcoming session, including a controversial proposal to allow students at public universities to bring their concealed handguns onto campus. While a Senate run by Patrick and packed with his friends would likely pass these measures, they could easily find themselves slowed in the House of Representatives, where Speaker Joe Straus, a comparatively moderate Republican, still reigns supreme.
Straus, left to his own devices, is not much for divisive social issues. A policy wonk and a pragmatist, he would instead focus on the real issues facing the state such as education and infrastructure. The type that requires the real dedication and seriousness that demagogues like Patrick loathe. Abbott is somewhere in the middle of those two philosophies.
This is why Abbott's leadership style will be so very important. If there is anything that Straus' record has shown us, it is that he will fold like a card table when pressured by the governor. When Perry pushed the omnibus anti-abortion legislation in the summer of 2013, Straus heralded it through the chamber to passage with alacrity. Left to his own devices, he would not wade into those uneasy waters, but he is more than willing to be pushed in.
Brian Sweany at Texas Monthly inquired on Wednesday as to how Abbott would lead once in office. Whether he would attempt to personally run the state like the incumbent or be more content to lurk in the shadows like predecessors. Those are important questions, but I think the most important one is if he will be more amenable to the ideology-based concerns of his Lieutenant Governor, or the pragmatism-based ones of his speaker of the House.