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Voodoo economics

Also known as Dan Patrick’s budgetary contortions.

FerrisB_VoodooEconomics

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, joined by the Texas Senate’s lead budget writers, announced “a new bold proposal” Wednesday morning to allow lawmakers to cut property taxes and pay down the state’s debt without busting the state’s politically charged spending cap.

“Gosh darn, we know our businesses and taxpayers need tax relief,” Patrick said at a press conference. “But because of the cap, we are limited in what we can do.”

Lawmakers entered the session with an estimated $113 billion to haggle over, but are expected to hit the state’s spending cap at $107 billion. Spending beyond the cap would require a simple majority vote in the House and Senate, a move that Republican leaders have repeatedly insisted will not happen this session.

The measures filed Wednesday are an attempt to provide political cover for Texas lawmakers to tap more of the billions of dollars sitting in state coffers without being viewed by voters as freewheeling spenders. Republicans in particular are wary of a vote for breaking the state’s spending cap being used against them in future primaries to paint them as fiscally irresponsible.

“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.”

While a simple idea in theory, the spending cap in practice is a complicated measure that even some members of the Legislature have trouble grasping. The Texas Constitution says the government can’t grow faster than the state’s economy. State leaders set a growth rate of 11.68 percent for this session in December, based on the estimated rate of growth in Texans’ personal income over the next two years.

“For 36 years our state spending cap has helped enforce fiscal discipline, and we should be very cautious about any attempt to weaken it,” House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement responding to Patrick’s proposals.

Well, gosh darn, Dan Patrick categorically refused to consider exceeding the spending cap in 2013 when some people wanted to more fully restore the cuts to public education spending, so right there is your first clue that this is little more than a gimmick and an attempt to hardcode Republican priorities into the state constitution. I’m a bit pressed for time, so I’ll point you to a couple of good analyses of this. First, from Ross Ramsey:

Lots of things would be possible right now without that spending cap in place; this year, it leaves as much as $6 billion in the state treasury that is out of budget writers’ reach. That has lawmakers dreaming of how to get around the cap, and there are ways to do that.

The first one is simple: Vote to spend more. If a majority of senators and representatives agree, they can spend more than the cap allows. This requires some intestinal fortitude from legislators, especially in primaries where voters will want to know how the state budget ballooned so quickly. Price-sensitive voters won’t like the answer unless they can be convinced that the extra money was well-spent.

A second, proposed Wednesday by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sens. Jane Nelson, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Kevin Eltife, is complicated. They want to change the constitution to exempt spending on tax cuts and debt payments from the calculation of a spending cap. They would be able to take care of other items on their wish lists and keep spending past the cap on taxes and debt. Voters would have to approve, and it would take approval from two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate to get the measure to voters.

That’s more complicated, but it fits the recent pattern established by the state’s officeholders. They are scared to death of voters — so much so that they rely on a “Mother, may I?” approach to tough votes.

For two Novembers in a row, the state of Texas has gone to voters asking for more money, first for water and more recently for transportation.

Those didn’t involve taxes — lawmakers are allergic to that. But they were nervous about spending money, even on popular things — water projects during a drought and highway money for the state’s perpetual traffic jam — and asked voters for permission instead of just writing the checks themselves.

The state had the money it needed, sitting in the so-called Rainy Day Fund, but lawmakers didn’t want to just write a check themselves, for fear they would be labeled spendthrifts in the next round of primary elections.

Those would be Republican primary voters, of course, since those have always been the only voters Dan Patrick cares about or listens to. I’m old enough to remember back in 2011, during the (now known to have been mostly phony) budget crunch, when everyone compared that situation to households that cut back and tighten their belts and all those other virtuous things during hard times. Well, I don’t know how it is at your house, but at mine if the roof starts to leak or if the water heater breaks, I spend what I must to get it fixed. Somehow, that part of the household-as-budget-analogy never gets brought up.

And from Christopher Hooks:

The proposal makes a certain sense from the Democrats’ point of view—busting the spending cap probably means more money will go to state needs like education, even if Patrick wins his tax cuts. And it makes a certain sense for somebody like Eltife, who won’t have to stand in the way of tax cuts while other fiscal needs get attention, too.

But from Patrick’s POV, it’s a weirdly craven move. For one, he’s proposing to bust the spending cap—a sacred cow among conservatives—while saying loudly that he’s proposing to preserve it. And it contains a certain measure of political cowardice; if legislators wanted to, they could vote to bust the spending cap this session with a simple majority vote. Instead, they’re asking voters to make the hard choice for them, a move that seems eerily reminiscent of the dreaded Sacramento style of governance.

Furthermore, the amendment, if it passed, would privilege tax cuts over other kinds of spending. If the Lege ends up with $6 billion in additional revenue over the spending cap next session, it would virtually assure that that money would produce more tax cuts rather than, say, go back to schools or health care or roads.

Finally, it’s a move that’s emblematic of Patrick’s emerging leadership style—impulsive, seemingly thought-up on the fly and done with little consultation with his legislative partners. House Speaker Joe Straus gave an exceptionally cool statement in response: “For 36 years our state spending cap has helped enforce fiscal discipline, and we should be very cautious about any attempt to weaken it.”

But Patrick’s proposal points to a reality about the new era in the Lege: Patrick and the generally suburban-oriented senators who represent the new vanguard are not amenable to government spending and value tax cuts above almost all else.

Yes, that’s what this is about. It’s what basically all of the budgetary tricks and sleights-of-hand are about, including the spending cap itself. It’s a convenient excuse for not doing what you didn’t want to do anyway, like restoring cuts to public education, and it’s an opportunity to restrict the terms of debate further by forcing certain priorities ahead of others. I feel the same way about things like proposals to dedicate certain taxes that have otherwise been for general use to specific purposes. I get why Sen. Hinojosa is playing along, but I fear he’s being suckered. This is a bad deal, and we should hope the House rejects it.

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