Fear vs. principle in the Texas Legislature

Gov. Greg Abbott delivers his State of the State address to the Texas Legislature on Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Bob Daemmrich/BDP Inc.

This year’s legislative session was different: The good, the bad, and the yet to be determined. From a liberal perspective, less bad than might be expected from a Republican-dominated state; and some new progressive spending. From a conservative perspective, less good than many hoped for, but progress on some fronts. From an independent perspective, yet to be determined: How will new spending levels will be sustained, and paid for, in future sessions?

The 2019 Texas Legislative session was driven at least as much by fear as by principle. Without question, the surprisingly close 2018 election results for Republican statewide officials — and losses of 12 Republican House seats and two Senate seats — sent shock waves throughout the Texas Capitol. 

Clearly the Democrats did a superb job of voter turnout and fundraising for the 2018 election cycle. Success on these two fronts and the surprisingly close statewide election results put the fear of God in the state’s Republican leadership.

There was rational reason for fear and anxiety. The 2020 elections could be critical to the future of Texas since the Texas House is only a handful of seats away from a change in party control. Newly elected Speaker Dennis Bonnen will be only a one-termer if Republicans lose their majority. 

Adding to this fear dynamic, a huge political issue is on the immediate horizon. The 2020 census will require redistricting during the 2021 legislative session. From both liberal and conservative points of view, control of the Texas House in the 2020 election cycle will be critically important. This is especially true for congressional redistricting since, in the event that legislative consensus is not reached, congressional redistricting would not go to the Legislative Redistricting Board, but instead probably be determined by federal judges and not lawmakers.

At the beginning of the 2019 legislative session, fear dynamics gave rise to significant political stress on the state’s Republican leadership team. Critical questions had to be answered: How do we assure control of the House? How do we protect incumbents from contentious political votes? How do we broaden our appeal to swing voters? How do we maintain our political power?

Their decision was to avoid contentious issues supported by the conservative base and focus on big picture issues. By doing so, they could more aggressively package their appeal to potential swing voters. To achieve that objective, they outlined a straightforward consensus common sense agenda focused on property tax and school finance reform.

With the conscious decision to appease swing voters, and not worry about their base voters, the Legislature spent more money than any other time in the history of Texas. Although almost everyone agreed that new money for education was needed, not even those from the school community would have fantasized in their most bizarre dreams that they would get the huge increase finally enacted by the 86th Legislature. 

In the past billions of new dollars for education have only resulted in comments such as: “it was a good down payment on what is really needed”. Perhaps it will take a few more months for the shock to wear off; then lawmakers can begin developing arguments for more money next session. 

Due to prioritizing significantly more of the new money to education spending, it soon became clear that many conservative base voters were going to be upset that they were not receiving sufficient property tax relief. Fear of upsetting their base voters caused leadership to begin looking for ways to provide property tax relief.

Unable to back off their new spending pledges, the Legislature came alarmingly close to raising taxes. State leadership proposed a tax swap — raising sales taxes by one penny to pay for equivalent property tax relief. Imagine trying to convince voters in a political campaign that it was simply a tax swap while your opponent points to the fact that you increased spending by record levels. 

“A swap? Are you kidding? You increased spending by record levels!” Challengers to incumbents would be shouting such message from the rooftops.

Luckily for most legislative incumbents, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt publicly opposed the plan and probably helped save many legislative careers. Although he upset state leaders, they should actually thank him for clearly recognizing the huge political trap on the horizon.

Combining historical spending increases with tax hikes is not a winning campaign message. In fact, incumbents from both parties were in potential jeopardy if the proposed tax plan had not been scuttled.

Indisputably, property taxes are very unpopular in Texas. Texans would probably support a pure tax swap if put on the ballot as a true swap. However, most Texans would not have supported a tax increase that they viewed as justifying record levels of new spending.

The Legislature was wise to find other sources for additional property tax relief.  At session end, the leadership strategy seemed to have worked. The Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg even titled his session review as: “Mission Accomplished.”

Good intentions sometimes backfire. Fear over principle could actually result in helping Democrats regain control of the Texas House in 2020, especially if the Republican base voter is not motivated to help incumbents win reelection. 

One advantage for both parties is the fact that 2020 will be a presidential election cycle with high voter turnout. Each can only hope that, with the absence of straight-ticket voting, base voters will also vote in downballot races.

Fortunately, the tax “swap” failed. Many base conservative voters would have resented such action; likewise, many swing voters would have felt aggrieved by politicians perceived to be raising taxes in order to fund additional spending. Although most Democrats opposed sales tax increases, they also had to be salivating over the prospect of running against big-spending Republicans who just raised taxes.

Does George H. W. Bush’s presidential reelection effort, with its “read my lips, no new taxes” theme, come to mind?

Kent Grusendorf

Education activist, former state lawmaker