Texas’ Wild Tea Party
On the muggy afternoon of Tax Day, state Representative Mike Villarreal hurried into his House Ways and Means Committee meeting, running late. One of the few rising stars in the Texas Democratic Party, which was swamped in November by a Tea Party tsunami, the 39-year-old from San Antonio is known as that rarest of beasts at the Capitol: a thoughtful, progressive policy wonk. Even at the best of times, the Texas Legislature—which Molly Ivins aptly called “the national laboratory for bad government”—is a lonely and frustrating place for the likes of Villarreal. But this session, which kicked off in January with news of a $23 billion budget shortfall for the next biennium, has been downright mind-boggling.
Two weeks earlier, Villarreal and his Democratic colleagues had protested in vain as the House passed perhaps the most radical state budget bill in US history. The Tea Party–mad chamber voted to balance the ledger without raising revenues, axing $23 billion from current spending levels—about one-fourth of the state’s current spending, and some of the deepest cuts contemplated anywhere in the country. Spending cuts to public schools, already among the nation’s most poorly funded, could mean some 100,000 teacher layoffs, pre-K programs decimated and schools closed. Huge cuts to Medicaid could push an estimated 60,000 senior citizens out of their nursing homes. “We’re already as a state fiftieth in per capita spending,” said another young San Antonio Democrat, Representative Joaquin Castro. “So you’ve got to ask yourself…at what point is this budget akin to asking an anorexic person to lose more weight?” Hundreds of citizens gave impassioned testimony about the mental health and home healthcare programs, and the drug rehabilitation, juvenile justice and early education efforts that were about to be gutted. The situation was so dire that one conservative Republican came to ask for his taxes to be raised. David Walker, the county attorney in the conservative Houston suburbs of Montgomery County, testified that his county had just built a treatment center to divert mentally ill offenders from jail. “If there must be budget cuts, let’s not cut human beings,” he said. “My Lord Jesus tells me, ‘What you do unto the least of my brethren, you do unto me.’….If it means raising taxes, then raise mine first.” But no amount of logic or moral suasion could derail the government-shrinking train.
At Ways and Means, Villarreal walked into a more tranquil scene. An amiable chat was well under way between the committee members and lobbyists representing luxury yacht owners, who had come to discuss a tax break on boats selling for more than $250,000. This was urgently needed, the lobbyists were explaining, because Florida had recently undercut Texas’ tax rates on luxury vessels, and rich Texans were now docking there to save money. “I truly believe in my heart that Texas is a big boat territory,” said Jim Hedges of Lone Star Yacht Sales, “but because we haven’t been progressive in our laws most of the buyers of large vessels have chosen other places to keep these boats.”
“It doesn’t take much to get over $250,000 anymore,” a Republican from Wichita Falls said, empathizing with the yacht industry’s plight.
According to my Texas Observer colleague Forrest Wilder, who witnessed the proceedings, ominous murmurs began to circulate in the hearing room from members of the public who’d come to testify on other matters. Finally, Villarreal sorted out what was happening and said what was on all their minds: “So this bill is a tax break for mega-yacht owners? I feel like I just walked through the Twilight Zone.”
Villarreal mockingly grilled John Davis, the Houston Republican who’d proposed the yacht break. “Have you considered turning this into an omnibus bill, and including limousines and fur coats and other luxury items? Because you know, we haven’t cut education enough this session, and there apparently aren’t enough nursing homes on the verge [of closing]. What else can we do to bleed the state?”
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It was a desperate cry for sanity in a session that, even by the standards of the Texas Capitol, was setting new standards for irresponsible governance. The madness began on January 10. On the day before thirty new right-wing Republican representatives were sworn in, the state comptroller announced the whoppingest budget shortfall in state history.
The fiscal crisis caught most Texans unawares. For the better part of a decade, they’d had their collective egos puffed up by BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, The Economist and CNBC proclaiming Texas as the economic miracle of the nation. Governor Rick Perry, a friend and disciple of Grover Norquist, had just won re-election by extolling the wonders wrought by tax-cutting, deregulation and the aggressive courting of jobs from higher-tax states like California, Michigan and Illinois. “There is still a land of opportunity, friends—it’s called Texas,” Perry said last year as he cruised to victory. “We’re creating more jobs than any other state in the nation….Would you rather live in a state like this, or in a state where a man can marry a man?”
In the ten years since George W. Bush swaggered away to Washington, Perry has been the chief mad scientist in Texas’ bad-government lab, seizing every opportunity to gut social spending, pander to the culture-warriors and enrich his high-rolling corporate sponsors. In 2003, with a conservative legislature feloniously purchased by Tom DeLay and associates, Perry led a revolution to deregulate, privatize and tort-reform nearly everything. “Texas is open for business,” his campaign happily proclaimed when the dust had settled.
Three years later, with the lawmakers deadlocked over a school finance plan that would somehow meet State Supreme Court standards, Perry engineered a massive “tax swap,” slashing property taxes and replacing them with a modest business tax that left the state with a $5 billion annual “structural deficit” going forward—and a handy excuse to keep cutting programs to make budgets balance.
This year, when the massive debt was announced, Perry’s right-wing allies could not contain their glee. “The bottom line is there are no excuses now,” exclaimed Republican Senator Dan Patrick, a talk-radio host and founder of the Tea Party Caucus. “It’s a perfect storm, in a positive way, for conservatism.” In his inaugural speech, David Dewhurst, three-term lieutenant governor, turned it into a cheer: “We pronounce the word C-R-I-S-I-S as ‘opportunity.’”
In pep talks to the House and Senate, Perry poked endless fun at worrywarts like Villarreal and Castro, calling them the “doom and gloom crowd.” Nobody was getting hurt by a little $23 billion spending reduction, he insisted. “As Texans, we will always take care of the least among our population,” the governor said. But just in case people got stirred up over the cuts, Perry quickly rolled out a series of sure-to-be-controversial “emergency items” to distract attention. In Texas, the governor can dictate the top-priority items for legislative sessions, the only measures that can be passed during the first sixty days of the 140-day sessions that take place every other year. Perry chose well: he called for outlawing nonexistent “sanctuary cities” and “voter fraud,” and requiring invasive sonogram procedures and twenty-four-hour waiting periods before abortions.
“Texas is going to shrink government until it fits in a woman’s uterus,” quipped Democratic Senator Leticia Van de Putte.
In Rick Perry’s Texas, problems with state government exist to be exploited, not solved. That’s what has turned Texas, during his record ten years in office, into a national beacon for antigovernment conservatives, a large-scale model village for Norquist economics. “Texas,” Paul Krugman wrote in January, “is where the modern conservative theory of budgeting—the belief that you should never raise taxes under any circumstances, that you can always balance the budget by cutting wasteful spending—has been implemented most completely.”