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.”