TPPF: Sneering at Workers and 'Blowing Up' Public Policy

At its annual conference, the Texas Public Policy Foundation sticks to its mantra of less government, fewer taxes

Most Americans are waiting to see whether the new federal stimulus plan can save the economy. Yet for guests and speakers at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's seventh annual Policy Orientation for the Texas Legislature, the prescription for economic success remains perennial and simple: conservative values, less regulation, and more tax cuts.

The event, held Jan. 22-23 at Austin's Four Seasons Hotel, brought state legislators and their staffers together with power players of the fiscal conservative movement such as TPPF founder and GOP sugar daddy Dr. James Leininger. The bulk of the program consisted of panel discussions on conservative touchstones like charter schools and eminent domain. There was also plenty of time for Democrat bashing, such as when supply-side economics guru Arthur Laffer joked about "Obama's way of creating a destitute economy." ("I'm kidding," he added. "It's not just Obama.")

Last year's gathering was overshadowed by electoral politics, with keynote speakers Govs. Rick Perry and Mark San­ford of South Carolina both being talked about as potential Republican vice presidential nominees (see "TPPF Conference," Jan. 18, 2008). The closest this year's event came to celebrity status was the opening lunch, where Laffer and Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immi­gra­tion Studies, argued over whether Amer­ica should shut its borders to foreign workers. Krikorian argued that immigration only imports more "working poor" ("Just look at the fellas serving the tables here," he told the diners) and that low-skill jobs could be filled by "ex-cons, recovering addicts, [and] the disabled." Laffer called closed borders anti-competitive and lauded cheap migrant labor as a powerful union-busting tool. However, both men were chastised for failing to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants by state Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Dallas, who informed them that, having been raised in Taiwan, she was actually an immigrant herself.

With legislators out of the red-meat environment of the election, the divide between nonelected theorists and pragmatic lawmakers was sometimes obvious. While Ohio Univer­si­ty economist Richard Vedder, a TPPF favorite, condemned school accreditation as "a competition-restricting device" and TPPF research fellow Rick O'Donnell savaged research at universities as a poor investment, Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas (last session's chair of the House Select Commit­tee on Higher & Public Education Finance), took a more moderate tone and continued making his pitch for funding more Tier 1 public schools in the state.

Yet even in this nonelection year, Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst both delivered speeches under the lens of their intentions for 2010. Each burnished his "conservative" credentials by disavowing the federal economic stimulus plan and heaping praise on TPPF. At Thursday evening's dinner, an allergy-stricken Dewhurst played down his own role in the Texas economy (saying that he and the Lege had only provided "a conservative fiscal framework" for the business interests in the room). He took credit for being "a lone Paul Revere" in predicting spiraling Medicaid costs, which rose from 26% of the state budget in 2007 to 34% now. His solution? Become more like Western Europe. Ignoring the fact that those nations have single-payer universal health-care systems, Dewhurst instead argued that the difference between them and the U.S. is priorities, insisting, "America is the only country in the world where we pay doctors and hospitals based on the number of procedures that they do rather than on wellness, prevention, best practices, and outcome." And with this year's $9 billion state revenue drop in mind, he announced that not only does he plan to scale back the 2010-11 biennial budget and preserve the $7 billion in proposed tax cuts, but he's prepared to revisit the 2009 budget for more savings.

By comparison, Perry's closing address on Friday was light on solid policy but heavy on commitment to the TPPF brand of conservatism. He praised the group as "the epicenter of conservative thought" and said that, as think tanks go, it's "a big ol' Abrams [tank], out there in the desert, blowing up bad ideas." Condemning the Obama administration's proposed economic stimulus plan and pledging to lower taxes, Perry took one note of solace from Inauguration Day: "Our nation is still second to none when it comes to the exchange of power."

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Texas Public Policy Foundation, James Leininger, Arthur Laffer, Richard Vedder, 81st Legislature

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