Written in Blood

Timid moderates join fringe Republicans in push to pass suicidal state budget

Two weeks ago, I wrote that the draft state budget wrapped up in House Bill 1 was an economic "suicide note." Imagine my surprise when I saw Charles Krauthammer referring to Republican House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan's 10-year federal budget plan in the same terms. The only difference was that Krauthammer meant it as a compliment.

The conservative columnist was actually referencing an obscure but pivotal piece of British political history. In 1983, Michael Foot, then leader of the Labour Party, was caught in a bitter electoral fight with Prime Minister Margaret Thatch­er. Instead of creating a simple, elegant, and easily understood platform, he issued a massive and impenetrable policy document called the Labour Program. It was such an epic fail, politically speaking, that his fellow Labour Member of Parlia­ment Gerald Kaufman called it "the longest suicide note in history."

Ryan's hack-and-slash plan is part of the continuing and decades-old war on government from the fringe right, and Krauthammer applauds him for putting everyone else's money where his mouth is. As for its intellectual rigor or political seriousness, Nobel-winning economist Paul Krug­man commented that "if Ryan is super-wonky, I'm a triathlete."

But, like last week's narrowly avoided government shutdown, the plan is getting the nod from moderate congres­sional Republicans. In the same way as at the federal level, the Texas budget proposed in HB 1 is an unrepentant assault on essential state services, and Republican moderates have put their names to it. No matter that the Legislative Budget Board says the end result would be 335,000 lost jobs: The fringe right got what it wanted, and it did so with votes from centrist GOPers who now get to dump the whole mess at the Senate's door. It's those complicit moderates who frustrate House Approp­ria­tions Committee veteran Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin. She said, "I don't know who their political chess consultant is, but they wouldn't win any tournaments."

Like Congress, Like Texas

As the tea party is riding roughshod through the House Republican caucus, the common thinking is that the more seasoned voices of the Senate will fix whatever the House has broken. As Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, put it, "Thank God for the Senate," and there are signs his faith may be well placed. In March, Senate Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, created a Fiscal Matters Sub­com­mittee with the sole aim of finding $5 billion of extra revenue. So far, everything from closing tax loopholes to selling off state property is on the table. And the Senate already has plans for any new money. Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, walked the talk on defending health care when her Senate Finance Medicaid Subcommittee put $4.3 billion back into the Health and Human Services budget. That still leaves the state's health spending in a $4.8 billion hole, but it's a lot better than the $9.1 billion cut the House has proposed.

But don't light the fireworks yet. For Dukes, the real barometer of the upper chamber is Senate Joint Resolution 12, currently lurking on the Senate Intent Calendar. Authored by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, it would change the Texas Constitution so that any new tax or tax rate increase would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers. Spot the priorities: The Dan Patrick who wants a supermajority for all tax votes is the same Dan Patrick who got the Senate to overturn the same standard for the voter ID debate. He is selling SJR 12 as a building block for a more fiscally responsible tax base. In fact, it is a wrecking ball, demolishing any chance for future revenue creation. Historically, Texas politicians have always been pusillanimous about fixing the state's utterly malfunctioning tax base. Changing the margin for any reform from 50%-plus-one to a two-thirds majority makes it almost impossible. Even the smallest conservative rump could block commonsense moves like index-linking the gas and beer taxes. All it would do is give the quivering center more reason to not vote.

The reality is that the Republican Party's center is more terrified of its own right wing than it is of Democrats. On the national stage, the lack of a Republican like Kaufman to Ryan's Michael Foot is worrisome. Even Krauthammer, after calling Ryan's plan "the most annotated suicide note in history," still described it as "brave and profoundly forward-looking." At the state level, House Republicans have hidden behind the shield of creating a balanced budget as justification for economically toxic cuts. Have some Republican lawmakers voted against their consciences? Absolutely. They tack to the right because they are terrified of primary challenges. Moderates fear that whoever is unleashed by the dogmatic right and the anti-government, anti-regulation crew will be far more damaging than any swallow-their-pride votes they must take. After this session, there may not be much left to damage.

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Legislature, Texas budget, Dawnna Dukes

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