Wednesday, June 3, 2015
On The Issues: Grading the 84th #TXLEGE
"He who covers his sins will not prosper,
But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy."
The 84th Texas Legislature is mercifully over. How'd they do?!? They had a few modest successes, but on most issues they did the bare minimum if they addressed it at all:
Two Year Budget: B -- Whatever their performance elsewhere, this legislature produced a "reasonably not crappy" budget. To their credit, the growth rate in this year's budget came in under 'Inflation + Population.' Last Summer, the conservative budget coalition identified the Inflation + Population target as 6.5% growth in the all funds budget. The final growth rate came in a smidgen under 4%. In addition, the budget contained meaningful pro-life riders and ended one major transportation diversion.
Pro-Life: C -- The good news: The 84th Legislature passed two substantive pro-life laws. HB 3994 (Morrision) closes the loophole ridden process by which a minor may obtain an abortion without parental consent. HB 3074 (Springer) begins to reform the draconian Texas Advance Directives Act. These are both meaningful improvements. Unfortunately, even getting these two bills across the finish line required pulling teeth.
The Bad News: Byron Cook. SB 575 (L. Taylor) would have prohibited insurance companies from forcing Texans to subsidize elective abortions. After the bill came over from the Senate, Cook slow walked it for two weeks. Then Byron Cook gutted the bill out of spite. Then, on the final day to consider legislation, Cook killed SB 575 in order to focus on anti-First Amendment legislation.
The Bottom Line: The only reason meaningful pro-Life legislation passed this session was the dogged and indefatigable work of Texas Right to Life. Unfortunately, even on the successful bills, the process unnecessarily dragged on for months. Pro-lifers were often forced to resort to floor amendments because hostile leadership in the Texas House wouldn't pass meaningful legislation out of committee. All this in a legislative body with 97 allegedly pro-Life Republicans. Don't get us started on J.D. Sheffield.
Tax Relief: C- -- Reductions in tax rates are always welcome. The good news is that the 84th legislature cut rates instead of coming up with gimmicky "tax credits." Nonetheless, we find it difficult to get excited over this tax package.
While lower rates are always welcome, the 84th legislature failed to address the primary economic burden of either the margins tax or property taxes. The primary burden of the margins tax are compliance costs. Appraisal creep is the main way property taxes hurt Texans. Neither the margins tax nor the property tax system were structurally reformed. Unfortunately, efforts to do so either died in committee or on the House floor.
The tax relief package from this session can best be described as a "lukewarm"; as Jesus tells the Church at Laodecia: "So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth."
Border Security: D -- The 84th legislature passed a bill that throws money at the border without addressing the core problem. While no one opposes having the national guard in South Texas, HB 11 allows them to do little more than continue the Federal Government's catch and release 'strategy.' While it's better than nothing, the changes are more cosmetic than substantive.
The most important piece of legislation, the interstate compact for border security, passed the Senate before dying in the House. In addition, efforts to end sanctuary cities and tuition subsides for illegal aliens fell flat. The legislature did pass a watered down version of e-verify for state agencies.
The result was a package that, while it's an advancement from the status quo, nonetheless remains uninspiring.
Second Amendment: D -- Well whoop-de-doo, open carry and campus carry passed!!! Huzzah!!! Our second amendment rights have been restored!!!
Sarcasm aside, the 84th Texas legislature did the bare minimum to advance the second amendment. Both open carry and campus carry were substantially watered down during the legislative process. Similar to pro-Life, getting these bills across the finish line was like pulling teeth.
Meaningful second amendment legislation (ie. Constitutional Carry), meanwhile, failed to get a hearing in the Senate and was lawlessly and maliciously killed in the House.
Transportation: D -- During last year's campaign, Governor Abbott promised to fix Texas' roads "without raising taxes, fees, or tolls." To their credit, the legislature fixed one of the minor diversions by which money intended for transportation gets siphoned off into other uses in the budget. Texans will vote this fall on whether to approve a complicated new funding source for road construction.
Unfortunately, the Governor and legislature took TxDOT's claim they need an additional $5 Billion at face value. There was never a serious effort to reform TxDOT or other transportation entities. Thus they poured money into the same dysfunctional system.
Meanwhile, the 84th legislature did little to address the double-taxation inherent in the state's toll road system. Under the leadership of Joe Pickett in the House and Robert Nichols in the Senate, the most important toll road reforms failed to get a hearing. They failed to stop the flow of public money to toll roads or to retire tolling after construction debt is repaid. Instead, we got a toll road elimination "study." Another noteworthy development was that Joe Pickett remained so committed to red-light cameras that he killed his own bill rather than pass a prohibition (and, of course, this).
Education: F -- The 84th Texas legislature failed to pass reforms to the state's education bureaucracy. School choice received some buzz at the beginning of the session. Unfortunately, the final version of the bill was watered down in the Senate before being killed in the House.
The primary action on education was the Governor's bizarre, myopic, commitment to pre-K. While Tea Party opposition helped defang the bill, the Governor's inexplicable commitment sucked the oxygen out of all other education reform efforts. Massive missed opportunity.
Meanwhile, the grassroots are stuck asking the Governor to veto SB 313/HB 2811, two bills that would undermine Texas' educational standards in favor of a Common Core lite approach.
Ethics: F -- Where to begin?!?
After the Governor made Ethics reform one of his priority items, Senator Van Taylor filed a strong Ethics reform bill. Even after having been watered down in the Senate, the bill was still a meaningful step forward. The bill passed 31-0 in the Senate and headed to the House.
In the House, Byron Cook sat on the bill for two weeks before completely re-writing it. Rather than require information from public officials, the re-written bill repackaged House leadership's longstanding anti-Empower Texans legislation with a new provision banning filming lawmakers. A bill that was supposed to be about accountability for public officials instead became an assault on the rights of private citizens. Fortunately, the re-written bill was D.O.A. in the Senate. And yes, this is the bill that was used to kill pro-life legislation that we discussed above.
"Fit hits the Shan" Preparation: F -- The 84th legislature passed a "Gold Bullion Depository" bill that was so watered down as to be meaningless. Efforts to harden Texas electrical grid from EMP attack went nowhere once the electric companies voiced their opposition. American Laws for American Courts passed the Senate too late for it to matter and was killed twice in the House.
Religious Liberty: F -- On no other topic was the 84th Texas Legislature more callow or pathetic. The Texas Association of Business created a Potemkin Village and gullible Republicans took the bait. You know it's bad when the Texas "Freedom" Network sends out this type of congratulatory press release.
While a meaningless "Pastor Protection" bill was passed, efforts to reign in local tyranny or protect the conscience rights of adoption providers went nowhere.
There could yet be a special session on this topic.
Structural Fiscal Reforms: F -- In 2012, 94% of Republican primary voters endorsed a constitutional amendment that would limit growth in state spending to inflation + population growth; for the second session in a row, Republicans in the Texas Legislature failed to deliver.
At the beginning of the session, Lt. Governor Patrick and Jane Nelson floated a clever idea that would have altered the rules for how state fiscal policies were recorded. The Patrick/Nelson proposal would have encouraged tax relief and debt repayment over traditional government spending. Unfortunately, this proposal went nowhere as it couldn't even get all the Senate Republicans on board.
SB 9 (Hancock) was a statutory attempt to tighten the current spending limit. It passed the Senate in plenty time. Unfortunately, John Otto gutted and killed it in the House.
Higher Education: F- -- They gave the universities a brand-new $3 BILLION slush fund. They overwhelmingly confirmed Abbott's AWFUL U.T. Regent nominees. Repeal of Tuition DeReg died in Committee.
Bottom Line: We had low expectations heading into this session; it met them.