Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Session Ahead

With the Republican Party in Texas lacking a single leader or anyone with the ability to bring all the factions within the party together it should come as no surprise to anyone that going into the upcoming session there is no consensus on what to do in the upcoming special session. As this article shows, Top 3 officials at odds over session, the so-called “Big 3” (Gov., Lt. Gov. & Speaker) can't agree on what needs to be done:
In a sure sign of political fireworks to come, the state's top political leaders parted ways Tuesday on how they perceive the Texas Legislature's mission for the special legislative session.
Oooh, fireworks. Anyway, here's a random sampling of what's being discussed before the session starts:
  • Just a tax swap to satisfy the Supreme Court (Perry)
  • A teacher pay raise
  • Reform the entire Texas public school system (Dewhurst)
  • Use the surplus now to satisfy the court and then revisit this in full during next year's regular session (Chisum, et al.)
Now we all know that the governor sees a tax cut as the manna he can give to his Republican base/disciples in order to seal his reelection deal in November. He needs this so bad that he even enlisted his once and again best friend and fellow Aggie John Sharp to lead a commission of cronies and business people to devise the best way to tax themselves.

David Dewhurst has ambition for higher office and is trying become a “uniter not a divider” - like someone else we know – by trying bring about something nobody has ever been able to do in Texas, a complete school finance overhaul, and he is one of the weakest Lt. Gov.'s in modern history. Probably not gonna work.

Speaker Craddick, with his House caucus in shambles, is going to have to try and form a coalition in the house out of lame ducks, scared incumbents and pro-voucher members in his own party. Good luck.

The question on the Republican side is...is there anyone in their party that wields a big enough stick or has enough power to bring these three guys together on a plan that they can then go and threaten the legislature to pass or else? Harvey Kronberg's latest at News 8 says there's two likely outcomes:
With failure not an option, there are two likely scenarios.

The first is the plan to expand business taxes developed by the Sharp Commission. It is the most ambitious of any of the offerings to date and has a lot to recommend it. Although the plan has not yet been finalized, it includes a low business tax rate and incentives for hiring and employee health care. It would also raise cigarette taxes.

As attractive as the plan may be, its opponents include a group of major law firms who are prepared to argue that it amounts to a personal income tax on partners. Mr. Sharp disagrees.

Another proposal by a group of lawmakers argues that you cannot pass a major tax bill when the state is enjoying a surplus of at least $4 billion which may balloon to as much as $8 billion next August. The money is not really a surplus, it is simply unspent cash that will be needed to fulfill financial commitments next year. But that may be a distinction without a difference for many voters and while it is only a temporary fix, it may be the most that this exhausted and politically bloodied legislature can do.
What will the solution be? Well, your guess is as good as mine. I believe the legislature will come up with something. They will not let the schools be shutdown, no matter what. That could mean buying down property taxes with the “surplus” and put off debate on school finance, again, this time until the 2007 regular session. Since the governor's call will be narrow, and I doubt if they get his property tax swap accomplished they will stick around or the governor will call another special session to deal with school finance in an election year. But remember a good percentage of the surplus is money that was set aside by the legislature last year for school funding which could be used for a teacher pay raise It was also built by taking from the least among us:
This surplus that Chisum and others are touting is less than meets the eye, however. For one thing, included in it are sums the legislature last year said would be reserved for education programs and personnel, not for tax cuts. Legislators also need to remember that the so-called surplus exists largely because of harsh cuts in compensation imposed on school employees in the 2003 legislative sessions--cuts that continue in effect today. And that's not to mention the other cuts in vital programs like children's health insurance.
Just a quick aside. For us here in Williamson County we don't have to worry because our two state representatives, Rep. Krusee and Rep. Gattis, will vote with the Speaker and the pro-voucher crowd like they always have. I've searched to find any kind of statement from either one of them on the upcoming session and can't find anything. (Of course the Godfather of Toll has better things to do). I'm sure if they did say anything it would be the tired ol' line of property taxes are too high, we need greater accountability, yada, yada, yada.

Inevitably, of course, in response to criticism like this the Republicans will say that the Democrats don't have a plan. My answer to that is what chance would a Democratic plan have in the Republican dominated legislature? Exactly, none. Those who say that should also remember that the only plan that got majority support last session was from Rep. Hochberg, a Democrat. Which just goes to show two things. We have a complete lack or leadership and ideas in today's Texas Republican Party and also Republicans hold the majority in every branch of government. That is something that every Democratic candidate for any office Federal, state and local need to make very clear. Republicans control Texas government and therefore they are to blame for the state of things in Texas.

[UPDATE]: Received this tip, Governor calls special session, via email I didn't check the TDP before posting, thanks for the tip:
Republican Representative Mike Krusee said he wants to see a solution that includes lower property taxes.

"Most importantly we have to meet the court's demand that we fix school finance," he said. "I hope while doing that we can lower property taxes dramatically. I think we can solve the school finance issue, lower property taxes and leave with a better, fairer tax system than when we started."

[...]

Krusee also said changes to the tax system were critical to finding the right solution.

"Some legislators are going to be attracted to not fixing tax system but using the surplus. I don't think that's a long term solution," he said. "I think next session the legislature will likely have a large surplus and it is my hope that surplus will fund further property tax decreases and a pay raise for teachers."

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