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January 12th, 2011:

Senate stands down again

No vote on the rules till next week, so the 2/3 rule lives for a few more days.

In an hour-long caucus behind closed doors, Texas senators decided today to put off for a week a potentially acrimonious public debate over changing their rules. The discussion will occur next Wednesday, as Senate leaders had hinted yesterday.

In the meantime, the Senate will continue to operate under the rules it approved last session.

At issue: A proposal championed by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to change a rule that requires two-thirds of senators to agree before a bill can be brought up for debate. Most senators say they favor leaving the rule as it is. Patrick insists the two-thirds rule thwarts debate on important issues — read that as ones that Republicans want to pass, and Democrats don’t.

Under the current rule, because the 12 Democrats constitute a third of the Senate, they can block debate on some issues.

As Trailblazers notes, the rules the Senate operated under last session allowed for voter ID legislation to be exempted from the two thirds rule. If the default is to simply use the previous rules, which I believe is the norm, then that’s what we’ll get this session as well. This is what I expect to happen, but we’ll see. Burka has more.

There was a little bit of House action to note:

Rep. Todd Hunter will now chair the select committee in charge of determining the HD 48 vote. After a recount, incumbent Democrat Donna Howard won by just 12 votes—a result challenged by opponent Dan Neil.

The rest of the committee: Eiland, who will serve as vice-chair, Kolkhorst, Giddings, Guillen, Bonnen, W. Smith, Madden, and Lewis. State Rep. Will Hartnett remains the master of discovery.

After the committee was read, Hunter took the floor to tell members to “be very careful in discussing this matter.” Members could inadvertently cause problems by discussing the controversy in casual conversation. The committee will ultimately issue a report on the challenge.

Hartnett’s discovery report is still the main thing. In 2005, once his report made it clear that Talmadge Heflin had no case in his contest against Rep. Hubert Vo, Heflin withdrew his challenge before the House voted on it; it may have been before the committee vote as well, I honestly don’t remember. Point being, the hope is that this committee winds up having little to do.

Voters say they don’t want spending cuts

According to one poll, anyway.

Voters gave Republicans an overwhelming victory in November, leaving the GOP with nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Legislature and every statewide office. Many have interpreted the election as a clear call for spending cuts, and in fact, a Texas newspapers poll conducted in the weeks before the election showed that voters prefer spending cuts to higher taxes.

But the new poll shows voters want more than half of the state budget protected.

Some 70 percent of respondents said lawmakers should not cut school spending, and 61 percent said they want no spending cuts on health care programs for children and low- to moderate-income families.

“Everybody would like to make cuts, but it’s hard to actually make them where the most spending is,” pollster Mickey Blum said.

She said Democrats, Republicans and independents all prefer not to cut education and health care. Also, a majority of poll respondents who voted in the November election oppose cuts to those programs.

[…]

Voters are more willing to cut spending on colleges and universities, however. Pollsters found that 41 percent of respondents said lawmakers should cut higher education spending a little, while 12 percent said they should cut it a lot. Still, nearly four in 10 voters said they did not want any spending cuts in higher education.

The poll also shows majority support for expanded gambling, a preference for raising cigarette taxes as opposed to other forms of increasing revenue, significant opposition to raising the class size limits and (somewhat oddly, in my opinion) to allowing concealed handguns on college campuses. A few thoughts:

– I don’t see crosstabs – this was a telephone poll of 819 Texans, including 716 registered voters, conducted from December 28 to January 5 by Blum & Weprin Associates – so as always, take with a requisite amount of salt.

– There is always more support for cutting budgets in general than there is for cutting specific programs. This is why many Republicans avoid being specific about making cuts, no matter how ridiculous it makes them appear. Similarly, there is always more support for ways of raising revenue that don’t affect most people, like cigarette taxes, than for broad-based measures like sales and property taxes.

– Having said all that, this is why I stressed in the immediate aftermath of the election that it is vital for Democratic legislators to avoid supporting Republican budget-cutting efforts, at least without getting substantial concessions. We have to be able to make them own it 100%. They got us into this mess, after all.

– I still believe that expanded gambling is doomed. But I’m sure the gambling industry will use polls like this to put pressure on the Lege, especially as some of them begin to grasp the sheer magnitude of the problem. They could prove me wrong.

– Needless to say, Rick Perry didn’t get the memo.

Interestingly, there’s some evidence that at least a few Republicans are looking at this mess with something other than glee.

The underlying fear, from some in both parties, is that the budget-cutting zealousness could go too far.

“You’ll be gutting, literally gutting, some core services that government does for everybody,” warned 16-year Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, a key member of the House leadership. “You’ve got to be careful about crippling every program to the point of no recovery.”

[…]

Solomons, a lieutenant of House Speaker Joe Straus, said ordinary Texans will notice if the deficit is as huge as expected – and only cuts are used to zap it.

“You just won’t build any more roads. And you might not be able to maintain roads for a while. … Instead of taking three days to get your license, it might take 30,” he said.

Solomons said he’ll support many spending trims but left open the possibility that he might reluctantly back tax or fee increases. The state has too many needs, especially in education, he said. Business people tell him they want an educated workforce.

“So are you going to fund community colleges?” he said. “Or are we going to cripple everything?”

It’ll be interesting to see if Solomons gets criticized for his heretical stance. The Chron quotes a couple of former legislators, who no longer have to worry about such things.

The second-biggest Republican freshman class was the 27 who faced a major budget shortfall of $10 billion in 2003. Several members of that class said the new lawmakers will bring fresh ideas but warned that they should watch out for unintended consequences as they try to cut the budget.

“A lot of us thought we can clean this by doing better about spending and we can cut out waste, but we didn’t know at the time the significance of the cuts and the fallout,” said former Rep. Carter Casteel, R-New Braunfels.

Casteel noted the Legislature her freshman year deregulated college tuition to balance the budget without actually cutting higher education spending. She said the unintended consequence was that a higher education became harder to obtain for the children of Texas and was a new financial burden on the state’s middle class.

Casteel and another 2003 freshman, former Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Houston, said the Legislature that year also shifted a financial burden to counties by cutting the caseloads handled by the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Instead of having a doctor through health insurance, low-income children were treated in expensive emergency rooms at the cost to county taxpayers.

“There are consequences on the back end,” Van Arsdale said.

Good to know there’s some maturity out there. Of course, both Casteel and Van Arsdale later got ousted in Republican primaries, Casteel for opposing schools vouchers and Van Arsdale for not showing sufficient fealty to Dan Patrick. Maturity isn’t always valued.

More on paying for roads and other forms of transportation

Given that the private toll road debate is set to gear up again in Texas, it is fortuitous that the Texas Public Interest Research Group, a/k/a TexPIRG, chose last week to release a report called Do Roads pay For Themselves? You can read the whole report, or you can skip to their press release for a preview of the answer to that question.

Among the findings of the report:

  • Federal gasoline taxes were originally intended for debt relief, not roads.
  • Highways, roads and streets have received more than $600 billion in subsidies over the last 63 years in excess of the amount raised through gasoline taxes.
  • The amount of money a particular driver pays in gasoline taxes bears little relationship to his or her use of roads funded by gas taxes. Drivers pay gasoline taxes for the miles they drive on local streets and roads, even though those proceeds are typically used to pay for state and federal highways.
  • Most state gas taxes are partly offset by subsidies that exempt gasoline from sales taxes.

“Texas needs to make difficult choices about how to fund our states’ troubled transportation system. The first task is to discard common myths about how roads are paid for,” said Slatter at TexPIRG.

The transportation finance system in Texas is broken. Officials at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) have admitted there isn’t enough money for basic road repairs. The process by which the gas tax is allocated is corrupt and lacks transparency.

“The state’s gas tax has been placed in a cookie jar and lawmakers help themselves to as many as it takes to pretend they’ve balanced the budget,” said Slatter. “The process discourages transparency or accountability.”

“This dishonest charade only encourages state officials to seek indirect and short-sighted methods to fund road projects,” Slatter continued. “In Texas, that means pushing the same unpopular private toll road agenda the state has been pushing for close to a decade.”

While toll roads are the closest thing to a user fee, in Texas, the state has turned to privatizing toll roads in order to fund most major highway projects. Privatization deals are fraught with problems and characterized by the same leveraging of debt, reckless shifting of risk and conflicts of interest that caused the financial meltdown on Wall Street.

“Looking ahead to the 2011 legislative session, Texas lawmakers will be faced with serious challenges to fund smart transportation projects,” concluded Slatter. “This report shows that highway spending has been wrongly portrayed as financially conservative. Sound transportation policy requires honest investment in transportation infrastructure that advances long-term needs, rather than continuing on the wrong path towards more debt and waste.”

I should note that there’s already some thought being given to alternatives to the gas tax, and as there has been many times before there’s talk about ending the diversions of the gas tax to other things like education and the Department of Public Safety. Given the extreme unlikelihood that a suitable alternate funding mechanism for DPS would be found this session, I wouldn’t bet on anything happening, but there you have it.

The question of tolls is addressed in a sidebar on page 10:

What About Tolls?

There are, of course, real “user fees” assessed on some American roads: tolls. Unlike gasoline taxes, tolls are true user fees—users pay them, non-users don’t, and users generally pay in proportion to the amount of the service they consume.

The problem with tolling, however, is that only a small portion of the nation’s highways could truly “pay for themselves” in this way. In other words, if the true cost of building, say, Boston’s Big Dig or a rural highway in Idaho were to be charged to its users, the tolls would be so high that they would deter some or all drivers from using them—defeating the purpose of building the highway in the first place.

The recent track record of privately financed toll roads in the United States—which includes the financial struggles of roads such as California’s SR-91 express lanes and Texas’ Camino Columbia toll road—underscores just how iffy a proposition it can be to self-finance modern highways with toll revenue—especially since the private companies have relatively high capital costs and must skim off a profit
share to investors.

The inadequacy of tolling for building a truly national system of highways was recognized by the architects of the Interstate Highway System. A 1938 federal report found that the amount of expected long-distance traffic was insufficient to support toll highways. In the 1950s, experts estimated that no more than 9,000 miles of highway (compared with the more than 3 million miles of highway in existence at that time) could support themselves with tolls.

Just some more data to keep in mind when and if the toll road issue resurfaces. The national PIRG organization has also touted this study, mostly as a way to advocate for a bigger and better funding mechanism for public transportation, a goal with which I heartily agree. Grist has more.

There’s still no such thing as a rainy day

Having been in denial about the size of the budget deficit, Governor Perry goes into denial about how to deal with it.

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday said he was opposed to using the state’s rainy day fund to help pay for services despite a looming budget shortfall that is estimated at $15 billion to $27 billion during the next two years.

“We will prioritize what’s important in this state. We will fund those. And we will craft a budget that meets those revenue projections and not raise taxes nor get into the rainy day fund,” Perry said. “And that’s been a consistent message for at least a year and a half.”

He disputed the idea of a shortfall when the next budget has yet to be written, noting that Texas’ budget must balance: “We don’t have shortfalls in Texas. … You couldn’t spend enough to make some of those groups happy.”

Let me ask again, what is the purpose of the Rainy Day Fund if it never gets used? There’s an old parable about a miser who buried all of his money in a box in his back yard. Every day he’d go dig it up and look at it and celebrate how much it was, then he’d bury it again. One day, someone snuck into his yard, dug up the box of money, and stole it. The miser bemoaned the loss of his fortune to a friend, who told him to bury a rock in its place, since it would do as much good for him as the buried money had done.

The point I’m making is that if we don’t use the Rainy Day Fund, it’s basically the same as not having it in the first place. Remember back when we had a federal budget surplus? The conservative argument was that surpluses are bad, because it was “the people’s money” and should be given back, via tax cuts. I find it strange to see Perry arguing that the state should hold on to all of this money. I guess if it can’t be used on tax cuts it’s not of interest to him.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that Perry’s position so far seems to be not in step with the rest of the leadership.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said a shortfall figure of at least $27 billion is “in the ballpark” when looking at the amount of money needed to provide the current level of services.

The initial House budget proposal that Pitts introduces will be written within available money, without using the rainy day fund or other additional revenues. Lawmakers will decide how to proceed from there, he said.

“We cut education. We cut higher ed. We cut public ed. We cut health and human (services)” in the initial proposal, Pitts said. “We’re just showing the reality of it. … There may be a group that thinks this bill is great. I don’t know what to expect this next legislative session.”

[…]

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst spokesman Mike Walz said that while the fund will not be used in the first Senate version of the budget, Dewhurst “expects both the Senate and the House to dip into the rainy day fund this session in order to fund our priorities and still save a portion to balance the budget again in 2013.”

While I’d want to use the vast majority of the Rainy Day Fund, I’d leave a little bit for the next biennium as well, precisely because I fully expect we’ll be in a deficit situation again, regardless of how the economy does. You could argue that we ought to use it all this session, to show the reality of what our structural-deficit-causing property tax cuts have wrought in 2013, but that may be too scary for some people. While I hope the Lege will avoid disaster on this, it’s important to remember that a minority can prevent the Rainy Day Fund from being used. There’s a lot that can go wrong.

Time for a change in Farmers Branch

Good riddance.

Farmers Branch Mayor Tim O’Hare announced this morning that he will not seek re-election in this suburb that gained national fame for its stance on illegal immigration.

[…]

O’Hare did not endorse any candidates for mayor but attending his news conference this morning were former city council members Charlie Bird and Bill Glancy. Both men are believed to be considering a bid for the mayoral perch.

As for O’Hare’s future political plans, he said “I’ve followed politics since I was a teen-ager. Politics is something that interests me.” But for the immediate future, the mayor said he wanted to focus on raising a family and enlarging it.

I sincerely hope that the next Mayor of Farmers Branch will not be a xenophobic fearmongerer. I don’t expect that to happen, unfortunately, but I hope so anyway.