Also had a chance to talk to the great people of Wisconsin on WPR with Kathleen Dunn; here's a link to the episode.
Thanks to those of you who came out to last weekend's panel, at the Texas Book Festival, with George Packer (!) and me talking about our newish books. CSPAN has video of the discussion (moderated by UT's Glenn Frankel) online.
Also had a chance to talk to the great people of Wisconsin on WPR with Kathleen Dunn; here's a link to the episode.
I see that Philip A. Klein of the Washington Examiner caused a bit of surprise and consternation on Twitter this evening by tweeting out a comment from Ted Cruz's appearance at a conservative dinner, in which Cruz said that the GOP should focus on growth rather than austerity.
I wasn't surprised because a) Cruz said the same to me on Monday in Houston, and b) although I often hear Democrats say that Republicans are obsessed with austerity, I really don't see them framing things that way, at least in Texas, for reasons I discussed in May. (Actually, I was slightly surprised on Monday, but only because it was seriously the first time I can remember hearing a Texas Republican spontaneously bring up "austerity". It's just not part of the debate here.)
In case anyone's interested, though, here's the relevant excerpt from the interview Monday. The way this came about is that I had observed to Cruz that although he's a fiscal conservative and a social conservative, he seems to me to focus on fiscal issues or constitutional concerns more than social issues.
"The existential threat facing this country right now is fiscal and economic," he said, by way of response.
"Do you think there is an existential threat?" I asked.
Yes. We are bankrupting this nation. In five years under President Obama, we have seen our national debt go from ten trillion dollars to seventeen trillion dollars. It’s larger than the size of our economy. If we keep going down this road, there’s a point of no return. The most common thing I hear from Texans all over this state, men and women who grab my shoulder, they say: 'I’m afraid for this country. I’m afraid for my kids. I’m afraid for my grandkids. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing.'
I'll refrain from any serious commentary at this point, but a couple of notes: 1) this is a snippet from a series of interviews, so don't worry, I've asked him some of the questions that probably occurred to you while reading this; 2) yes, this was an off-the-cuff answer without any interruptions from me, although some parts had clearly been planned in advance (and were in fact repeated at this dinner tonight, as far as I can tell).
Also in the New York Times, called "Texans Stick With Cruz Despite Defeat in Washington".
This one sounds about right.
An important caveat is that we haven't had (or at least, I haven't seen) any Texas-specific polling on Cruz since before his pseudo-filibuster, etc, so it's impossible to say with any precision whether Cruz's adventures over the past few weeks have taken a toll on his approval ratings back home. However, as Fernandez notes, people in the state (any state) usually rate their senators more highly than national observers do.
Then, too, there's the fact that Texans are more familiar with Cruz than Americans as a group are.
Relatedly, I'm not sure that Cruz registers as extreme in Texas. Take a look at the election results for the 2012 general:
The presidential contest attracted more votes in total than the Senate race, but Romney's margin of victory over Obama was almost exactly the same as Cruz's margin of victory over Paul Sadler, who wasn't very well known and can therefore probably be considered a "generic Democrat." And Romney wasn't anybody's idea of a far right kind of Republican. If Cruz translated as extreme, I would expect to see some kind of dropoff in the R/D split from the presidential race to the Senate race. (That is, keep in mind, what happened in Missouri, Virginia, and Florida, which also had high-profile Senate races in 2012: Romney significantly outperformed the Senate candidate in each of those states.)
In Texas, by contrast, the discrepancy between the presidential and Senate contests appears to derive from the fact that the libertarian candidate got about 2% support in the Senate contest, and only 1% in the presidential (and amusingly, the libertarians in that extra 1% seem to have split their votes about equally between the Democrat and the Republican when looking at the top of the ticket).
Her latest column is called "A Ted Cruz on Every Corner." The premise is that not just Cruz but "so many other members of the state delegation" to Congress were "doing crazy things during the government shutdown debacle." Some thoughts:
1. Based on the examples given, by "doing crazy things," Collins apparently means saying silly or intemperate things. Most of the comments cited are indeed both, and McCain's response to Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert is pretty funny. However, Collins' characterization of what Cruz has been up to--"trying to win the hearts of American voters by spreading fear, terror and economic chaos"--strikes me as equally silly and intemperate.
2. I still wish someone would explain to me how, exactly, Cruz caused the shutdown. Telekinesis?
3. Although that account of Cruz might be intended humorously, it's not nearly as funny as Greg Abbott's explanation of his work as the state's attorney-general, which Collins cites disapprovingly: "I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and then I go home."
4. Speaking of Abbott, he does have about $20 million in his campaign war chest. I'd be surprised if it's enough "to buy Nebraska," as Collins asserts; but for anyone who is fearful as a result of Ted Cruz's wanton terror-spreading, keep in mind that any attempt to purchase Nebraska would arguably be in violation of the 10th Amendment, and General Abbott would have no choice but to sue himself over it.
5. The fact that George P. Bush is running for land commissioner is the opposite of "strange."
6. The boring truth is that Rick Perry supports funding the water plan (and has, in fact, been a voice of reason on the budget this year).
7. "The rest of us will just sit here and mull the fact that Texans feel the need to make these jobs elective." ???
8. In the space of three sentences Collins says that Wendy Davis is an "exciting" candidate for governor, notes that some people think she "might actually have a chance," and but then makes it clear that she herself knows better than that: "But anybody who could just raise money and get 45 percent of the vote would be the party’s biggest star since Ann Richards." It's hard to argue with Collins' logic on this--I mean, how could you read this list of a half a dozen carefully cherry-picked comments and fail to agree that this state is irredeemably fucked? I will, however, say that in my opinion, while Davis's biggest barrier to victory is Abbott, her second-biggest barrier to victory is the national Democrats who are simultaneously fawning over her as if she's their hand-selected ambassador to Texas while sighing over what they see as her inevitable loss.
9. I'm surprised that Collins hasn't knocked it off with the tired and misleading secession jokes yet.
10. Collins is correct to observe, as many Texans have observed this year, that "the pragmatic Texas Republican establishment is pretty much on its back, hyperventilating." That's true. The causes are complex and the ramifications could be significant, for the state and for the country. It's a phenomenon that is eminently worthy of serious consideration--an approach that Collins once again eschews in favor of the har-har perspective that she previously brought to her commentary about Texas.
A year ago this month, I was scrambling to finish my book (which was due the first week of November) while keeping up a steady stream of chatter about the 2012 elections (to be held the first week of November). That's what I was doing, pretty much all I was doing, when I was offered a job at Texas Monthly.
The only qualm I had about the offer was related to the first two circumstances. The preceding year had been exhausting. By October 2012 I wasn't even running on fumes; I was running on the unexamined premise that if I made it through the first week of November, then it would be the second week of November, and I could take a break. I liked the idea of working at Texas Monthly, though, and so I quickly accepted the offer. I thought: it's okay, between the book launch (in April) and the legislative session (January-May) I'll be pretty busy, but it'll be the end of May soon enough and I can take a break then.
Then it was the end of May, and Governor Perry called a special session half an hour after the regular session adjourned. I thought: Ok, it'll be a quick little special session, no big deal. I'll keep one eye on the Lege while I get started on the other things I was planning to do this summer. There were a couple of family situations I was worried about, and I had about a million calls and emails to answer, and a lot of paperwork looming for a mortgage closing I had scheduled for july. I was even looking forward to some things this summer, thought I might see more of my friends, spend some afternoons at Barton Springs, and get to work on some new writing projects, because I hadn't had much time for that and found myself missing it.
June was going pretty well until a week of pointless & unnecessary theater relating to an abortion bill triggered the most dramatic day in Texas politics in a generation, and my coverage of that day triggered the most uninformed and dishonest personal attacks I've ever elicited as a journalist. And I thought: Okay, the next couple of weeks are going to be a little busier than expected. And this isn't really great timing. The family situations were precarious. I had some Texas Monthly assignments I needed to get started on. The backlog on my to-do list was still so long it was making me vaguely nauseous to think about it. Assuming I closed on the mortgage on July 5th I would need to arrange a mid-summer move, which wasn't going to be pleasant. I missed my friends. But more than anything I was so tired. I had been tired for like a year. But I was resigned: It is what it is. I can handle it. No problem.
Then on August 2nd, just after I moved, and just as the third special session was winding down, and just as I was happily working on two long projects for the magazine, my dad was diagnosed with lymphoma. His prognosis is pretty good, thankfully, and he's started treatment. And since he was diagnosed I've learned that in addition to being scary, sad, etc, cancer is irritating. It's capricious as well as malicious, so you have to respond meekly. You don't stroll up to cancer and unfurl the Come and Take It flag. Or, at least, you don't do that when it's your dad who's sick. Still, that morning in August, taking notes as the doctors explained the diagnosis in an unmistakably oncological hush, I had a lot of thoughts, including this one: you have got to be fucking kidding me.
In other words, things have been busy around here, hence the lack of updates to this website. I'm planning to resume normal operations at this point, though. Still pretty busy but I'm tired of being in triage mode. (And if I owe you a call or an email: 1) sorry about that, 2) might be worth reminding me?)
My summary is at Texas Monthly. For more on our pending post-Perry Texas, see the August issue of the magazine. Additional feelings summarized in an exchange with my dad:
My thanks to James Decker, a longtime observer of the Texas Lege, who did yeoman's work to figure out and summarize the last thing that happened before the people's filibuster broke out:
A parliamentary inquiry concerning the chair’s failure to recognize a member who offered a privileged motion to adjourn during a vote to call the previous question and end debate on a motion to table appealing the decision of the chair sustaining the point of order that ended the filibuster.
Hope that clears things up!
That was the most unreal, incredible, etc., day/days I've ever seen in the Texas Lege.
My recap is up at Texas Monthly. (For a blow-by-blow, run backwards through my Twitter feed).
After all of these years of devoted readership I've finally found something I disagree with on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.
The Journal, that is, published an editorial this weekend arguing that Governor Perry should veto the budget the Lege just sent to him, on the grounds that the budget amounts to the state's "biggest spending spree in memory."
My view: as a rule of thumb, if you're talking about Texas, the words "spending" and "spree" don't belong in the same sentence. That is certainly true of the state's current budget proposal. Though bigger than the budget put forth in 2011, it is a fiscally responsible document. It will allocate billions of dollars for much-needed public investments in things like K-12 education, higher education, and infrastructure, and will leave Texas with one of the lowest per capita rates of spending (and taxing) in the country. And although the growth in the budget looks dramatic, you have to keep in mind that a) Texas is growing, and b) the 2011 budget was severely and artificially constrained, for reasons I'll describe below.
But let's just go through this editorial:
Call it the downside of prosperity: The Texas growth spurt has produced a near $20 billion gusher of new tax revenue, and the Republican-dominated legislature, with the support of seemingly every lobby in Austin, wants to spread the bounty. The biennial general-fund budget that awaits the Governor’s signature is $102 billion compared with $84 billion two years ago.
To be fair, Texas's budgeting processes are pretty weird, so let me review some basics.
The Texas constitution limits spending in four ways. The most significant restriction is the state’s pay-as-you-go provision. Under this provision, which was added to the state constitution in 1942, the Legislature can’t appropriate more money than the comptroller says will be available. There is an exception for emergencies, but even then, you need a four-fifths vote in both houses of the Lege. If you want to check, it’s Article III, Section 49a.
The second biggest restriction is that Texas has a spending cap, added to the constitution in 1978: “In no biennium shall the rate of growth of appropriations from state tax revenues not dedicated by this constitution exceed the estimated rate of growth of the state's economy.” That’s in Article VIII, Section 22.
(The latter two restrictions are rarely mentioned, because Texas isn’t really at risk of running afoul of either one, but in case you're curious: the constitution stipulates that if annual debt service exceeds 5% of the state’s average general revenue fund spending, the state can’t issue any more debt. And finally, the constitution includes a restriction against welfare spending: no more than 1% of the state’s biennial budget can be appropriated for TANF.)
In addition to all of these spending restrictions, Texas has a variety of barriers to raising taxes. Some of these are in the constitution, and some are just political. The result is that Texas doesn't raise much money, in per capita terms. And that, in turn, serves to reinforce the spending restrictions: The pay-as-you-go provision effectively ensures that regardless of what legislators want to do, they can't really go crazy. And the spending cap means that even if the state has an unusually flush year, they're constrained by the norms of the previous session.
It is probably fair to say that the state tends to spend about as much as it can, but that's because "as much as it can" is bound to be "not that much." And Texans are generally fine with this. Evidence: They keep voting for fiscal conservatives, and have done for most of the state’s history (regardless of whether those conservatives were typed as Ds or Rs). Further evidence: the voters are, in fact, the people who keep authorizing these spending restrictions on themselves via constitutional amendments.
In other words, although the budget currently awaiting Governor Perry’s signature looks dramatically bigger than the previous one, it doesn't mean that Texas has abruptly abandoned its longstanding tradition of fiscal responsibility. If anything the opposite is true. (Side note: the Journal is talking about the state's general funds budget, not the all funds budget, so that's what I'm talking about here too.)
Those numbers understate the blowout because $4 billion more was snatched from the state’s rainy day fund. Add various accounting stunts and the Texas Public Policy Foundation calculates a 26% spending increase for the biennium. A broad coalition of taxpayer and tea-party groups is urging Mr. Perry to veto.
So now let’s talk about what’s been going on in Texas over the past couple of budget cycles. As you have no doubt heard, the state of Texas has been doing so well, in recent years, that politicians and pundits have started referring to it as the “Texas Miracle.”
Despite that, when the state legislature convened in 2011 (our part-time Lege meets every other year for 140 days) lawmakers found that they were facing a severe budget shortfall. The estimates of its size vary, because they're based on projections about population growth, school enrollment, and so on. But the summary explanation is that the shortfall was the result of tough economic conditions, exacerbated by severely bad projections on the part of the state’s comptroller, Susan Combs.
That is, although Texas’s economy was doing better than most, the country had been dealing with the worst national downturn since the Great Depression. No state, including Texas, escaped unscathed. Let’s look again at the 2014-2015 Biennial Revenue Estimate--these are in Table 1 (p. 4) of the attached PDF. Between FY2008 and FY2009, gross state product actually declined. So did net personal income and total employment. The state’s population, however, continued to grow; Texas added nearly half a million people over the course of that year, and so the unemployment rate ticked up.
By FY2010, the state was in recovery. So why was there a shortfall in 2011?
First of all, as Combs put it in her 2012-2013 Biennial Revenue Estimate, tax revenues during the then-current (2010-2011) biennium had been worse than expected, so the Lege was going to have to use about $4 billion to patch up the current budget. Beyond that, she was fairly pessimistic about what collections would look like for 2012-2013.
Accordingly, Combs estimated that the state would have $72.2 billion available for general-purpose spending. By May, she revised the figure upward, but only to $73.4 billion.
Even at the time, many people--legislators, analysts, etc--thought the estimate was too low. Now we know that it was: when the current BRE was released, in January, the comptroller’s office counted $90.2 billion in general-revenue related funds available for certification.
But that didn't really matter, in 2011, because the Lege can't write a budget based on their expectations. They have to write a budget that fits within the comptroller's estimates. What's going on, in other words, isn't that the current proposal (the $102 billion) is comically bloated. It's that the previous budget, which appropriated $84 billion, was much smaller than it needed to be.
(As a heuristic, maybe it's worth saying that Texas's annual general spending per capita is less than $4,000 per year, which is one of lowest rates of any state--so although the top-line numbers sound big, keep in mind the scale of the state itself.)
Two years ago when the state faced a $15 deficit, Mr. Perry buried tax increase talk by signing a zero-growth budget. Mr. Perry’s spokesman Rich Parsons tells us that the 26% estimated increase may be inflated because it doesn’t take into account the underfunding of Medicaid and education in that 2011 budget. Mr. Parsons says that required about $7 billion of supplemental spending bills earlier this year. But even accepting this explanation, which is in dispute, the budget is still 16% higher.
The problem is that Texas grew between 2009 and 2011, as it had been doing for years and as it continues to do. In 2000, we were about 21 million. In 2010, about 25 million. Today, a little more than 26 million.
In other words, 2011’s “zero-growth budget” was nothing to brag about. It effectively meant that services were cut across the board (and this is not a state that was being unwarrantedly generous about services in the first place). New investments were basically off the table (and this is a state that, as as result of its tremendous growth, needs new investments in basic things like roads and schools).
Texas Democrats have subsequently observed that it’s a little suspicious that the state effectively got a mandate to cut the budget at this juncture--with the Tea Party movement at its moment of maximum power, and with Perry about to enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination. I think they’re right to make that critique, and there are certainly Texas Republicans (Combs being chief among them) who deserve to be fired for spending half their time bragging on the Texas Miracle and the other half advising a permanent defensive crouch.
But again, keep in mind that the comptroller’s estimate is an actual restriction, because of the constitutional pay-as-you-go provision. It’s probably fair to say that even if Republicans were sanguine, they didn’t think the sweeping cuts were ideal. The evidence is that, as Parsons indicates, big areas of the budget, like Medicaid and education, were deliberately underfunded. I mean, no one issued a press release announcing that that was the plan, but it was pretty obvious that legislators expected to come back in January 2013 and backfill the budget as needed, which is in fact what they did.
Republicans defend the budget by noting that Texas has urgent public-works needs. Two years of droughts make new water projects a necessity, and with nearly half the new jobs in the U.S. over the last four years springing up in Texas, roads and school funding are priorities too. But the Houston Chronicle notes that nearly everything from mental health to family planning to Medicaid to Mr. Perry’s pet corporate welfare program—the Emerging Technology Fund—won fat funding increases.
You could add up all of the spending on other programs mentioned and it would cost less than spending on public schools, which makes up about half of Texas’s spending and which are, as the Journal correctly says, a priority.
This may be the first time in history that a state experienced a rush of new tax collections and lowered its reserve fund.
Assuming this is true (I wouldn’t be surprised, but haven’t seen the source), I would guess it has something to do with the fact that most states don’t have notable economic growth or a well-stocked reserve fund.
Here’s the kind of rhetoric you hear from those big-spending conservatives who want to draw down the Rainy Day Fund: Although it’s true that interest rates are historically low, making it cheap to borrow, it’s also true that interest rates are historically low, meaning that it doesn’t make much sense to keep billions of dollars in a fund that earns less than 1% interest, especially if the alternative is borrowing at 3%.
The supplemental spending earlier this year also allowed an end run around the state’s constitutional spending cap....By spending more in 2013 the state can now appropriate more in 2014-15, because the baseline for calculating future expenditure growth is ratcheted upward.
This would be a reasonable way of looking at the situation if not for the fact that, as explained at tedious length above, the 2012-13 baseline was artificially ratcheted down by bad budget math.
The danger is that Texas will repeat the fiscal mistake that California has made repeatedly: spend during the glory days and, once the economy slows, raise taxes to cover the deficit. The Texas oil patch is riding high on $95 a barrel oil and a doubling in production in four years. But Texans shouldn’t forget the lesson of the 1980s and late 1990s that oil prices are volatile and a decline can be painful and prolonged.
Nobody in Texas has forgotten that lesson, at all. Through bitter experience we have learned that we can’t just go out back and frack up a few million dollars like our forefathers did. That’s why, for example, the budget on Perry’s desk--the budget that the Wall Street Journal wants him to veto?--expands funding for priorities like higher education.
Mr. Perry traveled on a business recruiting mission to California in February and poked fun at the tax-spend-and-borrow cycle in Sacramento. He can fix the reckless Texas budget by vetoing all or most of it and insisting on deeper business tax cuts. He should not want people to start comparing him unfavorably to Jerry Brown.
Really, the risk of that happening is remote.
On Monday (and man, talk about a long week) I had a debate at the LBJ Library with my friend Jason Stanford, moderated by our friend Dave Shaw...good times.
The video is online here. Thanks to all who came by!
PS. If you haven't been lately (or ever), the LBJ Library is great. They have a moon rock, an animatronic LBJ, and--so I hear--Bob Caro working in the archives (no seriously, he's working on volume five).