Yes, I hate the ‘nothing burger’ meme as much as anyone but if everyone is going to use it anyway, I might as well hop on the train. And if there was ever an appropriate time to use it, it would be to describe the 85th session of the Texas Legislature.
The problem this session for the average working Jane is President Donald Trump. No, he’s got nothing to do with the Texas Lege but he has everything to do with dominating the news cycle. It doesn’t matter if you are pro or anti Trump, the media’s breathless, microscopic focus on everything Trump leaves little room for the average working Jane to get any information about the happenings in Austin.
The result of the Trump coverage is that it allows politicians from both parties to once again pretend that they are supporting their base activists while doing little to nothing to push the state into a better position in the future. The lone exception to that is the passage of a a “sanctuary city” bill that actually has teeth and will pretty much assure another round of statewide victories for Republicans in 2018. More on that later. Let’s take a look at a couple of ‘nothing burgers’ being promoted by Texas politicians.
On Saturday, the Senate/House conference committee on the budget declared that a compromise had been reached.
“We have reached a consensus on what I believe is a responsible, compassionate and smart budget for the people of Texas,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and the upper chamber’s top budget writer, at a committee hearing that lasted late into Saturday night.
“This has been a laborious process, I have to say,” said state Rep. John Zerwas, a Republican from Richmond and Nelson’s counterpart on the House Appropriations Committee. He called the budget “fiscally conservative” during “a time when it’s a little bit more lean.”
It’s laughable to hear those descriptions of this compromise. Responsible, compassionate, smart and fiscally conservative sure have different meanings when a politician says them, I guess.
Budget documents indicated around $1 billion would come from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a $10 billion savings account available to shore up the budget in difficult years. That money would pay for priorities such as repairs to the state’s aging mental health hospitals and bulletproof vests for police officers.
Nearly $2 billion more would come from an accounting trick related to transportation funding approved in 2015. The proposed budget would delay a payment to the state highway fund in order to free up that funding for other needs in the current two-year budget. The House had previously been critical of the possibility.
Most of us wouldn’t consider pulling a $1 billion out of savings to fund ongoing expenses responsible. Nor would we consider using an accounting trick to pretend we have more money than we do responsible. Politically smart, sure, but responsible? Or fiscally conservative? Like I said, politicians seem to have their own dictionary.
Even with that nonsense Gov. Greg Abbott threw a fit. Why?
Texas House and Senate budget negotiators agreed on a state budget for 2018-19 late Saturday — deciding to tap the state’s rainy day fund, a key sticking point — but not before Gov. Greg Abbott demanded they add $100 million to programs that are controlled by his office.
“He clearly felt that he needed more in the area of his trusteed funds in order carry out some of the economic development,” Rep. John Zerwas, the House’s top budget writer, told reporters after the committee adjourned about 1 a.m. Sunday. “If we had had a little bit more of a heads-up, we might have been able to make the accommodations. But it works out fine.”
Daniel Hodge, Abbott’s chief of staff, said that the last-minute demands were not new. “What we asked for last night was what we had been asking for since January in new money,” he said Sunday. The committee added the money.
While Zerwas, R-Richmond, was characteristically diplomatic about the demand, other lawmakers showed their frustration. When the committee was getting ready to reconvene, Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, jokingly said: “Is this about more corporate welfare? Is that why we’re still here?”
There is more than enough in those four paragraphs to inform everyone about the nonsense in Austin. But will they listen? Will they even be able to hear given the Trump express noise?
Property Tax Relief/Reform
There has been a whole lot of blustering by the usual suspects about the need for property tax relief and reform. Lt. Gov. Patrick demanded that the House pass it or he would hold up the proceedings and force a special session. Don’t believe the hype folks.
The Tax Man, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, or Tio Pablo as we affectionately call him around here, has the lead on this one. Instead of pursuing real relief or real reform, he brings us a big ol’ ‘nothing burger’.
Patrick said this week that the bill, which doesn’t set property tax rates, would cut the average homeowner’s property tax bill by $20,856 over 20 years.
Don’t spend that money yet.
State promises of property tax relief tend to evaporate. Look in your wallet for the $126 in touted average savings you stashed there the last time lawmakers fiddled with property taxes, and the $2,000 boasted average savings you were supposed to get after major school tax reforms in 2006.
Taxpayers did get some relief, whether they felt it or not, from those efforts. But the savings were mostly eaten up by increasing property values and local school property tax increases driven, in large measure, by the Texas Legislature’s cuts in per-student spending on public education.
I was watching Lt. Dan’s press conference when he said that the average homeowner would save $20k over 20 years and just about spewed my coffee on the keyboard. Not a chance in Hades that will happen and Lt. Dan knows it. He and Tio Pablo are banking on the average working Jane hearing a soundbite and believing it. And she might. Until she opens her tax bills over the next 20 years and realizes she’s been scammed.
Tio Pablo could have pursued real tax relief. As in tangible. Something like basing all property taxes on the purchase price of the property as long as you own it, eliminating an entire level of government (appraisal districts) at the same time. Or he could have tried to scrap the system altogether and replace it with a sales tax. After all, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett offered to help him make that switch.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmetthas an alternative to the property tax.
“That’s our only source of income,” Emmett confessed to a Lake Houston Chamber luncheon crowd, “the most reviled tax there is – and rightfully so.”
Emmett earned an enthusiastic round of applause when he suggested a 1.6-percent sales tax would raise the same amount of money for the county and the property tax could be abolished. He spoke to a capacity crowd on Sept. 29 at the Chamber’s annual State of the County Luncheon.
I begged Tio Pablo to consider Ed’s plan. But he refused. Think about that.
You know what the current plan is? It is an attack on our form of government, representative democracy. You see, there is a faction of the far right that wants to emulate California and have initiative and referendum. Direct democracy. They see forcing even more low turnout elections as a way to semi-achieve this.
Privacy and protection
SB6 would provide some measure of protection not from transgender folks but from absurd laws being passed by local governments codifying a defense for perverts. Transgender folks are going to use the restroom facility that they are dressed for. Perverts and criminals are going to use locally passed laws as a defense for their criminal activity.
House Speaker Joe Straus was blocking Lt. Dan’s bill for who knows what reason. Certainly not common sense. But Speaker Straus made a critical error on his calendar and Lt. Dan got the upper hand. He told Speaker Straus, look, either put it to a vote or I’ll corner Gov. Abbott and he’ll cave and call a special session to handle it. So Speaker Straus and the House amended a bill with something so nonsensical, even the alphabet crowd isn’t worried about it.
“It requires the provision of the facility. But it doesn’t take the next step that the district require any particular person use any particular facility,” said Joy Baskin, director of legal services at the Texas Association of School Boards. “In our understanding, the language is open-ended in that regard, and it will rely on the district’s discretion.”
The Texas Association of School Administrators said the bathroom bill “codifies what many districts are already doing.”
Baskin said the association believes that school districts that are already allowing transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity won’t have to reverse course. Neither will schools be required to “out” transgender students, because another provision in the bill bars the sharing of confidential student information.
The Texas House officially approved the bill Monday, with nearly every Republican voting in favor. The Senate needs to agree to the changes the House made to the bill, including the bathroom language, before Gov. Greg Abbott can sign it into law.
“It’s a big nothing burger,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford.
So it does nothing at all. Except, of course, force yet another unfunded mandate on our public schools. Which always means more local taxes. Great job Team Republicans! If Lt. Dan accepts this in light of his insistence on a vote on SB6, well, then you’ll get a better understanding of Lt. Dan.
There are other areas to discuss. Plenty. School funding. State parks. The complete waste of money for “border security”, which has become nothing more than a way to turn the Texas Dept. of Public Safety into a paramilitary force. Marijuana legalization. Protection of our coast from hurricanes. Clean water. None of which were addressed in a meaningful way.
Thank goodness these clowns only meet once every two years.
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