Pre-Election Blues and Reds

Dead DonkeyNot a day goes by when my mailbox isn’t filled with a variety of prognostications regarding the potential outcome of the November 2014 general elections. First the Republicans are going to sweep the Senatorial races. Then they won’t. Rush Limbaugh says that the Republican legislators don’t stand for anything except being anti-Obama, which may not be entirely true, as a lot of them don’t seem all that opposed to some of the administration’s policy directions. Then there is the possibility that a lot of the negative predictions are really designed to raise money, after all, there doesn’t seem to be a one that isn’t attached to “donate here” button.

Of course, the vast majority of races will probably be unknowns until the last minute. But in Texas that isn’t the case. The Democrat Party has been buzzing with plans to “turn Texas blue” and this year brings a fairly unique situation, as all of the major state government offices are up for grabs with no incumbents in the picture. Governor Rick Perry is retiring; Lt. Governor David Dewhurst was defeated in the primaries and Attorney General Gregg Abbot moved up the ladder going for Governor. The other statewide offices are likewise open – but not for long. It is a virtual forgone conclusion that these offices will be swept by the Republican Party, and not by any run-of-the-mill Republicans; they will be mostly, if not all, conservatives.

The governor’s race has been considered an easy win for some time. The latest question from the polling people has been whether Gregg Abbot will win by ten or twenty percentage points. Wendy Davis, the Democrat state senator from the Dallas area, has shown herself to be less of a hard luck story than a manipulative opportunist. She used an abortion limitation bill in the Texas Senate as a chance to draw attention to herself by filibustering the vote during a special session. Lt. Governor Dewhurst could have quashed the filibuster by a procedural move but failed to execute it, which probably also failed to endear him any further with an electorate that has had its fill of his indecisive leadership; particularly on the subject of property taxes, which catapulted the next Lt. Governor, Dan Patrick (not the sports personality) into the Texas Senate from where he has staged his run. Patrick’s opponent is not a major figure, and is not presenting a significant challenge.

Both Patrick and Abbot have been declare the prohibitive favorites, which has not stopped them from campaigning as if they were still in a real contested race. Patrick, who has frequently declared that he intends to run as if he is behind the whole way, is a constant presence around the state and has shown that not only does he understand leadership, but that he will use it to bring about significant legislative changes. The prime area of interest that he intends to focus on is property taxes, although other financial matters will receive significant attention as well.

The property tax issue has been a constant concern for Senator Patrick for some time. When I first arrived in the Houston area around ten years ago he was already an activist on the subject, using his show on KSEV 700 AM to promote needed changes. He even organized a bus trip to Austin with local residents to testify on the subject, but the chairman of the committee refused to allow the people to testify, convincing Patrick to run for office. He then spent a significant portion of the following years in Austin, continuing to agitate on the issue without results.

It should be pointed out that property taxes are a major source of revenue for the state because Texas has no income tax and is prevented from enacting one by the state constitution. Whipsawing property values in recent years, have created a major problem because properties are revalued each year at by the Assessor’s Office at what are supposed to be market values. However. There is more to the problem. Public agencies love to treat increasing property values as a perpetual trend that will bring them untold wealth into the future. Unfortunately, this belief led to funding of new projects based on unrealistic future projections, leaving, in particular, school districts with too much debt when the real estate market crashed in 2008. Instead of learning from the experience the districts began a new round of spending when values began to rise again. Other entities including, public service districts, and municipalities also experienced this situation. The taxpaying public, unable to control the entities sufficiently, was caught in the middle. One Austin resident was quoted as saying that she now would have to leave her house because she couldn’t afford the taxes, which were levied to pay for projects that she had supported. She didn’t seem to understand how this situation had happened.

Patrick, intent on remedying the over taxed public, and control the assessment problem has proposed a number of ideas including one that would adjust rates downward when values rise so that homeowners would not be paying rapidly increasing amounts from year to year. This would also force fiscal restraint on the tax receiving entities. Patrick, no doubt, has other proposals on the table, including some to control spending. His projected solution is simple. As Lt. Governor he won’t let a budget out of the Senate unless he has property tax relief passed and ready for signature. This would, potentially, require the state part-time legislature to remain in session until such relief is granted. Patrick has already garnered overwhelming support for this plan, which was a large part of the reason he defeated incumbent Dewhurst in the primary.

Texas seems poised for a sweep of all of its major offices. The only question is what will happen down ballot. As with most other states, Texas politics is principally Democrat in the large cities, but is very conservative in the suburbs and rural areas. In recent years the conservative vote outside of cities has caused the state government to follow a generally conservative policy direction, despite the cities going liberal and shooting themselves in the fiscal foot. Significant changes on the state level could create a precedent for fiscal responsibility at the state level with potential spillover to other states, which would be of benefit to them as well. The question is whether or not a trend would be established.

Election and watchers and political pundits will be keeping their eyes on the Lone Star State, at least for the next two years to see what transpires. But for now, the plans to turn Texas blue are crashing and burning in what appears to be a sea of red.

Comments are closed.