April 6, 2020

Death Threat

Conservatives Fear that Republicans Could Be Killing State
with Procrastination on Budget Knife in Midst of Virus Crisis

MIKE HAILEY

Republicans on the far right in Texas are serving up apocalyptic warnings about the state's future if GOP leaders and lawmakers fail to start slashing spending before the Legislature convenes in 2021 amid the double shock of the coronavirus and an oil industry meltdown.

Empower Texans chief Michael Quinn Sullivan - the prominent conservative activist who torpedoed Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen's career last year - appears to be leading the charge for proactive budget reductions that would probably require a special session at some point this year to achieve.

Texas legislators "can wait for 2021 and raise taxes, fees, and otherwise put a heavier burden on the economy... or they can start making cuts," Sullivan said in an email to supporters on Monday. "If they choose to raise taxes, they will destroy the Lone Star State."

Sullivan's critics will see the admonition as breathless hyperbole that's designed to trigger anger among grassroots followers and prospective donors as well. But MQS isn't exaggerating when he says that Texas lawmakers will be critical choices in the search for ways to pull state government out of a budget hole that will be deeper as a result of a record spending hike at the Capitol in Austin last year.

Texas Republican "officials – looking at record surplus revenues – chose to spend like drunken frat boys on spring break with daddy’s credit card," Sullivan declared.

The Texas tea party's most outspoken crusader doesn't appear to be concerned that the gaslighting rhetoric could make Governor Greg Abbott and legislative leaders less likely to support an emergency session to confront a fiscal nightmare that's as novel as COVID-19 itself.

It might be all but impossible to bring Bonnen on board for a special session if appeared that Republican leaders were capitulating the demands of someone who'd paved the way for his demise as the lower chamber's top leader with a spontaneous sting in connection with a secret colleague targeting plan that MQS exposed.

The majority of Texas House and Senate Republicans know that the state will survive whatever course of action that they eventually choose to take in the face of what has all the makings of the worst budget crisis in history.

Conservatives like MQS have been alienating Republicans outside their own ranks by criticizing local officials in Texas for imposing stay-at-home orders and temporary restrictions on nonessential businesses in attempts to protect cities and counties from the ruthless spread of a disease that has killed at least 140 Texans in the past few weeks with a fatality rate that's soaring exponentially.

Republican Konni Burton - a former tea party leader who served one state Senate term before her ouster by a Democrat in 2018 - has praised governors in a shrinking number of states that have ignored federal recommendations for stay-at-home mandates like Abbott imposed last week with a sugarcoated description.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick - a major Burton ally when she was a senator - sparked a furor two weeks ago when he declared that older citizens would be glad to die if that's what it took to get the economy up and running again. The prevailing sentiment inside the statehouse beltway had been that Patrick was testing a message for President Donald Trump for the Easter miracle that he'd been touting at the time. But Trump left Patrick hung out to dry if that had been the case when the president changed his tune dramatically almost immediately after the state Senate president floated the senior sacrificial theory.

The cold hard truth is that life went on in Texas after the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction signed the largest state tax increase in history that Democrats who controlled both chambers in Austin had supported in a special session in 1987 in the midst of a record deficit caused by plunging oil prices.

Republicans who'd taken over at the statehouse turned to deep budget cuts to avoid higher taxes in the face of major revenue shortfalls in 2003 and 2011. But the GOP lawmakers who aren't washed out by a potential blue wave in November could face an unprecedented ultimatum amid a historic fiscal disaster. Would they vote to raise taxes and fees if that's what it took to keep the local community college in business? That's an example of the kind of choices that the Legislature will be confronting when it convenes in January with or without a special session before then.

Mike Hailey's column appears on a regular basis in Capitol Inside

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Mike Hailey presents state politics with a personal touch. He's the only Texas Capitol journalist who's been to the dark side and back - having worked for two major newspaper bureaus before signing on as press secretary for Bob Bullock - the most powerful and legendary political leader of his time in the state. Hailey's Comment, which is published in Capitol Inside on a regular basis, is a direct reflection of that experience.

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