Friday, May 27, 2011

Anti-Tax Extremism: The State of the Texas Legislature and the House Speakership in 2011

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe the deeper ideological divides plaguing the Texas House in the 2011 legislative session.

The tremendous power Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick exercised in his brief reign was more than 160 years in the making. The speakership began in the early 19th century as a rotating honorary position chiefly concerned with the duties of presiding over debates. Speakers overwhelmingly shared the elitist values of the wealthy slaveowner class. A dominant ideology that promoted a rural economy, white supremacy, governmental favors to the wealthy and limited participation of the citizenry in daily government prevailed for much of the 19th century, limiting the policy options of individual speakers and rendering them interchangeable.

Republican Reconstruction briefly disturbed this governmental slumber. The state began to take responsibility for Texans without wealth, opening public schools and hospitals, providing mental health care, and promoting the growth of roads, railroads and shipyards. This activist period proved ephemeral, and unreconstructed Confederates recaptured the state government with a vengeance, gutting the state’s first-ever genuine public education system and relying on terror and violence to reduce Afro-Texans to near servitude.

This stultifying political climate changed with the rise of agrarian discontent in the 1870s through the 1890s, culminating in the Populist challenge at century’s end. After conservatives used violence and voter fraud again, this time to crush the Populists, dissenters within elite ranks, the Progressives, insisted that the modern economy developing in Texas required the aid of government. Agencies proliferated, with industries like the railroads, banking, medicine, and dentistry for the first time facing regulations aimed at ensuring fair business practices and safe consumer products.

As the state government’s responsibilities and obligations increased, policy disputes increased in number and intensity, and for the first time, the individual priorities of speakers mattered. The speaker’s areas of responsibilities and powers were explicitly outlined for the first time and institutional reforms made the speakership a more prominent office. Still, speakers often saw the position as a steppingstone to a statewide office or to Congress.

One of the most conservative men to ever serve as speaker, Coke Stevenson, increased the prominence of the office in the 1930s. Stevenson dominated state politics in the period. He broke precedent not only by serving two consecutive terms but also by virtue of the public attention he received while holding the speakership. Speakers openly became legislative players who had to be dealt with by governors, lieutenant governors, lobbyists and activists seeking to shape public policy.

The discovery of oil in the early 20th century and federal spending during the Depression and World War II transformed the state into an industrial, urban colossus. The increasing complexity of the economy, the growing racial, religious and linguistic diversity, and the increasing international competition engendered by the push for free trade turned the job of state legislator, and speaker, into a year-long duty.

Speakers in the post-World War II era dramatically expanded their staffs even as the Legislature increased the number of state agencies. With that expansion, speakers increased their power of appointment. Speakers gained control over the Capitol grounds and became more sophisticated in their guidance of the legislative process. This happened even as the House divided as never before into liberal and conservative, urban and rural, male and female, and white, black and brown factions.

Critics charged that the speaker’s powers had devolved into a virtual dictatorship by the time of Gus Mutscher in the early 1970s, but after a brief post-Sharpstown bribery scandal backlash, the office continued its evolution as the state’s most powerful political office. This process reached its apotheosis under Craddick. A powerful speaker, Mutscher could still only claim a share of power over the Democratic Party with Ben Barnes and Preston Smith. Craddick, however, stood alone at the top of the Republican Party as the most influential policy maker in state government.

The growth in power and influence enjoyed by the Texas House speaker in this era at times paralleled changes in the office of United States House speaker. During the 20th century, the speakers in the Congress inspired reactions ranging from reverence to loathing. The House speakers operated in a congressional system governed by seniority and divided along party lines. Whether they were Democratic or Republican speakers, all were forced to deal with entrenched interests. They had to maintain order in the House, consider the interests of their party, coordinate legislation with the Senate, and work with the executive branch on programs.

The speakers of the Texas House of Representatives, like their counterparts in the rest of the South, faced somewhat different circumstances. One-party politics, fewer demands for public services, smaller budgets and the part-time nature of the body placed fewer demands on Southern House speakers. But the economic boom of the post-war years coupled with the growing demand for state services raised expectations for House speakers in Dixie. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement, more participation by women and minorities, and the increase in the number of special interest groups demanded that the modern House speakers pay more attention to the economic and social changes under way.

In Texas, speakers’ policymaking roles increased and, like their counterparts in Washington, the speakers who respected the office and the members found greater success than those who abused the institution and the process. By expanding the responsibilities of the speaker’s office and its bureaucratic structure, the speaker acquired the influence and stature that equaled, or exceeded, the power of the governor and the lieutenant governor. The office no longer served merely as a steppingstone to other elected positions.

After 1975, the multi-term speaker who presided as any other statewide elected official became the norm. Three of the most recent speakers, Gib Lewis, Pete Laney and Tom Craddick, held the position for multiple terms. Of even greater importance, each of these speakers saw the office as the pinnacle of elective leadership in Texas.

The power of modern speakers cannot be separated from the increasing influence of lobbyists who form what is often described as a fourth branch of Texas government. Campaign reforms instated after Sharpstown did not banish the lobby, but only required more stealthy and complex maneuvers on the part of would-be influence peddlers. Lobbyists became even more important as the media available to candidates multiplied.

House candidates, for instance, once relied primarily on stump speeches, the occasional radio appearance, and printed pamphlets and buttons. To these old media has been added the expense of “tightly targeted direct (bulk) mail,” pricey television advertising, creating and maintaining a presence on the Internet, and hiring staff to conduct polls both to measure voter sentiment and to conduct phony “push polls” through which loaded questions raise doubts in the listener’s mind concerning the candidate’s opponents.

As reporters Sam Kinch, Jr., and Ann Marie Kilday point out, campaign costs have skyrocketed. The modern era of campaign spending in Texas began with the election of Bill Clements as governor in 1978. Clements drew on his own deep pockets, but also carried strong Washington and Texas business connections. Clements convinced the Texas business community, which had previously given extensively only in presidential and senatorial races, that local races were important in terms of shaping policy.

These local races became even more important to business lobbyists as they increasingly appreciated the role of congressional redistricting in promoting the national Republican Party and a succession of conservative presidents. Clements initiated a fundraising arms race between the parties in Texas in which the Republicans had all the advantages with their anti-union, anti-regulation, and anti-tax policies. In the 1980s, a two-year election cycle that included races for governor and most other executive department offices cost candidates less than $20 million. By contrast, the 1997-1998 campaign cycle cost $121 million. All Republican candidates in 1998 raised $83 million, compared to $38 million for all Democrats.

In 1998 incumbents, who enjoyed a tremendous advantage in fundraising because of their ability to deliver favorable legislation to contributors, received $2.50 in campaign contributions for every $1 received by a challenger. Most of that money went to those seen as effective, entrenched incumbents who had well served special interests.

About $55 million of the $121 million contributed to all candidates in 1997-1998, or about 46 percent of the total, came from political action committees, almost all formed by big business and professional organizations seeking friendly legislation from Austin. Almost half of the money raised in that period came from only 629 individuals and PACs, who piped in an average of $95,000 each to favored candidates. “No person who has any sense about what’s right and wrong in this world will believe that kind of money . . . doesn’t influence a vote,” said former Democratic State Rep. Mike Martin of Galveston.

The advantages enjoyed by incumbents are enhanced during redistricting when influential members of the House and Senate are able to, in effect, select their constituents. Designing districts has become a devastating tool of continued power for ruling parties with most electoral districts in the state, and the nation, drawn to be “can’t lose” zones for Republicans and Democrats. All these trends combined —— the increased spending on state campaigns, the greater involvement of business PACs in fundraising, the immense financial advantages enjoyed by incumbents, the use of redistricting to guarantee election results, and the widening funding gap between the Republican and Democratic parties —— came together under Tom Craddick and only magnified his influence over state politics.

Of course, the Texas Legislative Council computer program that provides suggested legislative district lines can predict voter behavior, but not guarantee it. Nor can it ensure for a speaker how elected members of his party will behave once they are in office. Furthermore, state and national issues impact voter decisions that often disrupt traditional voting patterns.

Perhaps Texas politics will eventually mature to the point where both parties are competitive and encompass diverse ideologies requiring the art of compromise. Though in many ways a conventional Republican fiscal conservative, Straus showed little appetite in his early days as speakers for the divisive social issues like school vouchers, abortion and immigration restriction that helped poison relations between Democrats and Republicans under Craddick. His caucus, however, grew even more right wing after another decision political pendulum swing in the fall of 2010.

Continued high unemployment, discontent over recent national health care legislation, and the subsequent rise of the so-called "Tea Party Movement" on the right, led to a Republican retaking of the United States House and a massive GOP majority in the Texas House, where they outnumbered Democrats by 101-49. In the state Senate, Republicans held a 19-12 edge. An attempt to overthrow Straus because of his support from Democrats and his alleged softness on social issues like abortion fizzled, but the speaker moved in a more conservative direction in response.

The rollback on school property taxes engineered by Perry and Craddick, amid the continuance of what economists called "The Great Recession," put the state at least $27 billion in the hole by the 2011 session. Straus stood with Perry as the governor demanded the shortfall be addressed through a catastrophic $15 billion budget cut to hospitals, libraries, public schools, colleges and universities. A cut of $4 billion to public schools guaranteed thousands of teacher layoffs and mass furloughs of thousands more educators the coming year.

Meanwhile, Perry pushed through laws to appease the religious right, such as a measure to require all women seeking an abortion to get a sonogram and wait 24 more hours before terminating a pregnancy. The procedure, which requires the insertion of a wand in a woman's vagina, would be required even of rape victims, though these women would not have to listen to a description of the fetus as other patients would. Other controversial measures, such as one allowing college students to carry concealed handguns on college campuses or banning Texas cities from offering sanctuary to undocumented workers, failed to work their way even through this extremely conservative legislature, mostly because of procedural snafus.

Polling suggests the anti-tax rigidity of the Republican Legislative caucus clashed with the priorities of most Texans. A majority of the state's residents, it appeared, wanted greater, not less, funding for education at the public school and university level; more money to provide health coverage for uninsured children; and supported embryonic stem cell research and other scientific projects. In turn Another political trend, however, makes it less likely that these wishes will be heard. The constant fiddling with congressional and Legislative redistricting, which started yet again in 2011 in the wake of the latest U.S. Census, will probably leave the state House even more captive to the far right fringe.

Journalist John Moritz argues that recent rounds of re-districting have created heavily Republican or Democratic districts for most Legislators who must win the votes of the ideologues within their own party who dominate the primary electorate. This, he says, has increased the tendency of Democrats to lean further left and Republicans further right. This makes pragmatic problem solving involving members of both parties increasingly difficult. In many regards, this trend reflects the direction of national politics. How that future portends for a Texas population state district Judge John Dietz predicted would be “larger, poorer, less educated, and more needy than today” remains cloudy.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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