This commentary originally appeared in TribTalk on June 5, 2015.
Each iteration of the Texas Legislature has its own flavor. Of course, whether that flavor is sweet or sour depends on your perspective. From a conservative view, the recently adjourned regular session of the 84th Texas Legislature had its ups and downs but overall left a pleasant taste in the mouth — while leaving conservatives hungry for more.
After all, who could complain about a $3.8 billion tax cut? While the state’s job-killing margins tax wasn’t repealed, the fact that tax cuts were the highest-profile issue of the session was certainly encouraging. The Legislature in 2013 spent just about every penny it could get its hands on, but this time it put money aside for tax cuts up front.
Not only did this ensure that taxpayers would receive a sizeable tax cut, but it limited the amount of money available for spending. The result of this is that the appropriations legislation, House Bill 1, increases overall spending only 3.6 percent. It’s a bit higher when it comes to state funds only, but still only 5.8 percent. Both are under the 6.6 percent spending limit the Texas Public Policy Foundation and its allies suggested in the Conservative Texas Budget, designed to keep spending growth under population growth plus inflation.
Few thought this could be accomplished. But it shows what conservatives can accomplish when they set clear, concise goals for the Legislature and stay on top of them.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this session was the widespread effort to roll back heavy-handed local government regulation. Gov. Greg Abbott set the tone on this at the foundation’s policy orientation in January when he when told the audience: “We're forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model. We need to peel back some of these ridiculous, unnecessary requirements.”
The biggest splash on this was the bill prohibiting local governments from banning fracking. But limits on debt, taxation and "rolling polling" also reined in local governments’ push to “Californianize” Texas. Though a total rewrite of the annexation process narrowly failed this session, local governments clearly received their comeuppance.
In addition to these big wins, some progress was made in reducing corporate subsidies. For instance, appropriations for the Texas Enterprise Fund and film subsidies are lower than in 2013. Also, it was nice seeing the Racing Commission put in its place with a 7 percent budget cut. Rogue agencies that ignore legislative direction rarely fare well.
Of course, not everything went conservatives’ way. The Legislature failed to adopt a stronger spending limit that would keep spending of all funds within population growth plus inflation. Though given that the Legislature managed to keep spending in check this session, there’s no reason it can’t pull it off in 2017.
To that end, conservatives will again be looking to promote the Sales Tax Relief (STaR) Fund. It failed to get a hearing this session, but a mechanism that both reduces appropriations growth and cuts the sales tax is too valuable to give up on.
Progress on property rights reform was also disappointing. While one good bill requiring a database of all condemnors did pass, several bills reforming eminent domain and land use controls did not. Property rights in Harris County in particular took a step backward thanks to a bill that allows forum shopping for condemnors.
Movement on limiting government interference in the marketplace ran into headwinds. The windstorm insurance bill will significantly increase both government meddling in the insurance market and subsidies for coastal property owners — at the expense of property owners across the rest of the state. The good news was a reduction in occupational licensing burdens on workers like barbers and cosmetologists.
A final disappointment was the massive $3.1 billion authorization for higher education capital construction bonds at a time when the need for new buildings should be declining as new technology allows more distance learning.
All things considered, though, it’s a good time to be a conservative in Texas. And as more conservatives flock to Texas in search of jobs and freedom, the future looks brighter than ever.