Is Speaker Joe Straus trying to run the Texas House like a Californian? Sounds like a silly question. He’s a Texan after all. And pointing out the all the mistakes our West Coast neighbors have made over the years has virtually become our unofficial state pastime. Any Texan in his right mind could look to his left and see the results of failed policies and failed leadership and recognize that isn’t the way we should do things in this state.
But in a recent interview with Jim Henson of the Texas Politics Project, Straus left Texas wondering if he thinks governing like California is an insult or an aspiration.
Among the many questionable statements made during the interview (and there indeed were many that should raise the brow of Texans), Speaker Straus criticized a Senate plan to dedicate half of the sales taxes collected on motor vehicles to building roads as a “gimmick.” Far from a joke, the plan would send approximately $2 Billion to the State Highway Fund each year. Currently, all of that money goes to General Revenue, where it can be spent on any project or agency the Legislature wishes.
To make it happen, the Legislature would need to pass a joint resolution amending the Texas Constitution. As with any constitutional amendment, the bill would first need to pass both the House and Senate chambers. If successful, the proposal would then be sent to voters to approve on a November ballot.
According to Speaker Straus, asking voters to make “big decisions” is simply a “gimmick” akin to a “California-style” of governing. Instead, he argues, legislators should be making the decisions, including spending money on problems instead of asking voters to decide for them.
While his words say one thing, actions says another.
It was only one session ago that Speaker Straus, his Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, and his Natural Resources Committee Chairman Allan Ritter pushed to create the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT)– a mechanism by which the state subsidizes cheap loans for local entities to build more water infrastructure projects. $2 Billion was taking out of the Economic Stabilization Fund to serve as the initial seed capital, even though the Legislature had an $8 Billion General Revenue surplus they could have used.
To do this, legislators had to use the very same process Straus now derides — by passing a joint resolution to amend the Texas Constitution with final approval from voters.
Additionally, in that very same session, Speaker Straus and his chamber pushed for the creation of Proposition 1, yet another constitutional amendment that asked voters to dedicate a portion of the state’s oil and gas severance taxes to the State Highway Fund. That money otherwise would have been deposited into the Economic Stabilization Fund.
It’s amazing what a difference an interim can make.
Based on his actions, it seems Speaker Straus fully embraced the “California-style” of governing he now scoffs at. The Legislature had $8 Billion of General Revenue to spend, after all. Why didn’t he push for his colleagues to make the “big decision” to spend that on water and roads, instead of pushing it off to voters?
Texans may never know whether Straus really believes “California-style” government is an insult, as his words indicate, or an aspiration, as his actions lead us to believe. One thing is clear though. While the Senate continues to work diligently to pass reforms that the grassroots demand, every Republican in the House who voted for Straus now owns the derision for conservatism coming from their leader.