Preparing for the start of the legislative session, we last week sent lawmakers a letter outlining our priorities and reminding them how our scorecard, the Fiscal Responsibility Index, works. Of more immediate significance, we noted that House members’ first vote could be graded.

As we have done in the past, scores on the Fiscal Responsibility Index will be based on votes related to identified issues. We then calculate individual members’ scores only on the votes actually taken, including any clarifying statements they make in the Journal (such as when the electronic voting system mis-registers their vote). Sponsoring and co-sponsoring targeted legislation is likewise included in the scoring.

We only include on the Index those votes that we notify House and Senate offices of in advance. Given the complexity of the legislative process, and the sheer number of votes they take in a relatively short amount of time, we believe it is important that they know in advance what measuring stick we will use to judge them at the end of the Session.

Broadly speaking, here are our issue priorities going into the Session:

  • Balance the budget without increasing taxes or creating new revenue sources.
  • Oppose the creation of new taxes, granting of additional taxing authority, or creating any new taxing entities.
  • Strengthen the constitutional expenditure limit, such as by requiring that the Legislature choose the lower of the change in the sum of population-plus-inflation or the current measure.
  • Apply the same limitation to all political subdivisions and entities, while providing the option for an election to exceed the spending limit.
  • Protect the state’s Rainy Day Fund; RDF dollars should not be used for new or expanded programs and services. If RDF dollars are used to balance the budget, those funds should be applied only to non-recurring expenses.
  • Reform the gross margins tax to limit its negative impact on all businesses.
  • Expand 2007’s transparency legislation, HB 3430, to all taxpayer funded entities in Texas, including cities, counties, transit authorities and school districts – requiring the posting of expenditures online in a searchable format for public review.
  • Reduce property taxes, and pursue policies to phase out the school M&O tax.
  • Eliminate the burdensome and costly rollback petition gathering process by requiring an election if a local entity seeks to exceed the effective tax rate.
  • Ensure fees and dedicated funds are used only for their statutory (constitutional) purposes.
  • Enhance parental options in public education, and uncap the number of charter schools that can exist in Texas.
  • Work against federal overreach by limiting Texas’ reliance on federal grants and other funds, resist encroachment of federal regulations, and circumvent or overturn ObamaCare.
  • Strengthen the integrity of the state’s elections through voter ID and by securing voter registration and ballot-by-mail programs.

For House members, we noted in a Dec. 20th hard-copy letter (mailed to their Capitol offices) that their first major vote of the 82nd Session could well be the first vote on the Index. That is, their vote for the House Speaker.

Why? Consider just how much priority legislation died last session not on the House floor, but because of the committee chairmen selected by the incumbent House Speaker, Joe Straus. The House speaker alone decides who chairs which committees, and they have broad power to kill legislation.

For example, Speaker Straus said he opposed placing caps on property taxes. Lo and behold, the chairman he appointed to preside over the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee dutifully killed all taxpayer protection legislation.

Losing a floor vote is never fun, but what bugs taxpayers even more is not being allowed to have the vote in the first place. We saw incumbent speaker Joe Straus’ committee chairs last session kill priority legislation through calendar delays and inaction, and downright maliciousness. So, yes, the speakership matters, and matters a lot.

Michael Quinn Sullivan

Michael Quinn Sullivan is the publisher of Texas Scorecard. He is a native Texan, a graduate of Texas A&M, and an Eagle Scout. Previously, he has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine contributor, Capitol Hill staffer, and think tank vice president. Michael and his wife have three adult children, a son-in-law, and a dog. Michael is the author of three books, including "Reflections on Life and Liberty."