When the 83rd Texas Legislature convenes Jan. 8 in Austin, things will look better than they did two years ago.
That, you may recall, is when the legislature, faced with a $15-billion revenue shortfall, opted to cut spending across the board without raising taxes.Now, less than eight weeks before the 2013 session opens, the economic news is considerably better. Sales tax receipts have increased for 31 consecutive months, and the state’s sales tax income for fiscal 2012 was up 12.6 percent over 2011, which was 9.4 percent better than 2010.
On top of that, oil and natural gas production tax collections for the first two months of fiscal 2013 were 13 percent higher than during the same period in 2012.
So why isn’t State Rep. Phil King singing “Happy Days are Here Again?”
King, who has represented Wise and Parker counties in the Texas House since 1998, like most Republicans is not thrilled with the way the presidential election turned out. And as a state lawmaker, King is concerned that many of the problems Texas will deal with in the upcoming session will emanate from Washington.
King spoke Tuesday to the Decatur Chamber of Commerce at their final monthly luncheon of the year.
“Medicaid is the enemy at the gate this session,” King said. “It’s a federal entitlement and the state has zero control. Whatever Washington decides, we have to write a check for 42 percent of it. It’s not very good health care, the program has tremendous fraud problems, and it’s growing out of control.”
King said just to “catch up” on an under-appropriation for the past two years, the legislature will have to find $4 to $5 billion for Medicaid. The amount needed going forward for the next two years will be much higher than that.
“We’ve been begging them to at least block-grant that money to the state,” he said. “We think we could buy private insurance cheaper than what we’re paying now, and it would fit our culture and our people better.”
Battling Washington has kept Texas and its Attorney General in the news almost constantly over the past few years, filing lawsuits to contest various federal regulations.
“We’re trying to make Texas the most business-friendly state,” King said. “To do that, you keep taxes as low as possible, regulations as light as possible and as certain as possible. Businesses look at taxes, at the regulatory climate, at the education system and more and more at the availability of water, before they make the investment to move to your state.
“When it comes to regulations, 90 percent of what you’re dealing with is federal, not state. That’s one reason we’re in all kinds of lawsuits with the federal government all the time.”
King cited the Environmental Protection Agency’s cross-state emissions policy as a good example of flawed and onerous rule-making.
“Their modeling – and when you see the word ‘modeling’ you know it’s not based on anything real or measurable – showed our emissions might be causing a problem for a small community in Illinois,” he said. “We had to sue to stop the EPA from shutting down all our coal-fired power plants. Coal, by the way, is still the cheapest fuel for the production of electricity, and the coal plants are all paid for.
“Just last week, the court ruled in our favor, but we have to fight that kind of battle all the time.”
SCHOOLS STILL A PRIORITY
Public school financing will continue to get a great deal of the legislature’s attention – and that will involve the courts, too.
Cuts to public education two years ago prompted teacher layoffs in school districts all over Texas, and helped spark a major lawsuit which is now being heard in an Austin State District Court. That trial is expected to last through January, with no final ruling until summer at the earliest.
King’s hope is that the legislature can deal with the way schools do business in the regular session, then come back after the Supreme Court rules and decide how to pay for it all.
“We’re looking at some kind of governance bill out of the Senate, looking at testing models, trying to give local districts more control,” he said. “There is some real momentum building for a return to local governance.”
King said he is “frankly… kind of glad” that the lawsuit is underway.
“We have tremendous inequities in what districts get, per-child,” he said. “There have been a lot of administrative decisions and rulings that have created a very complex formula for funding schools. It’s a formula nobody understands, and it’s a terrible formula that needs to be replaced.”
But he sounded a warning to the school districts in District 61, which he represents: If it comes to a battle between rural school districts and metropolitan school districts, the city folks are likely to get their way.
“Houston ISD has 25 state representatives,” he said. “Y’all have me – and so do 17 other school districts. Small districts don’t have the clout big-city districts have.”
King, a former Fort Worth Police Department Captain and Parker County Justice of the Peace, currently serves on the House Committee on Elections and the House Committee on Urban Affairs. He is vice-chair of the Texas Legislative Tea Party Caucus and immediate past Chairman of GOPAC-TX, the Texas chapter of the national Republican political action committee.
He is a practicing attorney in Weatherford and also sits on the board of the Weatherford College Education Foundation.
He had a few other things to say as he opened the floor for questions at Tuesday’s Chamber meeting.
With regard to water issues, he said he hopes the legislature can find $500 million or so to start a trust fund to back water projects throughout the state.
“The legislature has been kicking this down the road for a long time,” he said. “I hope this time we’ll begin a trust fund, but it’s not going to be cheap. That pool of money can guarantee loans so that cities and water districts can build reservoirs and improve their public water supplies.”
Regarding politics, he said he had hoped to be working with a Republican president, but added that the Republican party’s core issues – free markets, local control, limited government, family values, the sanctity of life, a strong national defense – “the things we’re supposed to stand for” are still core issues in communities across Texas and the United States.
“Everybody knows you can’t spend all the money,” he said. “The federal government right now is borrowing $4 billion a day. If you don’t count Social Security and Medicare, in a nation of 350 million people, 100 million people receive some form of government payment. Half of the people in the U.S. are paying income tax and half are not. We’re close to the tipping point.
“Republicans are not always right and Democrats are not always wrong,” he continued. “But the basic principles America was built on are the foundation of our government, and we need to get back to those principles.”
He added that depite all the challenges, there is still “lots of good stuff” happening in Texas.
“Texas is a leader,” he said. “Yes, we’ve got some things to do. We’ve got hard work to do in education, transportation and dealing with growth problems – but we’re the lighthouse for the nation.”