Monday, February 19, 2018

McNeely: Ideological battle among Texas Republicans hits Joe Straus

Jan. 31, 2018 at 11:43 p.m.

There seems to be a war underway among Texas Republicans.

Will the party continue as the anti-government entity it seems to have become under the state Senate's presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Gov. Greg Abbott?

Or will it work for government to be as lean as possible but still fulfilling its responsibilities for education, transportation, health care, and other shared needs?

That struggle was underlined when the State Republican Executive Committee voted Saturday to censure Republican House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio.

That was despite the fact Straus, who's beginning his 10th year as speaker, also will make it his final one. He's not seeking re-election to the House in 2018, so won't seek re-election as speaker in 2019.

Complaints against Straus charged he was not in synch with the party's platform and that he undercut Abbott's agenda.

During a special session last summer, for which Abbott dictated the 20-item agenda, only 10 passed. The rest, including Patrick's controversial pet "bathroom bill" to dictate which bathrooms transgender people could use, stalled in Straus' House. Opponents, including Straus, feared charges of discrimination would cause economic havoc, as happened earlier in North Carolina.

To censure Straus required at least two-thirds of the committee's 64 members — one man and one woman from each of the state's 31 state senatorial districts, plus the state chairman and vice-chairman.

It was not exactly a landslide. Two-thirds of 64 is 43, and the vote was 44-19 after Chairman James Dickey and Vice Chair Amy Clark both voted to censure.

After the vote, Straus spokesman Jason Embry said the speaker "expected these antics from some people when he opposed their bathroom bill and helped prevent the harm it would have brought our state."

"He is proud to have represented the views of mainstream Texas Republicans, who have voiced overwhelming support for the speaker's principled leadership on many issues," Embry said in a statement. "Speaker Straus will continue working to support traditional Republican principles and re-elect Republicans who put their constituents first."

As Texas transitioned in years past from a Democratic state to Republican, successful Democratic speaker candidates assembled teams including Republicans. So they resisted organizing on party lines.

When Straus was elected speaker in 2009, that pattern was reversed. Eleven Republicans, determined to oust Republican Speaker Tom Craddick, chose Straus from among themselves as their speaker candidate, in a deal with the 64 House Democrats to reach a majority of the 150-member body.

There's a lot of wondering about who will replace Straus as speaker. The House Republicans apparently are planning to select the speaker just from their party caucus, as is done in Congress and most states.

Or, depending on the outcome of the elections, it's possible a minority of the Republicans could again team with the Democrats to choose a speaker — and continue the bipartisan tradition.

Should be an interesting year.

Gas tax increase? ... At a time legislators are trying to figure out how to pay for better highways and better pay and retirement security for teachers, how about looking at the motor fuels tax?

Texas began taxing gasoline and other fuels in 1923, at 1 cent per gallon. That gradually increased until 1991 — the last time Texas raised its motor fuels tax, from 15 cents to 20 cents a gallon.

That was during the first year of Ann Richards as governor and Bob Bullock as lieutenant governor. Both were Democrats.

Still, the gas tax ranks fourth in revenue production. In fiscal 2015, it brought in $3.4 billion.

Under the constitution, three-fourths of that money goes to highways and the remaining fourth to the Available School Fund, which supports public education.

It's been just over a quarter of a century since that last rate increase, as Republican governors like George W. Bush and Rick Perry avoided tax increases.

Over that time, the buying power of a dollar in 1991 has dropped to 56 cents in 2017. In other words, to have the same buying power as it did in 1991 dollars, the gasoline tax would need to produce just more than $6.06 billion. To bring in that amount would have required a per-gallon fuel tax of just more than 35 cents per gallon.

This is a long way of saying, why don't we add a dime a gallon to the motor fuels tax? That would produce 50 percent more revenue.

A 10-cents-per-gallon increase would bring in, approximately, an additional $1.3 billion for highways and $319 million for schools — per year.

— Dave McNeely is an Austin columnist covering Texas politics. His column appears Thursday.



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