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Texas lawmakers take conservative budget posture

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Posted: Nov 18, 2012 8:21 AM

Updated: Nov 18, 2012 8:21 AM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Politicians in Washington may be talking about compromising on the federal budget, but in Texas, Republicans are taking an early, hardline stance on state spending.

The state's two top lawmakers are trying to be more-conservative-than-thou ahead of the legislative session that begins Jan. 8. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, both of whom tea party Republicans have called moderates, tried last week to shore up their conservative credentials.

Straus faces a leadership challenge from within his own party for control of the House. Dewhurst, fresh off a humiliating loss for the U.S. Senate, faces at least one Republican primary challenger in 2014. Both men want to remind Republicans they are, indeed, conservative.

Dewhurst and Straus co-chair the Legislative Budget Board, and on Thursday the board had a constitutional requirement to set a rate limit on how much state spending may increase in the 2014-15 budget year. The Texas Constitution says it can't grow faster than the rate of personal income in Texas, a standard once considered quite conservative.

The board had to choose between five expert opinions on how much personal income will grow ranging between 8.7 percent and 12.1 percent. But before the board could vote, Dewhurst brought up a new rate limit that conservative groups and Gov. Rick Perry are pushing.

"It is my intention that the Senate will produce a document that is at or below inflation plus population growth," Dewhurst promised. The economic forecasting company, The Perryman Group, estimated that number to be 9.85 percent, not one of the options on the table.

Dewhurst's Senate committee chairmen expressed their support for the promise while bemused Senate Democrats sat quietly.

Sensing Dewhurst was trying to stake out the more conservative position, Straus defended the House's record under his watch.

"The last two sessions, we have actually cut spending and the House has developed very conservative budgets. I expect that will be the case again," Straus said.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, echoed Straus with a more cautious note, even though Republican hardliners have also called him a moderate.

"For the last 10 years, we've kept annual spending in the low single digits and below population growth and inflation," Pitts said. "But right now we don't know what we have to pay for and how much revenue we will be getting from the comptroller."

Rep. Sylvester Turner, a progressive Houston Democrat and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, looked at his Senate colleagues in dismay and asked whether Dewhurst was trying to make spending decisions before the Legislature had even met.

"Yes," Dewhurst replied.

Turner said it would be unwise to make promises because the Legislature still needs to make up a $4.7 billion deficit in the current budget, and find funds for about $8 billion in new health care costs and 160,000 new students in Texas public schools.

"I want to be conservative, too, and part of being conservative, or progressive, or however you want to look at it, is being responsible to the people of Texas," Turner said.

Ultimately, the board performed its constitutional duty and accepted the state comptroller's estimate of 10.71 percent for personal income growth in 2014-15. That is now the uppermost limit that lawmakers can increase spending next year.

However, what became even clearer Thursday is that the personal ambitions of the Republican leadership will play a big role next year. Perry laid down his marker that he wanted to keep spending below the rate of inflation plus population growth, setting the state for a possible re-election bid in 2014 or a second presidential campaign in 2016.

The speaker and lieutenant governor, aware of the critics on their right flanks, want to deny their opponents any grounds to label them moderates.

"If I have learned anything this year it's that we have not done, collectively and individually, a very good job of sharing with our constituents what we've been doing for them," Dewhurst said.

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Chris Tomlinson is the AP's supervisory correspondent in Austin, responsible for government and political reporting in Texas.

Topics: Texas-State Budget-Analysis

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