Some Doubt Governor’s Resolve

AUSTIN – Within 30 days, Texans will know if Republican leaders are sticking to budget-cutting plans or bending to pressure for increased taxes, a GOP leader said Tuesday.

“Within the next month, we’ll have a sense as to whether we have people bolting or not,” said Rep. Talmadge Heflin of Houston, chairman of the budget-drafting House Appropriations Committee.

“The ones that fold will have to be the leadership-the speaker, the lieutenant governor, the governor,” Heflin said, referring to House Speaker Tom Craddick, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry.

“If heat comes on them to where they say, you know, we can’t do this, then we’re screwed,” Heflin said, adding he expects the leadership to stick together and “get the job done.”

Republican leaders have vowed to achieve a 2004-05 budget that absorbs a projected revenue shortfall of $9.9 billion without requiring additional taxes, possibly spending less than the $117 billion earmarked in the 2002-03 budget that runs through August.

In his State of the State address Tuesday, Perry gave no indication of giving ground, saying voters “elected us to set priorities, not to raise the price of government,” adding: “My friends, it can be done. We can balance our budget without raising taxes.”

Dewhurst, informed of Heflin’s comments, said: “If we stand together, Democrats and Republicans alike, we can balance the budget without new taxes.”

Craddick, R-Midland, said: “I’m not bolting.”

“The three of us will stay together all the way through,” Craddick said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

Heflin supports a proposal to abolish the state’s share-the-wealth public school funding system by 2005.

He wants immediate research into overhauling the tax system so the 2005 Legislature can consider ideas like replacing property and franchise taxes with an expanded state sales tax.

In early April, the House likely will take up a draft of the budget recommended by his committee, Heflin said. If approved, it will head to the Senate, whose members will probably substitute their own version and clear the way for House-Senate negotiations before the session ends June 2.

Heflin on Tuesday asked the Texas Association of School Boards to support a lean budget along with his desire to overhaul school funding and taxes in 2005.

“I’m asking that you partner with us to do that,” he said.

John McInnis, an Arlington school board member and past president of TASB, later objected.

Describing himself as a moderate Republican, McInnis said: “If they’re not going to come up with new resources to pay the bills, my question is: Who cuts where?”

“They’re going to bolt,” McInnis predicted of the GOP leaders. “They simply have to. It’s going to be an interesting rhetorical dilemma for the governor to wade out of.”

Peggy Venable, state director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, disagreed, saying taxpayers will need to remind the leaders that they are spending taxpayer dollars and not money that belongs to government.

“Chairman Heflin is absolutely right,” Venable said. “They are going to have to be steadfast in their focus on cutting spending and addressing the needs of Texas.”

The Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for programs serving poor Texans, noted Tuesday that health, education and criminal justice agencies are being asked to chop more than $4.5 billion from their budgets before taking them to legislative budget-drafting panels.

Scott McCown, the center’s executive director, called Heflin’s comments “the best news I’ve had all day.”

“When fellows start telling you that they’re not going to bolt, that means people have been talking to them about the desperate need to raise revenue,” McCown said.

“A lot of people are using their access to leadership with a private message that this is going to be devastating to balance the budget without additional revenue.”

“That means he’s having to keep an eye on them, that things are happening,” McCown said.