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 Texas 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 (1/27/18) to censure Republican Texas House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio.
That was despite the fact that 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 enough with the party's platform, and that he undercut Gov. Abbott's agenda.
During a special session Abbott called last summer, for which he 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, got stalled in Straus's House. Opponents, including Straus, feared charges of discrimination would cause economic havoc, as happened in North Carolina earlier.
To censure Straus required at least two-thirds of the SREC'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 state Chairman James Dickey and Vice Chair Amy Clark both voted to censure Straus.
After the censure vote Saturday, 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."
In Texas, as it transitioned 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 then-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 that 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 Hike? At a time when 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 Year 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.
During 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 over $6.06 billion. To bring in that amount would have required a per-gallon fuel tax of just over 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.
Using the 2015 fiscal year's $3.4 billion from the tax as a starting point, a 10-cents-per-gallon increase would bring in, approximately, an additional $1.3 billion for highways, and $319 million for schools – per year.