The ideological partnership of the raucous Tea Party movement and fiscally conservative Texas Republicans has dominated the agenda of the state lawmaking session that is sputtering to an end. Gov. Rick Perry embraced the Tea Party ideals before most knew the movement was brewing, and the conservative, anti-tax activism helped bring a supermajority of Republicans into the Texas House.
As a result, the Tea Party’s objectives have been the top priorities of lawmakers. And in case the politicians lost sight of those goals, the Legislature’s new Tea Party’s caucus has been a constant reminder.
“It’s been a huge success,” said Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, chairman of the Tea Party Caucus of Texas.
A month before the legislative session began Patrick declared the Tea Party “the most important political movement of our lifetime” and announced the formation of the Tea Party Caucus with 48 fellow Republican legislators. The lawmakers would take cues from an advisory board of citizen Tea Party members and ensure that the message they sent at the ballot box was translated into legislation.
The Tea Party caucus agenda included balancing the budget without increasing taxes, securing the border and ending illegal immigration, asserting state sovereignty and requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls.
Just days after the session started, Perry declared voter ID an emergency issue, putting it on the fast track for approval. Over the objections of Democrats who had successfully fought the requirement in previous years, a bill requiring voters to show photo ID to cast a ballot sailed through both chambers and onto Perry’s desk.
The House created a special “state sovereignty” committee that approved a slew of resolutions urging Congress to stay out of Texas’ business when it comes to issues like health care and the environment. One resolution — another emergency item declared by Perry — called for amending the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced federal budget. On Friday, the Senate, following the lead of the House, approved the resolution and sent it to Perry.
“They’re a very vocal and important constituency,” Mark Miner, the governor’s spokesman, said of the Tea Party.
Legislators came into the session facing a shortfall of up to $27 billion in the state’s 2012-13 budget. Perry and Republican lawmakers made it clear that gap would be closed without new taxes and without using the state’s Rainy Day Fund. “That was a call heard loud-and-clear at the ballot box,” said state Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano.
In March, the Tea Party Advisory Committee issued a 14-point budget-cutting plan that included a state hiring freeze, suspending financing for parks and arts and historical sites, and cutting pay for state employees. When Republican budget writers in the Senate proposed dipping into the Rainy Day Fund, the group stepped in, calling on lawmakers. The plan was quickly shelved, and deeper cuts were made.
The Tea Party also found common cause with well-healed conservative advocacy organizations like the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Empower Texans that push strict conservative orthodoxy on budget cutting.
“There’s a real coalition of external forces here that really put moderates in the Legislature — never mind the Democrats — in a real bind,” said Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project in the Department of Government at the University of Texas.
Without the Tea Party, Patrick said he was certain lawmakers would have raided the Rainy Day Fund as they did in 2003 and in 2005 — under the governor’s leadership. “Pressure from the outside gave us the wind at our backs that we needed to prevail,” he said.
One issue on the Tea Party agenda that has not met with success, so far, is its call for stricter immigration enforcement. A controversial measure that would abolish so-called sanctuary cities — where local governments prevent police from enforcing immigration laws — has been plagued with troubles. Still, the only part of the state’s budget to escape major cuts has been border security.
Democrats in the Legislature, pushed almost to the point of irrelevancy, have been reduced to parliamentary maneuvers and complaints about the deeply conservative agenda being enacted around them.
Rep. Jessica Farrar, of Houston, leader of the House Democrats, predicted the budget cutting will create a “fiscal disaster” that even conservative activists won’t like. “What happened here actually will erode the Tea Party,” she said.