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Voters Asked for Budget Cuts — Are They Happy With the Results?

The Legislature gave voters what they said they wanted last year: big budget cuts in lieu of tax increases. Now it's election time again, and the question is: Are they pleased with the budget cuts they got?

House Redistricting Committee Chairman Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, monitors debate on SB4 the congressional redistricting on June 14, 2011.

Two years ago, the Republican primary was teeming with angry conservatives stirred up by federal fiscal policy. Not all of them were Tea Party members, but all of them seemed to get labeled that way. Whatever the description, their effect on last year’s legislative session was clear.

Nobody was going to talk positively about spending, and nobody was going to lift a finger on a new tax.

That’s what the voters apparently wanted, and that’s what they got.

It didn’t suit all the conservatives in Texas government and politics, and some of them are betting that voters, now that they are seeing the results, won’t like it, either. The hypothesis here — and an election is a fast way to test it — is that even conservatives want government to function. Maybe they don’t like the state’s cuts in education and health and human services, or sitting in crowded traffic on under-built highway systems, or watching grass wilt in the face of a record drought in a state whose government won’t finance its water plan.

Maybe they don’t mind, and government in Texas is doing just what the voters want. Either way, the test is coming. The primary ballots — such as they are in the current redistricting sandstorm — are sprinkled with conservative Republicans who have served on school boards or who say they are running to re-emphasize the government’s responsibility in that realm.

Businesses are looking, too, wondering how to get things done in a Legislature preoccupied with money. Some are forming the Texas Conservative Roundtable, an advocacy organization trying to apply business answers to legislative problems. The group’s president, Julie Caruthers Parsley, and its executive director, Bryan Hebert, said they wouldn’t have a political action committee but would weigh in, lobbying and stirring grassroots support, on issues like taxes, regulations and government spending. “You can’t just say no to everything,” Parsley said.

Other groups have used some of those same tools — speeches, social media, advertising, e-mail campaigns — to promote budget cuts and small government. Parsley said that they are not in opposition to that, but there is room for another voice.

It’s a tack you’ve probably heard from legislators. It’s easier to talk about financing a water plan, for instance, when lakes all over the state are ringed by barren shorelines that are normally under water. Lawmakers can talk about how a persistent refusal to raise gasoline taxes has choked construction of new highways and delayed maintenance on existing ones. Much of the budget is untouchable, and legislative cuts most often come from programs lawmakers really don’t want to cut, like public education.

But the pressures of campaigns — and perhaps the hearts of Texas voters — are still with the knife. Cuts are good. Growth in spending is bad. It’s true in both primaries, but it’s especially true in the Republican primary.

“We have the same tensions that are going on at a national level, and fights over who is pure or not,” said Representative Burt Solomons, Republican of Carrollton, who is not running for re-election. “Everybody is trying to out-adjective each other. I got in when all you had to be was a Republican. Now, being a Republican isn’t good enough anymore — you have to be a conservative Republican.”

At a forum for United States Senate Republican candidates on Wednesday, Ted Cruz, a former state solicitor general, took aim at Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, one of his opponents. “If you think what we need is a moderate and a conciliator, then you want him,” Cruz told the group. “But if you think what we need is a fighter, vote for me.”

That works with some part of the Republican primary electorate. The “Let’s stop fighting and get something done” line espoused by people like Tom Leppert — another candidate in that primary — resonates with another.

Which group is bigger? That’s the first question, and there’s an old rule in civics that says you don’t get to govern if you don’t win the election. The corollary is that you have to govern according to what you did to win that election. If your government doesn’t function, voters will throw you out for your lousy management instead of for your dubious orthodoxy.

“You’ve got to have some reasonable people to be able to govern,” Solomons said. “You can’t just scream at each other.”

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