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Grassroots Conservatives Push to Clean Up Austin

Tea Party leaders are already hard at work on a legislative agenda built around transparency and paring back government tax and economic incentive programs aimed at promoting economic development.

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Tea Party leaders are already hard at work on a legislative agenda built around transparency and paring back government tax and economic incentive programs aimed at promoting economic development.

Many grassroots conservatives, though, take a dim view of those programs, likening it to the government picking winners and losers rather than the free market.

Talking to Texas Weekly, Robin Lennon of the Kingwood TEA Party identified Gov. Rick Perry’s Emerging Technology Fund and the Texas Enterprise Fund as well as the comptroller-administered Major Events Trust Fund and a school district tax abatement program as primary targets of the Clean Up Austin legislative agenda.

Defunding the ETF, TEF and the Major Events Trust Fund — described by Lennon and Clean Up Austin as “slush funds” — and eliminating the tax abatement program, which takes its Chapter 313 name from the area of the tax code where it is found are the first two points on the five-point legislative agenda.

Others deal with putting tax breaks under regular legislative review, strengthening nepotism disclosure requirements for lawmakers and reworking how lawmakers’ pensions are formulated.

This formal legislative agenda comes as the Tea Party’s influence continues to grow in the Legislature. That is especially true in the Senate, where unprecedented turnover in the last two election cycles has tilted the chamber ideologically further right. Also, the Tea Party can claim the incoming lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, as one of its own.

Lennon said she’s seen the Tea Party progress as a movement from a louder first phase more than five years ago to a second phase where “we got quiet but got to know legislators.”

The Tea Party has since moved to a third phase, which Lennon said was to get more active.

Legislation relating to these agenda items has been introduced before. For instance, a nepotism bill was introduced last session by state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake. It went nowhere in committee after being roundly criticized by other lawmakers.

Lennon said she is “very encouraged” by the legislative leadership, mentioning without prompting Speaker Joe Straus, who has come under criticism by some grassroots conservative leaders.

Of Straus, Lennon said, “I am encouraged we can find legislation to work together on.”

She added, “Short or long term, we are here for the fight and to do everything we possibly can. We want them to happen, but we are also pragmatic that it can be a longer process.”

With the Clean Up Austin agenda, grassroots conservatives are looking to start the conversation on the proper role and size of government, Lennon said.

They are looking for legislators who could carry pieces of the agenda. Lennon added that she would look at building coalitions with progressives with whom they could make common cause on rolling back tax abatements and economic incentive funds.

Lennon, though, makes clear that reaching out doesn’t mean she is diluting her message.

“I think there’s a battle going on for the soul of Texas right now,” she said. “We have moderates who see progressive thinking as the norm. The more I do this, the more radical I become.”

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