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Analysis: Something More Conservative Than Cutting Taxes?

As the House and Senate engage in what state Sen. Kevin Eltife calls "a bidding war" over cuts to sales and property taxes, the Tyler Republican is sticking to his guns: He thinks lawmakers should look at neglected projects before they cut taxes.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, speaks during an interview with Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith on April 9, 2015.

Early in the current legislative session, state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, began campaigning against the race for tax cuts — saying lawmakers should first settle on a budget and take a long, hard look at outstanding pension and deferred maintenance problems.

Now, with the House and Senate engaged in what he calls "a bidding war" on tax cuts, he is sticking to his guns. Eltife wants lawmakers to take care of everything on the t0-do list before they start giving money away. It’s a renegade position.

“So what?” he asks. “You want a potted plant?”

State spending is not the only issue where the Senate’s leading Republican apostate is going his own way: In a public interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Eltife said he’ll be voting against a repeal of the state’s Dream Act, which allows children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges; against legislation that would force local police in Texas to enforce federal immigration laws; and against a bill that would allow Texas families to pay part of their private school costs with taxpayer money.

But Eltife continues to direct most of his attention to state finance. He voted for the committee version of the Senate’s state budget this week and calls both that and the House’s version solid plans.

That said, he opposes efforts to cut taxes, at least at this stage. First, he says, the state should consider what it removes from a list of undone chores. The state is in the unusual position of having a lot of money available at the same time it has a lot of things that need doing, in the eyes of both conservatives and liberals.

Eltife says the state’s unfunded pension liabilities are costing $500 million annually. He is aggravated by state debt, and he thinks paying that down would be more conservative than leaving it in place. While he’s on that point, Eltife is taking a contrarian’s position on money for construction and infrastructure at state colleges and universities. While his colleagues are pushing for $3 billion in tuition revenue bonds, he says the state should just pay for those improvements without adding to its debts. The money is in the bank. It’s a one-time expense. Why borrow?

The enemy of this kind of thinking, in some ways, is the state’s constitutional spending limit. Lawmakers cannot increase their discretionary spending faster than the state’s economy is growing, unless a majority of lawmakers are willing to go on the record voting for the higher growth in spending.

Few members whose continued employment depends on Republican primaries seem willing to do that. They would rather borrow for things like campus projects — which keeps spending under the growth cap — than just spend the money they have, which would bust the cap.

Both methods get the projects built, but only one makes the legislators look like spendthrifts in next year’s campaign mailers. Borrowing the money costs the taxpayers more money, but busting the cap could cost legislators precious support in the 2016 elections. It’s hard to blame a politician for knowing how the bread is buttered around here.

Eltife remains at the center of speculation about those elections next year. As was the case four years ago, rumors that he won’t seek another term are widespread at the Capitol. Potential replacements, like state Reps. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and David Simpson, R-Longview, get mentioned in those conversations.

Eltife says he has not decided what he will do. “This is the same conversation we had four years ago: ‘Eltife’s off the reservation — he’s not running again,’” he said.

“I don’t fear losing,” Eltife said. “I was fine before I got here, and I will be fine when I go back.”

Eltife said he would decide whether to run again when the session’s over. He threw down this gauntlet for anyone who’s sniffing around for a spot in the Senate: “I’ve got $2 million in my campaign account. I have high popularity in Smith County because it’s my home base and they know me there.”

Until then, he continues to bang the drum for spending excess state money on deferred maintenance and other one-time problems that need fixing, saying that should come before tax cuts. “Any time you give money back to taxpayers, it’s a good thing,” he says. “But they’d rather us fix the problems of the state.”

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