Gov. Rick Perry surprised some lawmakers Tuesday – and irritated others -- when he suggested a surplus in the state budget could be used to cut taxes.
Perry’s critics want to use available money to restore funding for schools, health care and other programs that were deeply slashed two years ago.
The first day of a legislative session is usually light-hearted and ceremonial. Spouses, grandchildren and friends dressed to the nines surround the lawmakers as they take their oaths of office.
Perry struck that easygoing tone when he first appeared.
In the Texas Senate, he pointed out Rick Santorum, one of his opponents for the Republican presidential nomination last year. Santorum, known for wearing sweater vests during the campaign, was in the chamber for the swearing in of a friend, Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney.
“We had a little bit of fun with Rick in the office today. My son presented him with a sweater vest. A Texas A&M sweater vest," said the governor, who's an Aggie.
“Wear it with pride,” Perry told Santorum.
Then striking a more serious tone, the governor warned lawmakers against ideas they may have for spending the estimated $9 billion budget surplus expected this year. And the additional $8 to $10 billion in oil and gas tax money expected to accumulate in the state’s rainy day savings account.
“We’ve got to control this appetite for more spending,” said.
Perry suggested lawmakers do that by providing tax relief, a message that surprised some, considering the deficit two years ago that led to layoffs and deep cuts in just about every state program.
“There are interests all across the state who view Monday’s revenue estimate as the equivalent of ringing the dinner bell,” Perry said, adding, “they look at it as manna from heaven and they have all of y'all’s phone numbers."
Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, couldn’t contain himself.
“I don’t think you have a surplus. We should have spent more two years ago when we had the money in rainy day,” he said referring to the state savings account that includes tax revenue from oil and gas production.
“Instead we cut public ed [education] by $5 billion and there are 600 school districts at the courthouse telling the legislature they aren’t doing their jobs,” Whitmire said.
Another Senate Democrat, Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, suggested Perry had forgotten his place.
“I think Gov. Perry needs to recognize we are a legislative body and each of us represents constituents," she said, adding that residents of her district want the Legislature to restore the funding cut from schools.
When asked to respond even Republican House Speaker Joe Straus suggested that many lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats -- were more likely to use the money to shore up underfunded infrastructure for water, roads and schools than to provide a tax cut.
“There’s going to be a call for some tax reforms maybe and tax relief, there always is. But there is more of a call this time and more of agenda I am going to push to make sure Texas can accommodate the profound growth that will go on unabated,” Straus said.
Just what kind of tax relief Perry has in mind was unclear. Also unclear is whether it would get any traction as lawmakers eye the so-called surplus to pay left-over bills and for services that were cut or put on hold.