For Republicans, much to dislike in Bush's record

Governor: Presidential candidate's big spending and tiny tax cuts in his home state have some calling him a Texas Democrat.

January 02, 2000|By Richard Miniter

"I'M SURE Bush wouldn't like me saying this," the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, John Cole, recently said in BusinessWeek magazine, "but he is a Texas Democrat."

Cole is right. A review of Gov. George W. Bush's record, something the press has overlooked in favor of his personal life and business deals, shows Bush really is a Texas Democrat.

Bush's record offers something to anger every type of conservative. For social conservatives, Bush's record is one of symbolic defeats. Economic conservatives decry his puny tax cuts and double-digit spending increases.

Rank-and-file Republicans la-ment his lack of progress on school reform and affirmative action. Social conservatives point to a handful of symbolic state-level decisions that alarm them: Bush named a state holiday for Cesar Chavez, the former head of the United Farm Workers who often praised Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Intended as Hispanic outreach, the holiday was a politically tone-deaf move. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" strikes some as an insulting gesture that signals a return to the "kinder and gentler" conservatism of his father, President George Bush. Those policies led to tax increases and Republican defeat.

Perhaps the issue causing the most grumbling among activists is the governor's promise to veto a bill naming a state highway after the late John B. Coleman, an abortion doctor. Despite his promise, Bush signed the bill. "Now Texas is the only state with a major highway named for an abortionist," says an abortion opponent in Houston.

Bush likes to brag about approving the largest tax cuts in Texas history, but this boast is more rhetoric than reality.

On paper, Bush's tax cuts add up to some $2.9 billion, but most Texans received little or no tax relief. Bush's right-hand man, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, conceded the 1997 tax cuts were "rather illusory," adding that they "didn't stand the test of time."

The price for Bush's disappearing tax cut? An $8.3 billion boost in school spending. Bush signed another tax cut in 1999 -- and made another Faustian bargain with teachers unions.

In exchange for an end to social promotion and a puny property tax cut, Bush gave teachers a pay raise and lavished millions more on school construction. On average, homeowners saved less than $60 per year. Some tax cut.

Texas' sales tax, at 6.25 percent, is among the nation's highest. Bush's response? A three-day "tax holiday" for clothing purchases.

Again, the tax relief is tiny and short-lived. "It's laughable," says Mary Nell Mathis, a board member of the Texas branch of the liberal group Common Cause, adding the cut should have been bigger and permanent.

Bush is also a tax-raiser. Since 1994, Bush has proposed 58 tax increases as Texas governor.

Not even Bush's promises can be trusted. During his 1994 campaign, Bush pledged never to propose a sales tax increase. In 1997, he proposed a sales tax rise of half a percentage point. After breaking the pledge, Bush denied he ever signed it.

Mary Williams, who runs Taxpayers for Accountability, the Houston group that solicited the pledge, was outraged. She released to the press a 1994 letter from Bush in which he wrote: "I oppose establishing a state personal income tax or increasing the sales tax."

How did Bush respond? His spokesman said Bush "did not personally sign the letter, though he authorized its content." Williams accused Bush of sounding like President Clinton. She's right.

Bush is also a big spender. Bush increased spending by a cumulative 36 percent since 1994, more than double the rate of spending by the Clinton administration over the same period.

Bush's 1999 budget alone includes a 14 percent increase in spending. Bush even favors spending the state's surplus.

Conservatives have also been dispirited with Bush's education record. For one thing, he has endorsed faddish school standards. Texas conservatives also fault his anemic support for vouchers and his support from teachers unions.

On affirmative action, Bush says he is against quotas. Perhaps. But he has signed at least three bills to reintroduce hiring and contracting quotas, after they were eliminated by a federal court.

Republicans today find themselves in a situation similar to that of Democrats in 1992: They just want to win.

Like Clinton, Bush might indeed be a winner. But based on his Texas record, he might also be a "Texas Democrat."

Richard Miniter is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute, a free market think tank in Arlington, Va. He wrote this article for Bridge News.

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