UT Wordmark
College of Liberal Arts wordmark
Texas Politics - Texas Political Culture
Texas Government as Model for Other States (February 2010) Texas Government as Model for Other States (February 2010)
Texas as Model for Other States (May 2010) Texas as Model for Other States (May 2010)
2.1    Low Taxes, Low Services Political Culture

For much of modern Texas political history, classical liberalism, social conservatism and populism in practical terms have translated into a "low taxes, low services" approach to government. Advocating raising taxes has always been politically dangerous to candidates and public office holders in Texas. In political conversations, the phrase "raising taxes" often occurs in close proximity to the term "political suicide," at least as far as political candidates are concerned. That's why whenever the state goes into one of its periodic fiscal crises, public officials go on a frantic search for users' fees - driver's licenses, hunting licenses, motor vehicle registrations, student services fees, and more - that can be raised. Fear of political suicide also explains why few dare even to utter the words "income tax."

Similarly, calling for an increase in the role of the government also is not advised in Texas. One is unlikely to garner wide political support for any but the most minute increases in the size and scope of state government - unless the state is facing some humanitarian crisis or the money and impetus comes from the federal government.

The "low taxes, low services" credo has endured across generations of both Democratic and Republican dominance of state government. Its lasting influence reflects the importance to party politics of our unique combination of ideals based on classical liberalism, social conservatism, and populism. However, these strands of political thinking do not always work in concert, either with each other or with realities in the state. Consequently, tensions among these different ideas have fueled divisions within the parties as well as between them.

Those predominantly influenced by ideas of classical liberalism often clash with others influenced by social conservative thinking in the modern Republican Party. Populists wishing to mobilize working class voters and promote a more active state government constantly used to clash with social conservatives and classical liberals in the Democratic Party prior to the development of a more competitive Republican Party. That clash is more subdued, but still in evidence, among Democrats.

Today, candidates and elected officials in both parties wrestle with their allegiance to the "low taxes, low services" consensus as the state government has increasingly struggled to perform its required tasks in the face of a rapidly growing population, an increasingly complex economy and society, and the enduring tension in a voting population concerned over both taxation and the poor delivery of government services.

Despite these tensions, public opinion surveys such as the UT/Texas Tribune poll find general support for a "Texas government" way of doing things. Amidst the lingering aftermath of the national recession that started in 2008, two surveys in 2010 found significant support for "the way government runs in Texas." In the May 2010 statewide survey, 58% of those polled agreed with with the statement that "Generally speaking, the way state government runs in Texas serves as a good model for other states to follow". There were some partisan patterns in this embrace: 86% percent of self-identified Republicans agreed, as opposed to only 28% of Democrats.

Recent revisions to the state tax system seemed to signal a continuation of the conflicting impulses, and politics, surrounding the "low taxes, low services" Texas model. In response to a Texas Supreme Court decision upholding a lower court decision that held that the system of local school taxes was unconstitutional, the Texas Legislature was forced to take action. After several attempts, the legislature passed a set of laws that increased some business taxes, but lowered the property tax rates that provide part of the funds for public schools.

Though the central problem at hand seemed to be the challenge of improving the delivery and fairness of a critical public service (education), both the political debate and the subsequent legislation focused primarily on taxation. The result was a change in the tax structure that could be advertised as a tax cut (on property), but did nothing to provide more funding for public schools. In fact, as a report issued by the House of Representatives' own research organization concluded, "the new taxes will not generate enough revenue to cover the full cost of reducing school property taxes." The low tax, low service consensus was alive and well in the Texas legislature, even if it sits uncomfortably among the electorate. [1]

1 House Research Organization, link: "Schools and Taxes: A Summary of Legislation of the 2006 Special Session." Focus Report 79-13, May 25, 2006.

Texas Politics:
© 2009, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services
University of Texas at Austin
3rd Edition - Revision 116
prev next