Bush's Plan for Texas May Be 2000 Prelude
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 1999; Page A03
AUSTIN, Jan. 27 – Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) laid out a 1999 legislative agenda today that supporters hope will resonate far beyond his home state – a plan for "limited government, local control, strong families and personal responsibility" that could set the tone for a 2000 presidential bid.
Focusing heavily on education initiatives and tax reduction, especially his proposed $2 billion cut in property taxes, Bush delivered his biennial State of the State address in what he acknowledged was "a national spotlight." With his legislative performance likely to factor in his White House prospects, he urged lawmakers to work with him "to put aside posturing and politics and find common ground."
"Tomorrow, I will submit a budget that is balanced and limits government's growth," Bush said in a packed House chamber ringed with television news cameras, some from as far off as Japan, Germany and England, and at least one from New Hampshire, site of the nation's first presidential primaries. His budget proposal, Bush said, "reflects my two major priorities: school children and taxpayers."
A week into his second term as governor and leading in early GOP presidential polls, Bush reiterated his support for several issues popular among social conservatives, including the use of government vouchers to help pay private school tuitions for some students and a ban on abortions for juveniles without parental notification.
But he devoted the bulk of his address to tax relief and improving public education, echoing – though not strictly adhering to – campaign pledges that helped lead to his landslide reelection. However, a recent lowering of the state's projected budget surplus has tempered some of his tax-cutting ideas, and opposition to his tough proposal for curtailing social promotions in schools has forced him to compromise on a less severe plan.
The governor, who has said he is undecided about a presidential bid, began his 30-minute speech by voicing hope for bipartisan cooperation in the session. The legislature, which convened Jan. 12, starts its work in earnest Thursday with the submission of Bush's budget plan. By the time the session ends in the spring, Bush aides have said, his presidential intentions will likely be far more clear.
Bush said today that the decision on whether to run for the White House is "a question that has dominated my life in recent weeks."
"I have been asked about it. You have been asked about it," he added. "You didn't ask for it – but it is here anyway. And we can either view it as a distraction, or seize it as an opportunity to show the world what limited and constructive government looks like."
It remains to be seen in the next few months how much cooperation the governor will receive from the Democratic-controlled House and in the Senate, where Republicans hold a one-seat advantage.
"I was glad to see the governor highlighted education," said House Speaker Pete Laney (D), who generally praised Bush's agenda as "a very energetic program." But in a session almost certain to be dominated by debate over what to do with the state's projected $5.6 billion budget surplus, Laney cautioned that Bush will not get all that he wants.
"Some things he'll be able to do, some things will be difficult and some will be impossible," Laney said after the speech, without offering specifics. "All of those things he mentioned, we're going to take a look at them. . . . And we look forward to working with him."
State Sen. James Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, criticized Bush for putting too much emphasis on tax cuts and not mentioning health care.
As he promised during the campaign, Bush today called for $2 billion of the projected surplus to be turned over to local school districts, allowing them to reduce property taxes. "This will cut rates an average of 13 cents for every $100 of your home or property value," he said. And he proposed giving the districts an additional $1 billion to increase teacher salaries, hire more teachers and reduce class sizes.
He also proposed cutting sales taxes on diapers and over-the-counter medication, "a small-business tax cut to provide relief to the small entrepreneurs who are the backbone of the state's economy," and "a research-and-development tax credit to foster innovation and keep Texas on the leading edge of new technology," he said.
During the campaign, Bush had proposed curtailing social promotions in schools by requiring students in certain grades to pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, test before advancing – a plan opposed by some minority groups and urban legislators. He has since settled on a plan that includes remedial instruction for those who fail, at an estimated cost of $200 million, and an appeals process that would allow them to be promoted even if they continued to fail the test.
On school vouchers, he said today: "I know there's a huge debate raging. But we must not trap students in low-performing [public] schools. It is time to see if it works. Let's try a pilot voucher program."
Bush, who has long described himself as a "compassionate conservative," also called for "increased child care funding for low-income mothers, transitional benefits to help those moving from welfare to work, and second-chance homes to help unwed teenage mothers nurture their children in a safe and structured environment."
He quickly added, however, that "government programs cannot solve all our problems. People of goodwill must help – what I call 'the little armies of compassion,' which are transforming our state one heart, one soul and one conscience at a time."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company