Bush Puts His Brand on Texas Policies
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 1999; Page A1
AUSTIN – Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) calls himself a "compassionate conservative." It is a term that draws suspicion from some people, derision from others. Defining what it means will be one of the challenges of his presidential campaign.
One place to look for clues is what Bush has done in Texas. The Texas model that Bush hopes to export nationally is built on the pillar of bipartisan cooperation between a Republican governor and Democratic legislative leaders. It includes a belief in limited government, a record of improved schools and modestly lower taxes and experimentation with faith-based programs to solve some of the country's most persistent social problems.
Bush attempted to define compassionate conservatism when he announced the leadership of his presidential exploratory committee on March 7. "It is conservative to cut taxes and compassionate to give people more money to spend," he said. "It is conservative to insist upon local control of schools and high standards and results. It is compassionate to make sure every single child learns to read and no one is left behind."
But in his first years as governor, conservatism came before compassion. When he talked about tough love in his 1994 campaign, the emphasis was on tough. And his first-term agenda included welfare reform, juvenile justice reform, tort reform and significant reforms in state education.
"We share a conservative philosophy," he told the legislature in his first state of the state address in January 1995. "Our philosophy says people must take responsibility for their lives and actions. It says all Texans must be held accountable for their behavior."
The 1995 education reforms were based on those principles. The package included the establishment of a rigorous accountability system for students and the wholesale rewriting of the Texas education code, which had become a regulatory thicket. Bush successfully pushed to give local schools control over how to meet the state's new standards for student performance.
The result has been noticeable improvement in scores among Texas school children on the annual state-administered exams. Nationally, however, Texas has not shown statistically significant improvement in reading proficiency, according to Peggy Carr of the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, though she said, "They appear to be moving in the right direction." Unlike some national Republicans, Bush has made public education his top priority. But he deserves only some of the credit for the improvements in Texas schools. Like much about his record in office, the reality of what he has done is more complicated than the campaign rhetoric.
Bush came to the governor's office in the middle of a long debate in Texas over student performance and school finance dating back a decade to Ross Perot's famous "no pass, no play" reforms of the mid-1980s and a court decision requiring Texas to even out the gap between funding for rich and poor school districts, an issue common to many states that rely largely on property taxes to fund the schools.
Even before Bush was elected, the state legislature had established the framework for an accountability system and ordered the rewriting of the state's education code. Throughout 1994, as Bush was campaigning, a panel of citizens and state legislators was producing an education accountability blueprint that Bush was happy to embrace once he was elected.
Once the principles of accountability and local control were established with the 1995 reforms, Bush moved to tackle the specific problems of students who are not keeping up with their peers or who have fallen through the cracks of the education system.
Karen Hughes, the governor's communications director, said Bush's evolution on education, welfare and other issues is easily explained. "Once those fundamental reforms were enacted and government stops doing what government should not be doing, it clears the way for people of good will and good faith to help their neighbors in need," she said.
On education, Bush's later initiatives included greater emphasis on teaching children to read and his current proposal to end "social promotion" or automatic advancement.
The social promotion debate, Bush's major education initiative this year, offers another insight into how Bush has governed. When he first identified the issue in his reelection campaign, he presented it in terms that appealed to the instincts of the conservative Texas electorate. His basic pitch was: Schools should get tough and stop letting students glide from one grade to another.
But after criticism that his proposal sounded too harsh, he softened his tone by emphasizing the need to help those students. He is under pressure to accept additional changes that would guarantee earlier intervention to identify and help students with reading problems, additional instruction for those in trouble and more opportunities for failing students to pass the annual state tests.
As a result, his conservative-sounding principle could end up being reshaped with solutions generally associated with Democrats: more government investment in education. The outcome of the legislative debate will further illuminate the tradeoff in Bush's mind between conservatism and compassion.
The governor's social promotion has critics on the left, who say promotion should not be decided by a single, annual test. But on education, Bush has tangled far more with critics on the right, particularly a conservative faction on the state board of education, closely associated with religious conservatives.
The major fights have come over school curriculum reforms, with Bush aligned more with Democrats and a minority of Republicans on the board against the conservative faction. The governor has made little secret of his irritation with the conservatives on the board -- and they with him.
"If George Bush really believes what he says, then he would have absolutely no problem with the conservatives on the State Board of Education," said Stephanie Cecil of the Texas Eagle Forum. "I don't think he believes in conservative education issues. He uses them to get elected."
Bush's defenders say his conservative critics are less interested in fixing schools than making speeches. "They will not compromise at all," said state Sen. David Sibley (R). "Some of these people just viscerally don't trust Bush."
Legislators describe Bush as results-oriented and willing to compromise -- not an ideologue -- and use terms like "pragmatist" or "practical conservative" to explain his governing philosophy. They also like his accessibility and openness.
"I've worked with a lot of governors over 42 years," said former Democratic lieutenant governor Bob Bullock, who endorsed Bush for reelection last year and supports his presidential bid. "I have never found a governor more responsive, more dedicated, more intelligent, more inclusive."
But while Bush has charmed many legislators of both parties with his personality, his powers of persuasion were not enough to produce a victory in the biggest fight he has tackled as governor.
Bush's major initiative in 1997 was a broad tax bill aimed at solving the state's school finance problem. It was his boldest proposal as governor and produced his biggest defeat. The episode will be a target for some of his rivals for the Republican nomination.
Bush hoped to make the tax restructuring plan a capstone achievement, one in which he would get credit for tackling a seemingly intractable problem, for revamping the state's tax system and for giving ordinary citizens a tax cut.
Bush's plan sought a more fair way to fund the schools by redistributing the tax burden from homeowners to businesses and by applying business taxes more equitably. "Our current system is not fair," he said. "Some businesses are taxed very little and some don't pay a dime to support our schools. Other businesses are taxed so heavily that it threatens to drive them from our state."
The plan called for a major cut in property taxes, largely offset by a new tax on business and an increase in the state sales tax. Overall, the bill represented a net cut in taxes. But in the face of stiff opposition from business, the Texas House jettisoned the governor's plan and substituted a more regressive measure that applied the state sales tax to an additional 30 commodities and also raised taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and utilities.
Supporters said it represented a net tax cut to Texans, but GOP legislators denounced it as a tax increase, and the measure passed the House only because of strong support from Democrats.
Some Bush allies now say the governor supported the rewritten measure only to keep the bill alive. But state Rep. Paul Sadler (D), who has worked closely with Bush on education and who led the House effort to rewrite the tax bill, said in a recent interview that Bush had enthusiastically embraced the House version.
Republican state senators, however, opposed the bill, and it was particularly startling to Bush to find out that the opposition included senate GOP leaders. When Bush realized he had no Republican support "it was like a deer in the headlights," one person familiar with the Senate maneuverings said of Bush.
In the end, the legislature approved a simple $1 billion cut in property taxes aimed at lower-income property owners, and Bush claimed victory. But John Sharp, a Democrat who was state comptroller at the time, said Bush lost control of the tax bill "big-time" in the state House and was fortunate the bill died.
"If that thing had passed," Sharp said, "he probably wouldn't be worried about running for president, he'd be worrying about whether he'd still be governor."
Bullock took issue with the implication that the episode represented a defeat for the governor. "The people didn't like it and the Senate didn't like it and it got defeated," he said. "It didn't have anything to do with George Bush. His detractors said it was a setback for George Bush. But the people of Texas didn't feel that."
"Most people gave him an 'A' for effort," said state Sen. Bill Ratliff (R), a Bush ally. But he added: "If the House bill had passed, you'd have had large segments of the population unhappy because their taxes had gone up."
The experience left Bush chastened. This year, with the state boasting a multibillion surplus and a presidential campaign in the offing, he is seeking a major tax cut -- but Bush has no ambitions to reshape the state tax system. He will have a difficult enough fight with Democrats just to get the tax cut passed.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company