The Texas Legislature, completing its biennial session early Tuesday, thwarted Gov. Mark White in his attempt to increase taxes to underwrite a costly pay raise for teachers.
The standoff left White in a weakened position, his staff demoralized and many legislators shaking their heads over the new Democratic governor's performance.
The fight was also an indication that national interest in improving the quality of education may not translate directly into political support for higher teacher salaries.
White is expected to call the Democratic-controlled legislature back this summer for a special session to deal with the tax and teacher pay issues.
He had campaigned for election on a pledge to give Texas teachers a sizable pay raise and, when he sent his first budget to the legislature, he asked for a 24 percent increase over two years.
At the time he submitted his budget, however, White also was trying to keep another campaign promise: avoid new taxes. Therefore, in his budget, he listed higher taxes as an option for the legislature to consider and did not formally commit himself.
But the continuing weakness in the Texas economy trapped White in a contradiction: he could not afford to give the teachers what they had come to expect without breaking his promise to avoid raising taxes.
From the outset of the session, Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby (D) urged the legislature to raise taxes, while House Speaker Gib Lewis (D) adamantly opposed an increase. White held back, apparently hoping that a consensus would form in support of a tax plan before he committed himself.
Throughout the spring, state comptroller Bob Bullock issued revenue projections, each one gloomier than the first. Eventually it became clear that White would have to put his political prestige on the line for new taxes.
But when he acted, the governor was tardy and politically mistaken. He failed to persuade either the public or the legislature that his plan was designed to help Texas move into the technological age with an improved educational system. Instead, he appeared only to be rewarding a powerful political constituency.
In late April, White informally suggested to legislators a $1.6 billion tax package, including higher taxes on gasoline and a series of so-called sin taxes on alcohol, tobacco and video games. The House balked.
In mid-May, White formally proposed a $1.2 billion package. When that, too, failed to attract support, he submitted a compromise to raise about $900 million in new revenues. Last week the House Ways and Means Committee turned down the compromise, 14 to 1.
That set off an angry exchange among White, Lewis and House Ways and Means Chairman Stan Schleuter. White claimed that he had sent the House the compromise because Lewis and Schleuter had told him they could pass it.
"Outlandish," Lewis replied. Schleuter admitted that he had told the governor he thought the measure could get through his committee, but said his colleagues had a change of heart.
Lewis, who in the final days of the legislature pleaded no-contest to a charge of not filing a full disclosure statement earlier in the year, accused White of "budget gimmickry," "panic" and pushing a "crash course in cash."
"The House has spoken," Lewis said. "We want quality education and quality educators. We refuse, however, to pay for them with a hot check."
The $30.8 billion budget approved by the legislature contains a 9 percent raise for teachers.
Last week, White accused legislators of ducking their responsibilities and Lewis of being out of touch with public opinion. White apparently had his own problems with public opinion, however.
The Dallas Morning News reported Sunday that the governor had dismissed his pollster, Dick Morris, who had advised White to go over the heads of the legislature to fight for his tax increase and teacher-pay package.
Until the final month of the legislature's session, White had earned a reputation as a master of the media and a skillful politician. But there are now reports of disharmony among staff members, loss of support among key legislators and disgruntlement among powerful lobbyists over White's handling of the tax issue.
The governor may yet win the war in a special session, but many politicians here believe he has lost an important battle.
In a final appearance shortly before adjournment, the governor told the legislators: "We have had our differences, but that is only because we are all true Texans--and true to our heritage, we fight hard for what we believe. Differences aside, let no one doubt the deep respect we have for one another."