Analysis: Politicians don’t have to cuss to put their feet in their mouths

Capital Factory hosts Democratic candidate for governor Lupe Valdez with Evan Smith on Jan. 18, 2018. Bob Daemmrich for the Texas Tribune

BY ROSS RAMSEY – Texas Tribune

You think politicians don’t listen? One might argue that they listen too closely. “I’ll consider every alternative,” sounds reasonable, except in politics. In politics, some things are simply not to be talked about.

Every once in a while, you have to repeat a lesson for the new kids in class.

Last week, Democrat Lupe Valdez told one interviewer — the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith — that, if elected the state’s next governor, she would not close the door to tax increases if they turn out to be necessary. “We keep the door open to a lot of stuff,” Valdez said. “Come on in.”

Just a few hours later, she told another interviewer — Karina Kling of Spectrum News — that tax hikes are off the table. “No, I would not look at that,” Valdez said. “I’d have to lose a leg before I do that and I certainly don’t want to lose a leg.”

She must’ve seen something scary in between those conversations. Or, more likely, she heard from a herd of handlers.

Clayton Williams Jr. made this same U-turn almost 30 years ago.

People — well, older people — remember Williams saying, on the eve of his 1990 loss to Democrat Ann Richards, that he hadn’t paid income taxes in 1986. Williams, an oilman, banker and rancher, had enough losses in the middle of the 1980s oil slump that he had no taxable income. No income, no income taxes. It was a political windfall for Richards, who spent the final three days before that election telling crowds that Williams hadn’t paid taxes in 1986 and then asking, “Did you pay taxes?” She won.

But that was Williams’ second tax gaffe of the campaign. As he was just getting started in 1989, he was asked by a trio of political reporters in Austin what he planned to do about the state’s then-dire financial outlook. Taxes seemed possible, and he said he would consider every possible solution — that he would rule nothing out.

What about income taxes? The inexperienced candidate repeated himself, saying he would rule nothing out.

That won the daily headline — for those were the days of daily headlines — for Kent Hance, a former congressman and Texas Railroad Commissioner who was one of William’s Republican primary opponents. Hance blasted the rookie for even considering the dreaded income tax.

Claytie corrected himself by saying he’d never, ever, ever think of launching a state income tax again, and everybody forgot about it. As it turned out, he won that primary over some formidable opponents without a runoff.

Lesson learned, right?

Valdez learned it again, last week. You think politicians don’t listen? One might argue that they listen too closely. “I’ll consider every alternative,” sounds reasonable, except in politics. In politics, some things are simply not to be talked about.

Income taxes are a great example. In a 2011 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll taken during one of the state’s periodic financial slumps, voters were asked about options for filling the hole in the state budget. All but 6 percent said a state income tax was a bad idea. Nearly seven times as many said they’d rather legalize marijuana and tax it to fill the hole.

Valdez knows enough about the political climate that even she told Smith last week that she’s against installing a state income tax while expressing openness to raising other state taxes.

That same week, the incumbent in this race, Gov. Greg Abbott, rolled out his at local property taxes, which fund schools, cities, counties and other local governments. He’s not cutting those taxes — he doesn’t have that power — but wants to limit their growth to 2.5 percent per year. Abbott wants to slow it down, not kill it.

Even so, his plan and her statements — at least her first statements — put them on opposite sides for voters looking at tax policy. He’s saying no. She’s saying maybe. (Abbott has his own messaging troubles with a tax proposal that is already being muddled by his confederates: Within hours of his announcement, Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, pelted her supporters with an email titled “Abbott & I want to lower your property taxes!”)

The attention given Abbott’s plan explains why Valdez had to bail. Where she initially said closing loopholes and ending fraud might bring in more property tax money, and that voters might be willing to raise some other taxes if they thought it necessary, she is running that position back. Now she, like the governor, doesn’t want to raise any taxes.

And give her points for this: She was quicker than Williams was, way back in 1989. Valdez’s opponents didn’t even have time to grab a headline.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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