The fringe that makes us cringe

Dispelling any concerns that he would avoid the spotlight after his spectacularly failed presidential run, Gov. Rick Perry unveiled his new budget proposal, the Texas Budget Compact, on Monday. The proposal would strongly oppose any new tax increases in the state budget.

Perry’s compact is, in a sense, a Texas-level homage to anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” — an oath for elected officials to unilaterally oppose any tax increases — that has been signed by presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, among others.

Norquist’s pledge effectively tied the hands of legislators to the Tea Party agenda with threats of certain electoral failure, automatically limiting them to proposing spending cuts to balance budget deficits regardless of the circumstances. All of this undue influence was caused by a lone lobbyist, and this new pledge portends trouble; the Texas Budget Compact is backed by the longest-serving governor in the state’s history. Perry and his compact, despite his reassurances that he would not require anyone to sign it, will clearly follow the same questionable path as Norquist’s.

Both pledges are an example of the ever-increasing — and often hazardous — influence of the “fringe” in budgetary decisions. In Texas, the situation is no different. Interest groups with extreme positions on education funding dominated the last legislative session and pressured legislators to cut public education and university budgets, including UT’s.

If compounded by the new anti-tax promise and the state’s “pay-to-play” legislative precedent, these organizations, combined with coerced legislators, will continue to shortchange the state’s higher education system. As state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, put it, Perry’s plan “will result in a doubling down” on mistakes made last session on the issue of education.

Meanwhile, the influence of the fringe has trickled down to the city level. Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s two challengers are outside the mainstream — one, Brigid Shea, was labeled “The Wrench” by The Austin Chronicle for her unrivaled ability to impede City Council. Bill Spelman, UT professor and City Council incumbent, faces no fewer than six challengers, one of whom is a self-professed anarchist. Council meetings themselves are often rife with monologues from city “activists” that proclaim vast, fluoride-centered conspiracy theories.

With less than 8 percent of the city turning out for municipal elections last year, it’s easy to see how the fringe can take hold of city business without much ado. But when the mayor and City Council decide on matters ranging from students’ electric rates to Capital Metro bus routes, these extremist factions can quickly become destructive. Shea, along with many council challengers, has opposed measures that would benefit students, including the city’s approval of incentives for Apple to build a facility — packed with 3,600 new jobs — in Austin.

The problem is that extremism is increasingly being accepted into the mainstream, leaving the politics of compromise all but abandoned. Legitimized by the fringe and abetted by partner-in-crime state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston — who helped him announce the compact — politicians like Perry can grandstand to win votes while simultaneously rejecting sound decision-making.

With an overwhelming majority of his own party in the Legislature, Perry no longer has an obligation to compromise. Whether he should, though, is an entirely different question. Unfortunately, it seems his no-tax bravado is nothing more than cowardice.