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Cover Story

John Carona, the Last Republican

The Texas state senator has questioned how the legislature spends money. For that, his own party treats him like a heretic.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

John Carona still has the bulk and rolling shoulders that he once used to plow through a defensive line for Bryan Adams High School. For a hefty man, he moves quickly, always on the go. But there are times when Carona stands still, and at those times he is like a wall.

Within days of the opening of last year’s session of the Texas Senate, where Carona has served for 14 years, Tommy Williams of the Woodlands proposed a suspension of the Senate’s two-thirds rule to take up a highly controversial voter ID bill that the GOP wanted to push. The two-thirds rule protects the minority by requiring broad agreement in setting the Senate’s agenda for the session. The Legislative Reference Library of Texas calls it “an honored tradition” that “fosters civility, a willingness to compromise, and a spirit of bipartisanship” in the Senate. These days, “compromise” and “bipartisanship” are not words that flow naturally from Republican lips. With Democrats hotly opposed to the bill, Williams wanted to make it clear from the start that the Republican majority would get its way without them.

The 19 members of the Senate GOP caucus unanimously agreed to suspend the two-thirds rule—almost.

The lone holdout was John Carona. For one thing, he argued, newly elected House Speaker Joe Straus wouldn’t consider voter ID because Democratic members had helped elect him. So suspension of the rule in the Senate was nothing more than an empty gesture. Why outrage the other side of the aisle at the beginning of a session for no good reason?

But Carona had a larger and more long-term concern. The rule had served the Senate for generations. Republicans were once in the minority and someday would be again. Even if Republicans did not cotton to compromise and bipartisanship today, might not they desperately need it tomorrow? Shouldn’t people who describe themselves as conservatives be the first to uphold custom and tradition, especially when it had for decades protected the Senate minority against what the Founders described as the tyranny of the majority?

He might as well have been talking to his chair. When the vote came, Carona was the lone Republican “nay” on suspending the rule. He then voted for the voter ID bill, which he had supported all along. It passed, was sent to the House, and disappeared.

The incident could be taken as merely one more anecdote about the shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating partisanship that defines politics today. But it is more important than that. It is a telling example of what has happened to the Republican Party in Texas and to conservative political philosophy in general. Both are victorious—and both are in shambles.

Republicans have lost all sense of who they are—or, more accurately, who they once were. The shallow symbol is more important to them than any concrete achievement. Nowhere is this more apparent than their dishonesty about money. Conservatism today has reduced itself to only one constant refrain: no new taxes. A movement that once established an entire historical and intellectual framework for prudence, pragmatism, and fiscal responsibility has been stripped down to three sparse words, as denuded as a mountainside in Haiti with three gnarled and leafless trees. Those three words constitute a doctrine that has made Republican governance all but impossible. Even as staunch and long-serving a Republican as John Carona now regards his party with a palpable sense of disbelief and an attitude approaching grief. It could have done so much good, and it has done so much harm.

===“The Democrats are the party of overspending. The Republicans are also the party of overspending. The only difference is that the Republicans are hypocrites about it.”!==

John Carona decided to try for his first political office, in the State Legislature, after running successful campaigns for friends. The 1980s—the Reagan years—were the halcyon days of the young Republican Party in Texas. A Republican from Dallas, Bill Clements, had twice been elected governor, in 1978 and again in 1986. Already in control of the state’s urban areas, Republicans could feel the Democratic hold on rural Texas slackening and the possibility of their taking control of state government growing stronger with each election. Carona wanted to be part of the action. He made a claim to a legislative seat in 1990 at the age of 34.

Carona won that race, as he has won every election since. But Carona didn’t need election victories to measure his success. From the time he was 12, he had earned pocket money by cutting lawns for nearby East Dallas apartment complexes. On the way to getting a business degree at the University of Texas, the realization occurred to him that his summer jobs were actually a commercial niche. He lost no time filling it. At the age of 22, he turned lawn cutting into a business, providing landscape care and other services to Dallas condos. Today his company, Associa, is the largest condo management firm in the world, with $400 million in annual sales. It has made Carona a very wealthy man. It has also taught him some hard lessons about money.

Money is John Carona’s favorite subject, and how Republicans have handled it since their takeover of state government has left him deeply disillusioned. From the post-Civil War period until the rise of George W. Bush, the Republican Party was seen as the party of business and the economy. It stood for prosperity, balanced budgets, and fiscal responsibility. No more. Says Carona: “The Democrats are the party of overspending. The Republicans are also the party of overspending. The only difference is that the Republicans are hypocrites about it.”

photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Texas today, after 15 years under two Republican governors, is facing a $21 billion deficit in the next biennium (if sales tax collections continue to worsen, the hole could grow deeper). After applying $9 billion from the Rainy Day Fund (which the deficit will entirely wipe out), the state will be $12 billion in the hole. Deficits are the single most regular feature of Republican fiscal management. Last year, the state was saved from a $12 billion deficit only because of a grant from the federal stimulus package, which almost all state Republican politicians say—in public—they opposed. (In private, they nearly fainted with relief.)

And the state continues to grow. When George W. Bush became governor in 1995, total population stood at 18 million. Today it is 25 million. In five years, it will be 30 million. In better years, more people produce a growing economy. In bad years, they produce more demand for government services, such as unemployment benefits, food stamps, and free medical care from county hospitals. In any kind of year, more people need more roads.

With their mantra of no new taxes, the Republican-controlled Legislature does not have the money to build more roads. Suburban Republican representatives, whose communities are threatened with traffic strangulation, find themselves caught in a vise of their own making. The only solution they have is to outsource road building to private companies, which then make their investments  back with tolls. Meanwhile, by 2012, when it runs out of cash, the state’s road-building agency, TxDOT, will sit idle. As Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst noted recently, TxDOT is one of the world’s largest engineering firms, with 12,199 employees, 1,120 of which are licensed professional engineers. 

Does it make sense to outsource when TxDOT has the capability—but not the money—to meet the state’s exploding need for better transportation? Carona thinks outsourcing is financially reckless. “It costs the taxpayers 3.5 times more to outsource than to build,” he says, “because, unlike the state, private toll-road developers use equity from firms like Goldman Sachs, which command double-digit annual returns to their investors, and they require multiyear exclusive agreements so that out-year profits go to the private consortium rather than back to the state or its taxpayers.” He lays the blame squarely at the feet of his own colleagues. “Fiscal responsibility means nothing to them,” he says with disgust. “They only worry about the next primary.”

He goes further: “Republican office-holders once cared about the nation’s interests. Now they only care about self-interest and special interests.”

Carona figures that the cost of bringing the road system back into balance with a healthy combination of free and toll roads is a roughly 10-cents-per-gallon tax increase. The average driver might pay an additional $8 per month. By contrast, continuing to outsource road construction over the next decade could wind up costing North Texans $8 per day in unavoidable tolls. In July 2008, the average price for a gallon of regular gas in Dallas was $3.98. In January of this year, it was $2.61. Industry experts are predicting that the average price will rise back to $3.25 by this summer, due to a number of factors such as lower refinery production and investors buying oil as a hedge against inflation. And, of course, there’s always the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would cause oil prices to soar. In the rough-and-tumble world of international oil markets, a 10-cent gas tax in Texas barely registers.

But in this political environment, such calculations are irrelevant. The no-new-taxes mantra has gained a dogmatic status among Republicans rivaling the Nicene Creed. When Kay Bailey Hutchison can try to use it like a cudgel to beat Rick Perry (Rick Perry! He only signed a law replacing the franchise tax with a business tax!) and with newly inflamed Tea Partiers on the rampage, how can the average Republican legislator vote for any kind of tax? Carona even tried a local option on road taxes, so that North Texas voters could decide to tax themselves. His colleagues could not summon up the political will to approve even that.

So John Carona continues his lonely crusade, without a twinge of support from his own side of the aisle. He is not happy about it. “If we’re going to outsource,” he asks with a glint in his eye, “why do we need 1,000 engineers twiddling their thumbs at TxDOT?” The rhetorical question points to the biggest fiscal failure of his party: its inability to cut costs.

When Republicans took control of the Legislature in 2003, Republicans faced a $10 billion deficit that they repaired by outsourcing every government job they could lay their hands on. Those outsourcing contracts, as the Dallas Morning News has reported, ended up in friendly hands, such as former GOP legislators and former Perry staffers. The new GOP majority then proudly announced that it had beaten down the deficit without raising taxes.

But by offloading costs instead of dealing with them, legislators only increased them. As a result, state spending has soared 30 percent since 2003, outstripping inflation and population growth, the most massive rise in the cost of government in Texas history.

Republican reluctance to tackle the real costs of government or to raise taxes to pay for their spending means that Texas now faces an endemic, almost structural, deficit. So much for the party of fiscal responsibility.

John Carona is the last of the old-school Republicans. He believes in making government work. He believes that every dollar out should be matched by a dollar in. The old Republican maxim, repeated over and over for decades, was that government should be run like a household: spending should match income. The metaphor seems quaint in a world of credit-card debt and subprime mortgages, when households, like their government, came to believe money is free and that home values would always magically rise and that whatever cannot be paid for in cash can be paid for with debt. This something-for-nothing economic fantasy has crashed to the ground. But the political fantasy that undergirded it will take longer to fade.

Economics has the benefit of being tied to something concrete, like a paycheck. Political doctrines are tied to belief systems, which have the contrarian tendency to harden the more external evidence mounts against them. For Republicans, the no-new-taxes dogma is set in stone. To most in his party, Carona is a heretic even to question it, much less to argue outright against it.

To nobody’s surprise, Carona is now exploring a run for mayor. The Texas Senate is alien territory for an entrepreneur anyway. The endless hearings, the gamesmanship, the routine political posturing, and, most of all, the current lack of seriousness do not suit a temperament better attuned to making decisions and getting things done.

In the meantime, Carona continues in his dogged way to press his case to whoever will listen. Like an Old Testament prophet, he’ll spell out the consequences of their mismanagement to his colleagues, even though they flee at the sight of him barreling down the halls of the state capitol. He knows a prophet is not honored in his own country or, in Carona’s case, in his own party. He knows the prophets of old were ridiculed, stoned, cut in half, and thrown into wells.

It doesn’t seem to bother him. Maybe it’s because he also knows those prophets of yore were right. 

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