In the heat of this year’s Texas legislative session, Republicans attempted to push a bill they pitched as a harmless tax swap. The plan, championed by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, promised billions in property tax relief by increasing the state’s sales tax and using that new revenue to drive down property taxes.
Following the proposal, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based independent think tank, sprung into action. CPPP discovered the swap was no swap, but a roundabout way to hike taxes on a majority of working-class Texans. In a March analysis that was published just as the proposal began making its way through committee and started generating headlines, the nonprofit found that only 20 percent of Texans– those earning more than $150,000 in annual income– would actually receive a net tax cut from the plan. CPPP sounded the alarm, testifying at committee hearings, speaking to the media, and participating in a press conference with Texas House Democrats to warn about how the tax proposal would only benefit the wealthiest of Texans.
Less than a month later, figures from the state’s own nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board more or less confirmed the same thing, effectively killing the resolution as it grew increasingly unpopular with both Democrats and Republicans.
The short episode demonstrated some of the vital, rapid-fire work by the CPPP, a public policy research organization started by a congregation of Benedictine Sisters in 1985. More than three decades after its start, the think tank has evolved into one of the most critical tools for elected officials, journalists, and Texans seeking information about how bills or new laws will affect the state’s most vulnerable residents.
The Center’s CEO, Ann Beeson, said the vision for a more equitable Texas that began with the congregation of sisters in Boerne, Texas, a small town just outside San Antonio, is still very much alive in the work they do. Branching out from its original roots in healthcare, the CPPP now provides analysis and research on a variety of educational and economic issues faced by low-income Texans, women, immigrants, people of color, and children. Today, it staffs 22 permanent employees and boasts a modest budget of $2.9 million devoted to, as Beeson put it, working on behalf of the little guy.
A Dallas native and University of Texas alumni, Beeson began leading the CPPP after leaving Open Society Foundations, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the country where she served as executive director of U.S. programs, responsible for managing the distribution of $150 million in grants and funds for various social justice and human rights causes. Before that, she served as the national associate legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union for several years.
Beeson said that when she began leading the CPPP, she initially started off with a starry-eyed optimism about how quickly the organization would be able to empower ordinary Texans. She said she remains optimistic but also realistic about the structural hurdles that prevent positive change. “We don’t have a representative democracy in this state– you could say the same thing about the rest of the country, but it’s particularly bad here in Texas,” Beeson said. “Everything from redistricting, to an assault on voting rights, to a very entrenched level of poverty makes it very challenging for people to have the time and resources to be engaged in our democracy.”
Despite that, the CPPP has made plenty of headway. Aside from helping knock down the tax swap this session, the group finally saw one of its longtime pet issues, the prevention of surprise medical bills, receive bipartisan support this year leading to a new state law. The group also saw some wins in the landmark school finance bill, which pulled some of its finer details from CPPP’s recommendations and advocacy.
In Texas, home to a sea of right-wing think tanks, the CPPP stands out. Its work is often the only data and analysis counteracting the steady stream of work by special interest groups like the Koch-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation. Beeson said she’s proud that the CPPP doesn’t work on behalf of any special interest group and said the fact that both sides of the political spectrum often rely on their work is a testament to their credibility. “What we’re trying to advance is a vision for Texas where people of all backgrounds are able to contribute to and share in the prosperity of the state,” Beeson said. “The very purpose of our organization and the values that drive us are radically different from some of those other kinds of think tanks, and some of them have grown at a national level and right here in Texas.”
Beeson said it’s challenging having to compete against the work of some of these groups, especially when they’re both presented side by side as equally credible. “It can be frustrating when media organizations– I know there’s a lot that’s been written about this– where media organizations in the name of objectivity have to report one fact and then the other fact, but we would say it’s their job to assess the credibility of both [organizations] and distinguish them,” Beeson said.
Looking ahead, the nonprofit has already started working with other groups to get a complete population count in the 2020 Census. This past session, Texas Republicans decided to leave out funding for Census outreach, jeopardizing a once-a-decade population count that will determine billions of dollars in federal funding as well as redistricting.
When asked what her favorite data point was, Beeson jokingly said it changed daily, but eventually settled on the fact that one in 11 Americans live in Texas. “Everything that happens here has an outsized impact nationally, for better or for worse,” she said.
Photo: Brenda Ladd/Center for Public Policy Priorities