Floor Play

When word came out Friday afternoon that House and Senate budget negotiators had reached a compromise, you might have thought the Capitol could relax. After all, for weeks, insiders have speculated that finding middle ground on a budget with a $23 billion shortfall would be tough—especially when the Senate only wanted to make drastic cuts to health care and education while the House seemed intent on making the cuts draconian. So when the House and Senate worked out a deal on the budget, with $4 billion slashed from school funding, it might have seemed like a time for the non-teacher, non-parent and non-student crowds to celebrate.

Instead it prompted a realization: the state is actually going to have to pass a new school finance plan—one that distributes the budget cuts to school districts. Without a school finance plan, the lawmakers will likely have to come back for a special session. But coming up with some agreement on just what that plan should look like is hardly easy. Lawmakers face two distinct problems. First they must introduce unprecedented cuts into a system that’s built to be automatically financed. Secondly, they must decide whether to tackle the structural problems with the current system, created in 2006. Right now, most school districts get funded based on a “target revenue system” that’s based on, among other things, on past property tax collections. The poorest districts subsist on formulas that are woefully underfunded. Vast inequalities between districts leave the system in desperate need of reform.

Then of course, there’s the fact that the school finance bill will ultimately encapsulate the losses facing each district. Despite the widespread Republican support for budgets that slash public education, no one actually wants to see their school districts go without. So Friday afternoon, the entire Capitol swung into school finance mode. The Senate approved one plan—which House Republicans have already vowed won’t make it to the floor. Meanwhile, some Democratic representatives were certain that a plan by House Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, was the plan budget negotiators had agreed to. But that plan—which never had a hearing and was unfamiliar to most—remains at odds with another plan by Democratic Rep. Scott Hochberg, the House’s school finance guru. A budget deal may be in the clear, but nothing’s certain when it comes to school finance.

The senators returned to the floor around 4 p.m. to reconsider Senate Bill 1581, a fiscal matters bill essential to the budget. The bill provides $2 billion to spend by deferring state payments to school districts by one month in 2013. The Senate had the bill because the previous night, while it was getting debated on the House floor, Rep. Mike Villarreal called a point of order. The Senate had to strip out an amendment that allowed concealed handguns on college campuses. But while they were at it, the senators decided it would be a good time to tack on a school finance plan.

The plan is hardly new. Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, presented it to the Senate Finance Committee a month ago, where it was favorably voted out. As I reported then: “Every district in the state gets cut somewhat in the plan, but those with more money get cut more. Of the $4 billion in cuts, the first $1 billion comes from about a 1.5 percent cut to all school districts. The other $3 billion comes from districts on target revenue.” Critics of the plan argue that by cutting from all districts, including the poorest of the poor, Shapiro isn’t doing enough to increase funding equity. Furthermore, while the plan sets 2017 as the date to end the target revenue system, many want to see more actions to actually transition to new longterm funding mechanisms.

On the floor, her Republican colleague Sen. Bob Deuell did not mince words. He criticized the body for the $4 billion cut to education—a cut another senator had called a “heroic effort.” Deuell told the senators they should be using more of the state’s $9.4 billion Rainy Day fund instead of cutting schools at all. Then he started lambasting the enormous funding differences between districts, which he said Shapiro’s plan fails to adequately address.

“We knew there were inequities and we were supposed to fix them,” he said. “But we haven’t.” He read a list of highest and lowest funded school districts that each senator represented, highlighting how some districts get almost triple the amount per student that others receive. “Members,” he said, “that’s why we need to get rid of target revenue.” But while he had an amendment to take more school districts off of target revenue, he pulled it down as requested by Senate leadership. 

Shapiro said her bill “set in motion a pathway to a better school finance system with a decrease in target revenue.” But it was hard to think that was her primary goal—earlier she’d told a Democrat that “this was never a budget for public education that was based on equity.” Ultimately, the plan was successfully tacked on to the fiscal matters bill, before the Senate voted the bill back to the House.  

But all that effort may well have been for naught. Later, at a midnight meeting of the House Public Education Committee, members were all dismissive of Shapiro’s plan. 

“I’m not for the Senate’s school finance bill,” pronounced Democratic Rep. Scott Hochberg, whose word on school finance often carries weight despite his party affiliation. 

“I’m not either,” Eissler, the committee’s chairman, agreed. “Wanna take it out?” he asked Hochberg, “or wanna just do it on the floor?” 

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, who will carry the Senate bill when it reaches the House floor, told members his “intention is to heavily change” the bill. In other words, don’t expect the Shapiro plan to have much support in the House.

But what will take its place?

There are two primary alternatives in the House—one from Eissler and one from Hochberg. Hochberg’s plan deals directly with the systemic problems of school finance and target revenue. It puts almost all districts onto the same formula for funding, drastically decreasing inequality. But that equity relies on cutting the richest districts down, and while there’s a 10 percent cap on the amount a district can lose in funding, the plan isn’t exactly popular with wealthy districts like Austin.

But Hochberg was disheartened throughout Friday’s session. At the Public Education Committee meeting, he openly said that the budget deal was based on Eissler’s school finance plan.

“I was told the Senate was agreed to Mr. Eissler’s plan,” he said. “We were told the deal was pro-ration.”

By Saturday, however, Eissler was hardly sure of that, saying he had no idea whether his plan was “the” plan. Of course, most of his colleagues had only just learned about his school finance measure.

Eissler’s plan is perhaps the most straightforward of all—simply cut around six percent of funding for every district in the state. But on Friday, he was still reworking language and adjusting the projections of just what impact the measure would have on districts. The first set of projections he sent out to members wasn’t accurate; instead of cutting districts by the same percentage, it cut each district by around $300 per student. As members finally got accurate projections, they began to flood his desk with questions, even as he was still trying to make sure the language in the measure was correct.

Eissler initially planned to debate the across the board cut Friday night, as an amendment to a different fiscal matters bill. But the devil’s in the details, and he couldn’t finess the language in time. It wasn’t until late in the evening that he gave up on passing school finance Friday night. 

Senate Bill 1581 remains the bill to watch for school finance. It’s expected to hit the House floor Monday, where Eissler and Hochberg may well wind up going toe-to-toe. The Eissler plan is popular with wealthy school districts because it cuts them the least. But it does nothing to deal with the long term problems of school finance; inequalities remain largely the same as each district takes the same percent cut. Hochberg’s plan brings equity to the system, but it cuts wealthy districts by large percentages while leaving the poorest districts to keep more of what they have. 

With the clock ticking down, this will be a key battle for members hoping to avoid a special session. Few members actually understand the school finance system, and most will vote based simply on which plan cuts the least from the school districts they represent.

As members spent much of Saturday trying to understand the differences between the plans, a diverse group of protestors, white, black and Latino, young and old, stood outside the chamber. “Teachers Don’t Forget,” read one sign. “Cuts Hurt Kids,” proclaimed another. Many of the attendees had gathered two months earlier for the giant “Save Texas Schools” rally. The protestors kept up one loud chant: “Use the Rainy Day Fund!”

“We’re making a difference,” organizer Allen Weeks told the crowd.

But at this point, a $4 billion cut to public schools looks like a foregone conclusion. The only thing left to decide is which districts will be hurt the most.

The State of Things in Budget Limbo

Budget compromises seem to be chugging along—assuming they can pass some mighty controversial fiscal matters measures.

It’s looking more and more likely that the Legislature may yet reach an agreement on the budget—in the regular session. Most of this week, House and Senate lawmakers have struggled to see if they could come to a compromise on education funding, the most contentious fiscal battleground. By Thursday night, R.G. Ratcliffe and others reported the biggest sticking point is now almost a million dollars in funding for higher education. The Senate appears to have prevailed on public education, where there will likely be a $4 billion cut to funding, rather than the House’s proposal of a $7.8 billion cut. 

Meanwhile, credit-taking is already beginning. Speaker of the House Joe Straus sent out a press release last night arguing that the House had done its share of negotiating already by allowing the use of an extra of $3 billion in the budget, thanks to “additional revenue from the Comptroller and the improving economy.” He was referring to the extra $500 million that the Comptroller added to her tax revenue projections and the $2.5 billion coming from savings and accounting tricks in the “fiscal matters” bills. The new money “allowed House budget negotiators to find an additional $2 billion to fund public schools,” he said. It’s quite a statement, given that the lionshare of the “fiscal matters” bills come from deferring $2 billion in payments to public schools. 

And there’s no guarantee that the key “fiscal matters” bill is going to pass—without which all of the compromising is for naught. The fiscal matters bills implement accounting tricks, like deferred payments, to provide extra money for budget writers to use. And there’s no guarantee that the key measure, Senate Bill 1811, is going to get through easily.

Last night, after the House passed one of fiscal matters bills dealing with Medicaid savings, members braced themselves for a long debate on Senate Bill 1581, another necessary fiscal matters bill primarily about education funding. But Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, wasted no time marching up to the podium and calling a point of order on the bill.

His issue, he said, was with a last minute Senate amendment from Sen. Jeff Wentworth that would have allowed concealed handguns on college campuses. “The vast majority of students and their parents oppose guns on campus,” he said. “So do our chancellors and presidents of universities.” Plus, he said, it wasn’t germane to a bill about money and funding. The speaker sustained the point of order, and sent the bill back to the Senate to strip out the measure. 

But while tweets soon broke out accusing Villarreal of effectively killing the budget and prompting a special session this summer, Villarreal says there’s no reason to panic. If the Senate cannot turn the bill around fast enough for the House to pass it by Tuesday’s deadline, the key components of the bill he killed can simply be added onto the other fiscal matters bill, SB 1811.

That leaves a whole lot riding on one measure. The House is scheduled to debate the SB 1811 Friday at 2 p.m. If they can’t pass it, it’s hard to see how they’ll pass the budget. 

For his part, Villarreal is hoping for a special session, although he maintains the Democrats have no impact on the matter.  ”I don’t think it can get any worse if we go into special session,” he says. “The Senate budget is harmful to the quality of our kids’ education. The House budget is a disaster.”

Deja Vu All Over Again: Another Make-or-Break Day for the Budget

If the House can't pass the technical fiscal matters bills, we can expect a special session. But even if the bills do pass, I wouldn't make any summer plans.

Wednesday was supposedly the pivotal day for the Legislature. If the House could agree and vote out the Senate’s technical ‘fiscal matters” bills then there was a chance we would see a budget by the end of session. The bills would generate billions in additional revenue through some accounting tricks like deferred payments and some cost saving maneuvers, particularly regarding Medicaid. Without those bills (and the money they would bring in), the budget is dead in the water, for the regular session anyways.

Wednesday wound up being pivotal for different reasons. The bills were once again postponed. According to Democratic Rep. Mike Villarreal, the measures have been postponed a total of 15 times in some form or another. Today, yet again, we’ll wait with baited breath to see if fiscal matters actually get debated and passed. The lack of action so far speaks volumes—and seems to indicate just how bleak things look for finishing the budget in the regular session.

While technically the House has until Tuesday to pass Senate bills, many Capitol insiders see today one of the last days for the House to approve fiscal matters legislation. And without it, we’ll almost definitely be returning to the Capitol for a special summer session.

No one is excited to vote on the fiscal matters bills (Senate Bills 1811, 1581 and 23). The deadline has already passed for getting House bills out of the House. That makes Senate fiscal matters measures a tempting place to try to attach failed House initiatives. The pre-filed amendment packets are hundreds of pages; many of the amendments were once entire bills that never made it to the House floor. Many of them are highly controversial, like the amendment to allow concealed handguns on college campuses. Not to mention that the fiscal matters measures themselves rely on some accounting smoke and mirrors—not always popular with fiscal conservatives.

With so many tough votes in these fiscal matters bills, House members want assurances that a budget deal will get reached before the end of session. If there’s no budget, then why spend so long on fiscal matters, taking votes that could be used to harm lawmakers next election?  The House seems to be waiting on the budget negotiators from both the House and Senate to reach an agreement. But the negotiators definitely can’t reach an agreement if they can’t count on the revenue from fiscal matters.

But there’s hardly any certainty that the House and Senate will find common ground even if they had the fiscal matters revenue. School funding remains a major point of contention, and neither side seems willing to budge. The Senate budget cut $4 billion from public education while the House cut almost $8 billion. When it passed out of committee, senators vowed not to stand firm on the cuts and not allow any more cuts to public school funding. If that difference cannot be negotiated, the fiscal matters bills are irrelevant.

As the Texas Tribune reported, Speaker of the House Joe Straus has tried to assure members that the budget negotiators from both chambers are making progress, repeatedly arguing “we’re close”. Meanwhile, the Trib reports, chief Senate budget writer Steve Ogden has called a special session “a certainty.” 

Today we may find out who’s right. 

Teachers, Democrats Win Fight on Major Education Bill, But What Now?

Bills like HB 400 aren't pretty for teachers, but when you want to cut huge amounts from public education, the results are bound to be ugly.

Despite weeks of coverage and contention, House Bill 400 never got a pithy title from the press like the “guns on campus” bill or the “pork chopper” bill. But after Thursday night, the school reform legislation, which would have allowed districts to fire teachers more easily, as well as furlough them and cut their pay, may now be remembered by another moniker: the session’s first Democratic victory.

When the clock hit midnight Thursday night in the Texas House, marking the deadline for passing bills the first time on the floor, HB 400 had not made it through. The contentious bills had already been postponed three times in the last couple weeks, based on different technical points of order raised by Democrats. The bill then got postponed a couple other times as its author, Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-Woodlands, fought for support from his colleagues. In the end, it never made it back to the floor Thursday night.

That doesn’t mean the effort is dead—Eissler has vowed to try to attach the measure as an amendment to every education bill he sees—but the Democrats undoubtedly scored a victory. Teachers groups have fought the measure intensely, and successfully lobbied many members, including Republicans, to oppose the bill.

The problem is, however, that the state is still planning to cut billions from public education—and without this bill, school districts have fewer options for cutting costs. The House budget includes almost $8 billion in cuts to districts. The Senate budget cuts $4 billion. Either way, most school districts are going to feel some pain—and some school districts will feel quite a bit of pain. HB 400 offered districts options like furloughs and pay cuts to deal with the impending fiscal crisis. Without such a measure, layoffs will be one of the only options left for cutting costs.

In many ways, teachers groups had to oppose HB 400—it weakened safeguards within teacher contracts, allowing for options like pay cuts. Senior teachers wouldn’t get the extra job protection they’ve enjoyed for years. And it made all these changes permanent, rather than letting them expire. In some ways, it fundamentally changes teachers’ status as a protected class of workers. The commissioner of education speculated that if bills like HB 400 passed, it could open the door for more widespread unionization efforts.

With or without HB 400, districts are going to face tough cuts. And without it, there may well be more teacher layoffs. ”I’m trying to save teachers’ jobs,” Eissler has said repeatedly.

But many Republicans were hesitant to support his bill. Earlier, Republican Rep. Larry Phillips tried to defang the bill with an unsuccessful amendment that garnered support from 18 GOP votes. Had Eissler had the full support of his party, he could have simply suspended the rules (with a two-thirds vote) and passed the bill without points of order. Instead, Republicans who eagerly supported the budget and its accompanying cuts to education found themselves opposed to a bill that outlines the consequences of such a cut.

Democrats can enjoy their consistency. They did not vote for the budget, so why should they vote for a bill that will weaken teacher contracts?

Still, districts need some options for these next couple years, so they don’t have to fire as many people. In both the House and Senate, the main vehicles are stalled. Senate Bill 12, a softer version of Eissler’s bill, doesn’t have the votes to come up for debate, and many speculate that it’s dead. School finance bills—which would set out the system for how cuts will get distributed to school districts—also face bleak futures. Much like HB 400, the House school finance measure only has a future as an amendment. It never even made it onto a House calendar (their version of a to-do list) and its prospects as a stand-alone bill died Thursday night as well.

No one likes bills like these—school finance bills that show just how much each district is going to lose, bills that cut teacher pay. But oddly enough stripping funding from public education is bound to have some ugly consequences, for teachers, schools and even state legislators.

Will the Senate Bypass the Two-Thirds Rule to Pass Teachers’ Groups’ Worst Nightmare?

House Bill 400 has stalled three times in the House. But if it passes, how will the controversial bill pass the Senate?

When House Bill 400 got stalled for a third time Monday night—yet again because a point of order—I wondered exactly why some House Republicans are so determined to pass the bill out of the House, when support for it will be risky and the Senate doesn’t have the votes for a less controversial version.

The controversial bill makes it easier to fire and furlough teachers, as well as cut their pay. Conservatives who support the bill argue it’s the easiest way to save teachers’ jobs in light of the proposed vast budget cuts to education. It gives school districts more flexibility on who to fire—rather than having to layoff the newest teachers first—and ultimately, they say, fewer teachers will get fired if a district can employ other methods to cut costs.

The problem is that teachers’ groups don’t agree. All four groups—from the conservative ones to the progressive would-be unions—are fighting tooth and nail against the measure. It doesn’t take a genius to know that getting teachers’ groups upset is a risky political business. In fact the commissioner of education has said that measures that decrease teacher protections could lead to a more all-out push for unionization and collective bargaining.

Plenty of Republicans House members are nervous about voting for a bill with political consequences—particularly because in the Senate, a much more moderate version of the legislation doesn’t have the two-thirds required to come to the floor. If the Senate doesn’t have the votes to debate their own bill, how will they have the votes to debate a more controversial version? Why should House members take a politically risky vote if the will will simply die in the Senate?

That’s until Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands and the author of HB 400, reminded me of the latest parliamentary discovery: House Bill Day in the Senate.

What was once an unknown designation became vitally important when the Senate leadership announced the body could debate and pass the Senate version of the budget on House Bill Day and it would not need two-thirds support. It was an unprecedented move, breaking with tradition. For bills that originate in the House—like the budget—House Bill Day affords Republicans the ability to pass with only a majority in support.

That may be the play here for HB 400. While the bill is more controversial than the Senate version, a couple members told me that HB 400 would have an easier time passing the Senate since it would only need a majority, and the Senate bill would need two-thirds. Eissler seemed confident that should the bill get out of the House, it would pass the Senate. But that’s dependent on the Senate leadership allowing such a move.

It’s not an easy call. While HB 400 makes permanent changes to how teachers can be treated, it also would definitely mean fewer teachers get laid off in light of the state’s budget crisis. During the Senate budget debates, Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro took a swing at those who weren’t supporting her version of HB 400. “Let’s not talk about pink slips when we’re not able to take a hard vote to help those teahers from losing their jobs,” she exclaimed, citing the bill.

If the Legislature does not pass HB 400, the political implications of the budget will be tougher for legislators to ignore. Tens of thousands of out-of-work teachers will become the face of state budget cuts. If they do pass it, teachers’ groups will be on the warpath against those legislators. Not to mention the Senate might once again use an obscure rule to break with the two-thirds tradition for the second this session. We’ll find out Tuesday if the House can successfully pass the bill without any more hold ups.

It’s a tough position. Evidently making drastic cuts to public education isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Saturday’s House Meltdown: Points of Order and Points of No Return

When Democrats continued to obstruct bills with points of order, the Republican supermajority unleashed its full power—and now there's no turning back.

Usually, you have to look back to find the pivotal moments—to find the times “when everything changed.” But sitting in the Texas House in early May, on the body’s first working-Saturday, it was obvious to everyone that we were watching a key moment of the legislative session.

“Craig Eiland just threw his rulebook!” the reporter next to me exclaimed. I turned to see the always polite, always proper Democrat from Galveston,the guy stands when ladies leave a table, looking ready for a fight. I’m not sure where his rulebook landed.

Over four hours of fight over the rules, the Republican supermajority had had enough of the Democrats’ obstructionism. Since the beginning of the session, Democrats have used technical points of order to stall and disrupt proceeding on major bills. On that first Saturday, members arrived to discover yet another point of order—this one on major education legislation from the night before—had been sustained. Meanwhile with only 113 of the body’s 150 members present, the 20 Democrats present realized they had some actual power. If they walked out, there would be too few members to continue under the rules.

And that was the boiling point. Suddenly there were calls to lock the doors and keep the Democrats from leaving. That motion got withdrawn, only to be replaced by motions to suspend rules on bills—which would effectively remove points of order from the Democrats’ meager arsenal of legislative weapons. Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who was elected with Democratic support to usher in a less partisan era, refused to recognize chief Democratic bombthrower, Trey Martinez-Fischer. Then he chose to recognize Republican Rep. Brandon Creighton for a motion to “move the previous question” on a controversial tort-reform bill—legislative-speak for an immediate vote.

That’s when Eiland took to the microphone. “you’re about to make a bad day that we’ve had here much worse,” he pleaded with his colleagues. “People are testy, people are tired but that does not justify breaking the rules , wiping away the rules.” But wipe away they did. The controversial bill passed with no amendments and no debate.

It was the end of an era.

The Republicans had decided to unleash their full strength. Even if they choose not to use it again this session, the GOP has shown their weaponry—and how they can respond if pushed. Of course, the Democrats were undoubtedly obstructing the process—almost all their points of order were technical and somewhat trivial. With more than two-thirds of the seats in the House, the Republicans are well within their rights to suspend the rules. Likewise, Speaker Straus can choose not to recognize a member. 

But that doesn’t make any of it less of a break with traditions and trusts in the body. The rules, however, have always been central to how the House runs. At the beginning of the session, the House as a whole debates and decides how they’ll operate. The Republicans voted for those rules at the beginning of the session. Threatening to suspend the rules and then choosing to pass bills without debate—that’s more than just a violation of trust. It comes close to violating some democratic principals.

Furthermore, Texas has always been a state that makes it hard to pass laws. Bills run a gauntlet and most of them die in the process—from getting a committee hearing to getting the votes to pass out of the committee, from getting onto the legislative calendar to winning a majority vote on the House floor, not once but twice. While the minority party members are unlikely to pass major bills, they still have the power to kill bills. That’s probably because this state government was built to minimize lawmaking—after all, the Legislature only meets for 140 days every two years. 

Across the hall in the Senate, Republicans had made a similar decision, earlier in the week, when passing their version of the budget. After days of negotiations, the Republicans got tired of trying to compromise with Democrats. They chose to abandon the tradition of requiring two-thirds support on bills, and thanks to a caveat their rules, passed the contentious budget with only GOP votes.

Ironically the Republicans, the party of small government, has drastically expanded their power to create more laws. House Democrats have so few members this session that they could never expect to play a major role in creating legislation. Their only power was in stopping bills—and even that was based on finding technical problems. Meanwhile, the Senate Democrats clung to the two-thirds rule, which made them an integral part of the process.

Now the Republicans in both chambers have effectively said the Democrats only have whatever power they want to give them—and even that little power can be taken away. Republicans may not actually act on those threats again. Perhaps the rest of the session won’t see another moment like this.

But Democrats have been told decisively that they’re going to get steamrolled. Even if they had major points of order, Straus may simply not recognize points of order or rules violations. We could see the House start passing bills right and left, by threatening to use such maneuvers. Or we could see the Democrats turn desperate, looking for any way to blow up the session. None of it’s likely to be pretty.

But there’s no going back now.

The Democrats’ Last Chance to Stop the Budget [Updated]

Both the House and Senate budgets make major cuts to public ed. But those cuts are only possible if they pass new school finance legislation.

Updated May 5, 4:25 p.m. 

Don’t let the headlines fool you. While the Senate and House have both passed versions of the budget, the debate is far from over.

That’s because both budgets rely on major cuts to public education, and those cuts are contingent on new bills getting passed. If a school finance bill doesn’t pass, the budgets don’t balance.

You see, under current law, schools are entitled to a certain amount per student. Districts raise what they can with property taxes, and the state must pay for the rest. (For more on our troubled school finance system, read my March cover story.) The state can’t make good on those obligations, and for the first time in 60 years, we won’t automatically fund public schools.

When budget writers opted to cut from public schools in order to balance the budget, they knew that they would need extra legislation to change the school finance system. Otherwise, we would still owe billions to the schools, and big debts are hardly politically palatable. The House and Senate each have bills that cut the necessary amounts to schools in order to make their budgets’ respective cuts to school districts—$4 billion in the Senate and a whopping $8 billion in the House. Those bills are integral to the budgets that each chamber approved.

But as we knew back in February, these school finance bills will be hard to pass. In the House, Democratic Rep. Scott Hochberg’s bill isn’t even on the calendar yet. His bill tries to shield the poorest districts from cuts by putting all districts on a formula system. But that means that those school districts that have been living high on the hog will get slashed by huge percentages. It’s certainly not going to be an easy-pass in the House.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Education Chair Florence Shapiro’s bill hasn’t yet had the votes to come to the floor, and Democratic senators have a clear chance to block the bill. Of course, with the fight over the Senate budget, school finance bill wasn’t the top thing on people’s minds. I asked Democratic Sens. Royce West and Judith Zaffirini whether they’d discussed their options, and both said no.

But when I asked Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, she said she was considering the implications of blocking the school finance bill. “I’m encouraging my colleagues to as well,” she said.

Still Democratic senators have a clear chance to block the bill, and by extension cast a harsh political blow to the budget process. Without update school finance legislation, the state would still owe billions. While the state would hand out the available money, we’d still owe the rest to districts. Conservatives have frequently said the bill pays for every school kid, leaving out that it does so by paying less for each school kid. Without the new legislation, that argument won’t even technically hold up. Big government debt isn’t traditionally popular with fiscal conservatives. By blocking the school finance bill, Democrats could effectively make the education portion of the budget a poison pill.

Of course, that’s dependent on whether or not the Senate will observe the traditional two-thirds rule. Wednesday, the Senate found a way to pass the budget without a single Democratic vote. Republican senators used a caveat in the rules that meant they did not need the two-thirds support that’s normally required to debate a bill on the floor.

Afterwards, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters that the two-thirds tradition wasn’t dead—that the budget situation was a rare exception. If Democratic senators try to block school finance legislation, we’ll see just how resuscitated the two-thirds rule really is.

Update: Just to be clear: If a school finance bill doesn’t pass, it doesn’t mean the budget is automatically void. There are various, complex provisions in law to deal with a shortage in school funding. But the budget’s columns won’t balance—by $8 billion, according to the House budget. No one is quite sure what would happen if the school-finance bill doesn’t pass, and the budget comes up $8 billion short. What we can say is that if the school finance bill fails, it will seriously disrupt the budget process and could potentially sink House Bill 1.

 

 

A Gamble, a Threat and a Tradition: Take-Aways from Tuesday’s Senate Budget Fight

A three hour debate on the budget highlights the tense relation between the House and Senate, the risky new method of financing and the possible loss of the two-thirds rule.

After three dramatic hours of debate, Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden still did not have enough votes to bring the Senate budget up for debate Tuesday night. Senate Democrats stood unified against the measure—which left the chamber two votes shy of the 21 votes needed. Ogden has been scrounging for votes all week to pass the document, which is significantly more moderate than the House version. It includes significant cuts all around, but it also spends $11 billion more than the House budget on state services like schools and health care. At points last week, Ogden lacked support from members of both parties. Democrats argued the budget should spend more, while some Republicans objected to the bill’s use of $3 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund for the 2012-2013 biennium.

With only a few weeks until the end of the legislative session, Ogden made compromises to get the votes he desperately needed. The partisan split turned out to be one of the many unprecedented moments of the debate. First, he agreed to remove the Rainy Day money and opt for a riskier method of financing the bill (see below). He also made it clear that the Republicans have an opportunity to pass the budget even if they don’t have the two-thirds support normally required in the Senate. A caveat in the chamber rule allows simple majority votes on House bills during “House Bill Days.” This is hardly normal protocol, but no matter. Since the budget is technically a House bill—and since Wednesday is one of these House Bill Days—the budget debate will undoubtedly continue into Wednesday and likely through the end of the week. In the meantime, here are three key take-aways from the Senate’s debate.

The Tradition: Two-Thirds Rule At Risk 

As each Democrat rose to speak against the budget Tuesday night, almost everyone began by thanking Ogden. They emphasized how transparent and inclusive the budget process had been. Finally Ogden stopped one member. “I appreciate all this appreciation,” he said, “but what I really need is a couple of votes.” The Senate has always been the body of collegiality—and the two-thirds rule has helped ensure that bills get bipartisan support. But the body is also charged with passing a budget every legislative session, and the Republican leadership seems dead-set on getting something passed on the chamber floor. From the beginning of Tuesday’s debate, the threat to the Democrats was clear.

Once they had their “House Bill” loophole, Senate Republicans no longer needed the Democratic votes. But Ogden argued that he still desperately wanted to get two-thirds support and not diminish the rule. It amounted to an odd and latent threat: Don’t use your power or we’ll take it away from you.

Senators who did not vote to suspend the rules and debate the budget were “threatening” the tradition, Ogden said. “If we cannot suspend [the rules] with 21 votes, I am worried about the traditions of this Senate,” Ogden said. “That is why I have worked so hard and done everything I can possibly think of to get to 21 votes.”

Democratic Sen. John Whitmire, the longest-serving member of the Senate, spoke up. “You don’t really mean that those voting ‘no’ would be responsible for any demise of the two-thirds rule?” he asked incredulously. “You know that’s wrong.” Whitmire argued that the decision had in some ways already been made; if Republicans didn’t have their loophole, they would be negotiating with Democrats in back rooms rather than discussing the measure on the floor.

“The people in the state of Texas don’t give a diddle about the two-thirds rule,” Ogden shot back, arguing almost no Democrats were ever firmly committed to supporting the budget. 

The two-thirds rule has already weathered some storms. Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has frequently spoken against it, pushing for a less restrictive three-fifths rule. Last session and this time, the GOP senators made an exception for voter identification legislation, requiring that the controversial bill only need a majority vote. But with just over a third of the seats, Democrats have still been able to use the rule as a key bargaining chip.

After debate, both Ogden and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said they were still hoping to get two-thirds support tomorrow and eager to compromise with Democrats. But only up to a point. “I will get a budget passed out of here,” Dewhurst promised. 

And without the need for some bipartisan support, this is the end of an era.

 

The Gamble: The Financing of the Senate Budget

It turns out that the Legislature might rely on gambling to balance the budget this session after all. As part of a bid to win support from his Republican colleagues in the Senate, Ogden opted not to use $3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund.

Instead, he unveiled a complex scheme to replace that $3 billion by essentially betting that the state economy will dramatically improve over the next two years. It’s the type of odds the house in Vegas—or maybe an ultra-conservative House in Texas—might like.

It’s also an interesting exercise in math that Ogden only partially explained Tuesday.  About $1.25 billion would come from delaying Medicaid payments until the next biennium.

Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) asked Ogden whether that would simply mean tapping the Rainy Day Fund to pay those bills when they come due two years from now.

“How do you pay for that?,” replied Ogden. “I don’t know but I think the economy is going to grow and revenues are going to be much higher than the Comptroller estimates. We could be running a surplus two years from now.”

And what if the best-laid plans of budget-writers don’t come true? Ogden’s proposal includes a 1.2 percent across-the-board cut to state agencies if revenues don’t improve. That works out to about $690 million.

If you’re good at math, you’ve already figured out that the numbers don’t add up to $3 billion. And that’s where things get interesting. At least twice today, Ogden hinted at tapping the Rainy Day Fund when the so-called “supplemental” spending bill for the current 2010-2011 budget comes up for debate. Recall that the state of Texas also has a budget deficit for this biennium (2010-2011) that must be dealt with as well. The House patched the hole by using $3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund and $1 billion in cuts. That’s packaged up in House Bill 4, which the Senate has yet to vote on.

“I think it’s more than appropriate for us to debate how much of the Rainy Day Fund, if any, to fund House Bill 4,” Ogden mysteriously told one of his colleagues today.

Later, Ogden refused to elaborate to the press. Who wants to bet that more high budgetary shenanigans will unfold tomorrow?


The Threat: Role of the House in the Senate Budget Debate

 There’s more than enough blame to go around for the Senate’s near meltdown over the budget the past week. But the people perhaps most responsible for the impasse reside across the Capitol rotunda—in the Texas House.

The House, you’ll remember, passed an austere budget last month that sliced $23 billion from state spending. The reductions to public education and health and human services were particularly deep. If the House budget were implemented, many policy experts predict closures of schools and nursing homes.

For Senate Democrats—and Senate Republicans for that matter—the House version of the budget represents a shocking, almost cruel level of spending that must be avoided at all cost.

During Tuesday’s budget debate, Democrats Royce West and John Whitmire said publicly what many insiders had speculated: Senate Democrats don’t hate the Senate’s version of the budget. Rather they fear what will happen when a conference committee melds the Senate’s budget with the dreaded House version.

The Senate budget looks rather moderate. It relies heavily on cuts, but it spends $11 billion more than the House. The Senate version funds key areas such as public education, Medicaid, Child Protective Services and mental health at much higher levels.

The problem for the Democrats was they had only one weapon at their disposal—the two-thirds rule. And they had one chance to block the budget and force a special session this summer. Once the budget comes back from conference committee, the Senate can approve it with straight majority vote—an outcome the 12 Democrats in the Senate couldn’t impact.

If the Senate budget were standing on its own merits, some Democrats might have supported it. Whitmire and West both indicated on the floor today that Democrats had asked the leadership—Dewhurst and Ogden—for another two-thirds vote after the budget returns from conference committee. That request was turned down.

So Democrats chose to block the budget while they still could. Ogden needed just two Democratic votes to pass the budget. He could scrounge up only one.

Had the House version been less radical, it’s likely Senate Democrats would have been more accommodating.

The budget debate in the Senate has been a mess. But the House is largely to blame.

 


David Dewhurst: The Lite Guv Who Spooked Us

In his remarks on the killing of Osama bin Laden, David Dewhurst reminds the presscorps he's not your average politician.

Even in a building of, ahem, unusual individuals, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst stands out. For one thing, he’s about a foot taller than everyone else. Then there’s his odd way of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. There’s his love for air conditioning—a trip to the Senate can feel like a trip to the Arctic Circle. He’s also supposedly going to run for U.S. Senate, although he hasn’t announced his candidacy. And of course there’s his history in the Central Intelligence Agency.

Since he was the only state lawmaker I know of to hold a press conference on Osama bin Laden’s death, the link between the news and his history with the Agency was hardly subtle. But it sure was interesting. 

His own remarks were rather predictable. ”We know we have very dangerous people out in the world who hate Americans,” he explained. “And more than they hate Americans, they hate freedom. They hate the fact that we have a free society and we believe in religious tolerance. So they’re making war on us.” 

He even warned other terrorists that “if you harm Americans, America will not sleep. We will track you down. And we’ll take as long as it takes until we get ya.”

But after his three minutes of remarks, the reporters in the room got curious. What was his own view of the event in light of his work history? What exactly did he do?

“What I can tell you,” he began, “is when I was in college … a very very smart and very knowledgable lawyer happened to be the dad of my college roommate. He had been in the CIA for years.”

He couldn’t tell us much beyond that. He was a case officer abroad. He “ran agencies.” (For more on Dewhurst’s CIA history, check out our October profile.)

He was drawn, he said, to “the high professionalism, the dedication, the intelligence level of men and women who were willing to make a career out of being in the shadows, not being seen, to protect Americans.”

But while he’d resigned 35 years ago, Dewhurst wanted to make sure the reporters understood he was very much “in the loop.” He gave us a brief history of US-Pakistan relations since 9/11. In the ’90s, he said, he’d been on ”very highly classified presidential committee” as a presidential appointee. He still had friends in Washington, he told us, who knew of over 12 foiled terrorist plots on American soil. He was planning to call for more details about the bin Laden mission.

“Since I heard the news, I just thought of the millions of human hours and the dedication of thousands of hours of our intelligence professionals,” he said. 

“I can’t go into details,” he said ominously, “but the capabilities that the United States has developed over the years is nothing short of breath-taking.” 

The guy sure made himself seem exciting and mysterious. What an operative! Then he went back to the Senate, to wield the gavel in a chamber where members can’t find the trust or will to pass a budget.  

Are Democrats Hoping for a Special Session?

If lawmakers fail to pass a budget this session, they'll have to meet again this summer to finish the task. That may be the outcome some Democrats are hoping for.

For most of this legislative session, there’s been an ongoing joke—”Don’t make plans for July.”

Facing an unprecedented budget shortfall and redistricting, no one had a whole lot of confidence that lawmakers would finish their business during the 140 days of regular session. But few were actively hoping for a special session—when the governor calls back the Legislature to either pass a bill or complete unfinished work from the session.

But it appears that at least some House Democrats are now crossing their fingers that a special session might yield the kind of document they’re hoping for—a budget without drastic cuts to state services.

Currently chief budget writer Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, is unable to muster the two-thirds support necessary to debate their version of the budget. While there are significant cuts to education and health care, the Senate version spends over $10 billion more than the House to soften the cuts. It goes too far for some Republicans, while not going far enough for some Democrats.

Reps. Mike Villarreal, Sylvester Turner, Craig Eiland and Ruth McClendon-Jones, all of whom are on the House Appropriations Committee, gathered Thursday to publicly support the Senate’s delays in passing a budget, arguing the Senate version still did not go far enough. They particularly pointed to those Republican House members who supported the House’s bare-bones budget with a confidence that the Senate would return a less drastic document.

When a reporter asked if the general public grasped the magnitude of the cuts, Villarreal called the lack of general awareness about the cuts “one argument for continuing this public conversation into the summer.”

Later, I asked Villarreal and Turner if they had any concerns about going into a special session.

“How does it get worse?” Turner asked.

“It can only get better,” Villarreal said. More people would pay attention, he argued, and “when more eyes are on us, we make better decision.”

When I asked House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, what that extra attention might mean, he shook his head at me.

“A lot of people that have free time in the summer will be here that may not have free time today,” he said vaguely.

“Public employees?” I asked. “Teachers?”

“Texans!” he said with a smile.

I’ll translate. If we go through the summer, we’ll likely see a lot more people at the Capitol. Most of them won’t be happy. Thousands of teachers and public employees are already getting pink slips. I’d expect to see hundreds of them at the Capitol each day of a summer session—when they won’t have a job to go to—demanding fewer cuts. Meanwhile, outside hard-right groups like Empower Texans, which already wield a fair amount of clout in the Capitol, can also expend more energy watching budget proceedings and pushing for less spending. It won’t be easy to find common ground. And the governor will have to get directly involved for the first time—after all, he’ll be the one to call them back.

That may be the goal for Democrats. Special sessions draw attention to the leadership. Democrats have spent all session demanding that Republicans “own” the budget—and take responsibility for the drastic cuts. But for the most part, Gov. Rick Perry has been able to lay low this session. A special session would put the spotlight on him—and the state’s budget woes. With all the speculation that Perry will run for president or vice president, national media may well start paying more attention to Texas’ legislative struggle. He’ll have a harder time distancing himself from the massive layoffs and cuts to state services. 

“He just keeps taking pictures with the A&M basketball team while they’re laying off professors,” exclaimed Turner. “The governor has to be a part of this discussion.”

Still it’s not clear how lawmakers will hammer out a compromise either in this session or a special one. In a special session, Perry would certainly be part of the picture. But how that picture will come to include a passed and signed budget is anyone’s guess.