All through Thursday’s House budget debate, tea party freshmen scrounged for support to defund several of the state’s small programs and drop the funds into the Teacher Retirement System. They never gained much momentum, but the biggest blow came from some of the House’s most conservative veterans.
The lopsided battles pitted the likes of Jeff Leach, Jonathan Stickland and Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) against pretty much everyone else, suggesting just how little enthusiasm was left for the slash-and-burn budgeting of last session. Above all, it was a big reminder of who calls the shots in the House.
The House had already adopted a rule to keep its budget at $93.5 billion, to keep big fights over, say, school funding off the House floor. Anyone hoping to add or subtract in one place had to offset it somewhere else. It was one of a few strategies that averted a repeat of the nasty debates two years ago. It also helped the debate finish early, after just 12 hours. (Yes, that’s short for a budget bill.)
The tea party youth tried to use the rule by tossing funding for the Texas Historical Commission or the Texas Research Incentive Fund into the Teacher Retirement System, picking fights over less than $200,000.
On both sides, everyone fawned over retired teachers. The insurgent freshmen claimed they were just looking out for some very important Texans whose retirement fund is facing a shortfall. Other members weren’t interested, though, and in fact, neither was the Texas Retired Teachers Association.
Stickland (R-Bedford) filed a slew of amendments, including one to take more than $17 million from the Texas Research Incentive Fund, a matching program for state institutions, and put it into TRS. Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas) pounced on Stickland for attempting to defund a successful research program to which Stickland replied, “I do not think that our number one priority should be chasing federal dollars.” It was one of the last stands for the freshmen, and Stickland eventually withdrew his amendment after a lengthy back and forth.
Along with Branch, the influential chair of the House Higher Education Committee, the tea party freshmen were stifled by Transportation chair Larry Phillips (R-Sherman), House Ways and Means chair Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) and Dan Huberty (R-Humble). They’d take their shots behind the microphones, then quietly take the freshmen aside to explain this just isn’t the way to kill programs members cared about.
At one point, Stickland sought to remove $187,813 from a loan program encouraging PhD candidates near the border to remain there to teach. “The TRS is more important than this program,” Stickland said. “This is not a political issue.”
Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) hit Stickland with a line of questions about his experience along the border, where Stickland admitted he hasn’t spent much time. He noted the irony of defunding a program for teachers to fund other teachers’ retirement: “So you’re hurting one program to benefit another program?” More Democrats piled on. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) grilled Stickland on how much he really knew about the border. “I take personal offense to this that you would attack an area that you’ve had … zero exposure to,” Lucio said.
Plano Republican Rep. Jeff Leach joined Stickland’s vendetta against spending, with an amendment pulling $4 million from the Texas Film and Music Marketing Fund and putting put it in—you guessed it—the Teacher Retirement System.
Rep. Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock) stepped to the microphone opposite Leach to get his licks in. Gonzales said the Texas Film and Music Marketing Fund sees a five-fold return on its investments, which he said the freshmen would know if they’d done their research. A few lawmakers turned to applaud Gonzales when he returned to his desk.
Leach tried to bring the conversation back to teachers. “We want to take care of this problem, but we don’t want to do it now,” he said. “We want to kick the can down the road. This bill is about making a decision now to tell our retired teachers that you are more important than video games and movies and television shows.”
“This retired teacher would be appalled if you did this,” Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) said.
With light applause, Rep. Richard Peña Raymond (D-Laredo) demanded that Leach answer whether he would support taking money from the Rainy Day Fund to go into the Teacher Retirement System.
“That’s not relevant to this amendment,” Leach said in response to Raymond’s prodding.
“It’s very relevant!” Raymond said. “That money in the Rainy Day Fund doesn’t belong to you.”
In the midst of the heated debate Raymond stepped back from his fervor. “I want to apologize,” Raymond said. “I was being… whatever. I love you guys.”
“I love you too,” Leach responded.
At the end of the night, Longview Republican Rep. David Simpson and 11 Democrats voted against Senate Bill 1—but in an otherwise calm debate over the budget, the biggest lesson seemed to be the tea party’s diminished power in the Texas House.
This story has been corrected, properly attributing a quote to Rep. Eddie Lucio III that had been mistakenly attributed to Rep. Armando Walle.