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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.
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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.