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From Rules Fights to Budget Cuts

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Day Nine of the 82nd Texas Legislature

The Texas Legislature isn’t known for moving quickly. During the first 60 days, they can barely move at all—with a few exceptions, no bills can be passed—and right now no one even has a committee assignment. But that didn’t stop both chambers from spending yesterday getting on with some dour business. After months of hearing about just how bad the budget would be, House members got their first look Tuesday night at the draft budget, and given the tremendous cuts to both higher ed and public schools, to scholarship programs and Medicaid payments, we’re guessing it was a long night. Yesterday, House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, sorrowfully took questions about the bill, largely from Democrats about the tremendous numbers of cuts to education and to health and human services. Most of the Republicans limited their questions and criticisms to the proposed closure of four community colleges. It wasn’t exactly a happy time, and now members have 131 days left to improve the bill.

It was a happier day in the Senate. The Democrats got to keep the two-thirds rule, a caveat that gives them the ability to block bills, while, through an exemption, the GOP still gets to bring up Voter ID on a simple majority vote. So there you have it—when it came to rules, there was something for everybody, and when it came to the draft budget, there was barely anything.

 

1. It’s Raining, It’s Pouring…

But no one was snoring Wednesday morning. Well not in the State House, anyway. Instead state reps, many wide-eyed, listened as House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, laid out the first draft of the budget plan. According to the bill, the total budget for the next biennium will spend only $156.4 billion, a $31.1 billion cut from the current budget. It does not assume any growth in areas like healthcare or schools—an impossible assumption for a state with an exploding population. Under the draft budget, over 9,000 government jobs would be cut. So would four community colleges, and $9 billion in public school funding. This first draft was written how the fiscal conservatives wanted it—without any new taxes, new revenue and without using the Rainy Day fund, the $9 billion savings account reserved for emergencies. Well, is it raining now? [The Texas Observer]

2. Community College Daze

Several House Republicans were bawling over the proposed closure of four community colleges—Odessa College, Brazos Port College, Ranger College, and Frank Phillips College. State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a conservative champion of eliminating inefficiency, called the cuts “terribly irresponsible,” but still maintained his stance of no new taxes. However, the community colleges’ woes are just beginning. The Texas Association of Community Colleges estimates a $787 million hit once unfunded student growth and group health insurance cuts are added to the $142 million in proposed budget cuts. Community college students and staff are up in arms over the news with Frank Phillips President Jud Hicks, declaring that Frank Phillips College will not close. [Amarillo Globe-News] [The Texas Tribune]

3. Senate and Sensibility 

What was called the “Senate Rules Fight” turned out to be a rather civil engagement. At stake was the two-thirds rule—which requires supermajority support to bring a bill to the floor. In effect, it gives the minority Democrats the ability to block bills, an allowance several Republicans weren’t so happy about. GOP state Sen. Dan Patrick talked up a three-fifths rule for a while, which would have left Democrats without the numbers to block. But despite lengthy oration from Patrick, who at one point called upon the founding fathers to condemn the two-thirds tradition, the rule survived. Attitudes turned cold, however, as Republicans ushered in a caveat to the two-thirds rule that would allow bills on Voter-ID to come to the floor on a simple majority vote. It was out of their 2009 playbook, when the Repblicans made a similar exemption. Since the GOP currently holds a 19 to 12 majority over Democrats, you can guess what is going to happen when bills like Senate Bill 17—a Voter I.D. bill filed by Sen. Fraser, R-Waxahachie—comes to the floor. In all likelihood, that effort won’t be any fight, it’ll be a massacre. [The Texas Observer] [Off the Kuff]

4. A Window of Opportunity

Democrats found something to be happy about. Amid fighting over the two-thirds rule, the state Senate did approve an amendment to the rules that offers lawmakers and citizens a 48-hour window to view the budget before the Senate actually votes. The change in the rules would allow citizens and legislators time to actually understand what will be a very important budget bill this year. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, the chief instigator of the change, has been pushing for more transparency for weeks. “Today’s vote gives hard-working Texans an important and essential tool to see whether the budget finally addresses the challenges they face,” he stated in a press release.  But given the budget woes in the House (see Item 1), it’s not likely a bill anyone will want to see. [Off the Kuff] [Burnt Orange Report]

5. Perry’s Millions

Well, running for governor ain’t cheap, and now we finally know how much those rallies really cost. In case you didn’t want to troll through the voluminous reports posted on the Texas Ethics Commission homepage, here are some of the numbers popping up. Rick Perry amassed a total of $41.7 million dollars in his fight to keep the governor’s seat. That’s almost twice as much as his Democratic opponent Bill White’s $28 million. The report shows that Perry amped up the rpm’s during the final days of his campaign. Christy Hoppe from the Dallas Morning News estimated that Perry spent $1 million a day in the last week of his campaign—a feat that even Richard Pryor couldn’t pull off in Brewster’s Millions. [Dallas Morning News]