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Good News for Social Conservatives, Bad News for Fiscal Ones

While House Republicans initially passed a stringent sonogram bill, GOP leaders have softened their stance on the budget
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House Republicans did two very different things Thursday. Most of the GOP members spent the afternoon and evening arguing in favor of one of the most stringent sonogram bills in the country. The bill requires women seeking an abortion to have a sonogram, and for doctors to offer the woman a verbal description of the image, as well as ask her to hear the fetal heartbeat. It’s passed initially with 102 votes—and earned cheers from the staunch social conservatives in the GOP base. 

The staunch fiscal folks may not have had such a great day.

Thursday morning, several GOP leaders on the Appropriations Committee pushed for bringing more dollars into the budget, rather than trying to remedy the state’s $27 billion shortfall through cuts to state agencies and services. Increased revenue isn’t popular with the “Tea Party” philosophy that government spending is largely wasteful. The committee discussion went against the “cuts-only” approach that many hard-line conservatives have promoted, including Gov. Rick Perry.

The meeting began with Republican state Comptroller Susan Combs, who largely focused on the imminent debt of $4.3 billion the state owes this year. (Because we expected more money to come in this year, we’ve already spent funds we don’t have. The other $23 billion is the amount we’re short for next year’s budget cycle if we continue to maintain current programming levels.)

Combs pushed the committee to tap the state’s Rainy Day fund, a $9 billion fund for economic stabilization, to help balance the unprecedented shortfall. She noted that Legislature has dipped into the fund five times since it was created in 1988. Relying just on cuts, she said, “I don’t know how you get to 4.3 [billion]. I really don’t.”

Agencies have already cut spending in their current budgets, but the cuts so far aren’t enough to cover the costs.  Time’s also running out. The fiscal year ends on Aug. 31, and the state must find a way to balance the budget before then.

Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts filed legislation earlier this week to spend almost half of the rainy day fund on the immediate budget deficit. When I talked to him Monday, Pitts said relying on cuts alone to balance the budget would create widespread pain in the state. “The Texas budget doesn’t have fat,” he said.

This legislative session has had two overwhelming themes—the budget crisis and the so-called “red meat” social issues. But it’s begun to feel like the bills on social issues, like abortion and immigration, are a way to placate the Republican base. When it comes to this budget, despite the inevitable widespread cuts, many GOP leaders—like Pitts—have taken a softer approach. Reps. John Zerwas, R-Simonton and John Otto, R-Dayton, have both argued for spending Rainy Day Money money. “The Rainy Day Fund was designed for times like this,” Otto told the Beaumont Enterprise.

In the Senate, Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, has affirmed that at least some of the fund will get spent, while Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, said he’s comfortable spending “most” of it.

But with one of the most conservative Texas Legislatures in recent memory, featuring a two-thirds Republican majority in the House, many expected hard-line social and fiscal policies: anti-abortion bills along side efforts to cut government programs, for instance. Bu while the social conservative bills are moving forward at quite a clip, there’s clearly a softer stance on such fiscal policies. The budget cuts will undoubtedly be widespread and painful, but at least a vocal GOP contingent is working to minimize some of them. 

I’m not sure that’s exactly what the Tea Party had in mind.