Jim Pitts’ Sticker-Shock Offensive

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If someone has questioned state Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s conservatism, I haven’t heard it. The sarcastic and often cranky legislator who stalks around the House floor is known for taking a hard line on issues, from Voter ID to taxes. He’s big on ridding the government of inefficiencies.

So it was a little surprising when he arrived on the House floor today to complain about the proposal to close one of these supposed “inefficiencies”—Brazosport Community College. It is one of four community colleges currently on the chopping block. Bonnen brought his complaint to state Rep. Jim Pitts, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who spent nearly two hours Wednesday explaining his draft appropriations bill, the first stab at balancing Texas’ state budget with an unprecedented $27 billion shortfall.

Bonnen held up a Houston Chronicle story, and read the headline “Brazosport College To Be Closed.” (Most likely he was referring to this story.) “We created a headline that four of them will close,” he said. Was there a way, he asked, to assure these schools that “they hopefully, most likely, won’t be closed?”

Pitts kept his voice calm and comforting as he answered with his Waxahachie twang—it was far from the only angry outburst he heard. “There’s nothing in this bill that’s not painful,” he said soothingly to Bonnen. “I can’t guarantee that we’ll bring it back, but I hope we can keep these community colleges open.”

The bill is drastic—the total budget for the next two years only spends $156.4 billion, compared with our current $187.5 billion budget, and it assumes zero growth in areas like public schools or health care, where the state will obviously grow with increased population. It cuts 9,287 public employee jobs. In addition to the four community colleges, the bill also cuts more than $9 billion in funding for public schools. It will pay Medicaid providers even less, and demands that one state hospital privatize. As Pitts explained, the only major area without serious cuts is border security. The bill was written without factoring in the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s $9 billion savings account, and without any new taxes or revenue sources. In other words, this was a horrific budget to contemplate.

And that may not be a bad thing.

By offering a budget that did not sugar-coat the cuts, Pitts woke up a lot of daydreaming Republicans. Many members of his party have been happy to say that cuts will be painful, but unwilling to consider any sort of relief. Many are against tapping into the Rainy Day Fund, and almost every Republican is vehemently against any sort of new taxes or fees.

This budget bill shows the consequences of such policies in the cold light of day. Community college closures are just the beginning. Assuming zero growth in areas like health care and public schools will leave a lot of constituents shaking in their boots. Headlines, like the one Bonnen showcased on the floor, will grab public attention and that, in turn, will put pressure on members to consider moves beyond cutting willy-nilly—and to think seriously about using the Rainy Day fund and raising some additional revenues.

Throughout the hearing, Pitts gave short explanatory answers and remained quiet as some of his colleagues railed against the content of the bill. He had a sad and resigned tone, as he explained that he didn’t like the cuts either and was eager to make it a better bill.

But to do that, the powerful chairman will need some of his fellow members to change the popular belief that all cuts are good and all government spending is bad. Today’s debate was a start: If it left Bonnen worked up about cuts, it likely left some others sticker-shocked as well.