It’s normally one of the best appointments a representative can have. But this year there are 27 billion reasons that House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts might be sorry he ever got assigned the powerful position. Those 27 billion reasons? Every dollar of the current budget shortfall.
I talked to Pitts today after he announced his bill to spend more than $4 billion from the Rainy Day fund, that $9 billion stash the state’s been saving up, ostensibly for a budget crisis—like the one we’re currently facing, for example. But using the fund hasn’t been popular with the hard-right members of the House, and Gov. Rick Perry has specifically told the lawmakers to “protect the Rainy Day fund.”
But Pitts’ bill is a shrewd move. The $4 billion Pitts proposes would pay for the state’s current debts. 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 continueto maintain current programming levels.) Normally, it takes 100 votes to use money from the Rainy Day fund, but if the money is for the current budget cycle, it only needs 90 votes. It would also go into effect immediately.
When Pitts laid out the draft version of the budget, which featured enormous cuts to education and health and human services—and no money from the Rainy Day fund—he was visibly distressed by the worst-case-scenario document. “I promise you that I’ll work day and night to make this budget better,” he promised his colleagues.
Now he’s hoping some of his peers have recognized the urgency of the situation—and the need for some Rainy Day cash. “A lot of people thought, ‘Well, we can cut $30 billion off the total budget and that’s no big deal,’” he said. “But that’s a big deal.”
“A lot of people when they run for election they [say they'll] cut the fat in our budget,” he continued. “Well, the Texas budget doesn’t have fat.”
That leads some to argue that the Legislature needs to spend the entire enchilada—all $9 billion in the Rainy Day fund. That was certainly Scott McCown’s perspective when I ran into the executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities after Pitts’ initial announcement. “It’s a great start, but we need to use it all,” he pronounced. CPPP has been one of the leaders of Texas Forward, a coalition of advocacy groups pushing for the state to use the whole fund, and McCown was optimistic that the $4 billion was just the beginning. “I don’t think this is where we’ll end up,” he told me.
Pitts wasn’t so sure. “I’m not proposing to use any more,” he said. Then he paused. “At this time, I guess you should say.”
The Appropriations chair seems focused on building support before he takes more action. He told me he believes he has the 90 votes needed for his current measure, but demurred when I asked if he thought there could be 100—the requirement if the Lege were to spend any of the fund to balance the upcoming budget.
“We’re closing schools, we’re firing teachers,” he told me. “I don’t think a lot of people realized that. I’m just hoping at least 90 do.”