The Budget Superlatives: The Best and Worst Moments of the Budget Debate

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After over 22 hours of debate, the Texas House passed a budget Sunday night that looked an awful lot like the first draft offered in January. The same drastic cuts to education and health and human services are there. College scholarships remain largely zeroed out for incoming freshmen as do grants for pre-k. Rate cuts to Medicaid providers still stand at almost 33 percent and services for poor and elderly are drastically reduced.  “I know this bill is not perfect,” said Rep. Jim Pitts, the Appropriations Committee chair who largely oversaw the bill’s drafting and carried the bill on the floor. “I believe it can be improved further and I believe it will be.”

But that improvement will have to happen in the Senate or in the conference committee in which the two chambers reconcile their different versions of the budget. The House is done for now. Their version will appeal to the fiscal hardline—there are no new taxes or other forms of revenue. The chamber willl have to approve fee increases individually. With such drastic cuts, the budget has some scary political implications for politicians who fear returning home to districts with schools and hospitals closing. Many House reps are counting on the Senate to find more money, so that the drastic cuts aren’t all implemented. But that didn’t stop the budget from passing along largely party-line votes; only two Republicans, Reps. David Simpson and Aaron Peña voted against the bill in the first floor vote.

Of course, this being the Texas Legislature, there was no shortage of bizarre and exciting moments on the floor. So, for those of you watching basketball or otherwise enjoying your weekend instead of sitting in the Capitol—here’s what you missed.

Most Interesting Representative: Rep. David Simpson

Early on in the budget debate, it was clear Rep. David Simpson wasn’t going to play by the usual partisan rules. The Tea Party freshman from Longview upset his own Republican colleagues early in the debate when he offered an amendment to de-fund the Commission for the Arts in favor of nursing facilities in the Department of Aging and Disabilities. “It’s the right thing to do,” Simpson said in his quiet manner.

Neither party seemed to know exactly what to do—the Commission for the Arts has some powerful political supporters, but voting against nursing facilities doesn’t exactly look great. Democrats complained that the bill was offering a false choice, while some Republicans were suspicious that the amendment was an effort to hurt moderates. In fact, fellow GOP-er Vicki Truitt surmised that Simpson could be “setting up a record vote that can be used against us in primaries.” But Simpson found a staunch ally in veteran Democrat, Rep. Pete Gallego, who urged members to “at least do what Mr. Simpson does and help the elderly. Let’s do some things that make sense.” In the end, his measure passed in a non-party line vote of 67 to 61, with 17 Democrats registering “present not voting.”

But Simpson wasn’t done. He had another amendment to shift money away from the governor’s film incentives program and into grants for small and rural libraries. When a similar measure from Democrat Rafael Anchia failed, Anchia tried to help Simpson with his measure. Simpson withdrew the measure temporarily to confirm that his numbers were accurate and that the bill couldn’t be killed by a point of order. He even called the state Comptroller on Saturday. It didn’t matter though. “I had assurances from people very high up in this state that it did not cost the bill, and I was told at the very last minute that it did,” Simpson told me. “They made a decision in a private room without me.”

That killed Simpson’s support for the budget—and the Tea Party representative voted against the bill. He said he decided against it when he saw “half billion dollars going to corporate welfare instead of the weak among us.” In particular, he wanted to see funding decreased for corporate incentives, like the film incentives and the governor’s Enterprise Fund, in favor of schools and health care.

“We need to cut spending, we need to live within our means,” Simpson told me after it was all over, looking absolutely despondent. “But we should have started with corporate welfare and not with community colleges, not with the nursing homes. That is what is so disappointing to me.”

Most Likely to be on The Daily Show: Wayne Christian

It was, as one reporter said, a “career move.” In quick succession, Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, offered up two education amendments so anti-intellectual that they managed to raise eyebrows. For the record, that’s no easy feat in this particular electoral body.

His first amendment required universities to offer “family and traditional values centers” if they also offered centers for LGBT students. Well, not just LGBT—to cover his bases, Christian’s amendment offered a laundry list of sexual identities, including “homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, transsexual, transgender, gender questioning.” That was too much for Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who got up with a bit of a grin to ask Christian just what  exactly is a “pansexual.” Christian, looking a bit uncomfortable, didn’t offer a technical definition—but he did apologize “to all the ladies in the auditorium.” But few in the House were willing to vote against “traditional values” and the bill passed by a vote of 110 to 24. Ten Democrats wouldn’t take a stand on the issue at all and simply registered “present not voting.”

But while homophobia didn’t seem to raise much ire, Christian’s next amendment managed to make the vast majority of the House uncomfortable. It required universities to ensure that at least 10 percent of their classes be on Western Civilization. As Democrats rose to ask just what “Western Civ” would include, it soon became clear Christian wasn’t sweating the details. Rather he was just worried that most children “think that freedom started at the time of the civil rights movement.” This would require they learn history.

But what history?, Democrats asked. Native American? Mexican American? African?

“Would white European history be included in African history?” shot back a tongue-tied Christian.

Borris Miles simply shook his head. “Let’s pull this down, brother,” he told Christian. And with that 108 members of the House voted against the amendment.

Best Line: Rep. Harold Dutton

I thought that would leave them with one guy and one phone, because I thought that’s all they needed.” —Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, on his ideal version of the Texas Education Agency. Dutton had an amendment to de-fund the Texas Education Agency and send the savings to school districts. Republican Rep. Burt Solomons had already offered a similar point. “I think you need to start over with the TEA,” Solomons had argued. “I mean from scratch.” Both measures failed.

Bitterest Fight: Family Planning

It was the moment at which the Democratic minority—less than a third of the House—felt their irrelevance most. House Republicans introduced amendment after amendment, all stripping money away from the programs. Democratic arguments didn’t matter. In the end, less than 40 percent of the program funding remained—barely enough to get federal matching dollars. Family planning programs offer contraceptives and women’s health screening and, by law, cannot offer abortions. The GOP amendments took money from those programs and put it into services for autistic children or mentally ill children and the like. Many Democrats, faced with choosing between two priorities, opted to register “present, not voting” rather than choosing a side.

In one weird and early exchange, Democratic Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, attacked an amendment by Rep. Randy Weber, R-Pearland, to take $8 million out of the program. Based on a foreign study, Weber argued that women who use contraception are more likely to have abortions. “You think contraception doesn’t work?” asked the Democrat. “Have you ever used contraception yourself?”

Weber was dismissive. “I don’t think I know you well enough to go down this road,” he said tersely. After all, he knew his amendment, like all the amendments stripping family planning funds, would pass on party-line votes.

Most Moving Lament

After hours of milling around and having side conversations as debate raged, the entire House sat quietly to hear speeches against the budget. The mood, respectful and quiet, seemed to heighten the gravitas as Appropriations Vice-Chair Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, took the floor. He was the last of eight Democrats to speak against the bill, and he didn’t hold back. He thanked Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts and repeatedly invoked his respect for the Appropriations Committee.

“But it’s bigger than that,” Turner said. “It is much, much bigger than that.”

As Turner outlined his fears about a budget that could cause 80 percent of nursing homes to close, he turned on those who promised it would get better once the Senate has a crack. “This is the people’s House,” Turner said. “We don’t wait on the Senate to save us. We don’t wait on the Senate to give us cover. It reflects the House values.”

His voice echoed across the chamber. After a long day, Turner seemed to get the House’s attention as he spoke. “Not one of us will leave this chamber and go back to our district and take ownership of those cuts,” he said. “What about our children? What about our teachers? And what about the elderly?”

He invoked his own family—where thanks to education, he and his siblings could pay for his elderly and ailing mother’s health care. His voice began to crack with emotion. “I won’t vote for you and neither should you,” he implored his colleagues. “If this is the Texas House, then the Texas House needs to stand up. It hurts too many when it should not.”

And a few minutes later, the House passed the budget.