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The Highs and Many, Many Lows of the Senate Budget Debate

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The Texas Senate didn’t distinguish itself on Wednesday. Senators managed to finally pass a two-year state budget plan after a week of stalled back-room negotiations. But it wasn’t pretty. 

Just to pass the bill, the Senate leadership—Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Finance Chair Steve Ogden—had to roll the chamber’s Democratic minority and, in the process, used parliamentary maneuvers to get around the Senate’s cherished two-thirds rule. And in an effort to win GOP votes, Ogden and Dewhurst decided not to tap the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a decision that leaves the budget’s finances somewhat nebulous. Removing the Rainy Day Fund money pissed off the Democrats—which led to the Republican leadership simply steamrolling them.

That was the just the procedural gamesmanship. The debate itself wasn’t much better. To be sure, some senators made excellent points. Laredo Democrat Judith Zaffirini constructed a strong case for why the Senate budget—while much better than the draconian House version—doesn’t spend enough money on education and heath and human services. Rodney Ellis spoke eloquently, and John Whitmire was fiery. (Whitmire made perhaps the best point of the day, telling Ogden that the Senate had passed a fiscally conservative budget two years ago. But the current budget spends $11 billion less. “So you either wasted a lot of money the last two years—which I know isn’t true—or we’re making serious cuts.”)

The rest of the debate was a fiasco. There was Mario Gallegos’ showboating; Florence Shapiro’s outright misrepresentations; Jane Nelson sounding like Neal Boortz and Ogden wrapping it up with a baldly political speech.

In the end, the Senate passed the damn bill. But it wasn’t a proud day for the Upper Chamber.

Some Like It Hot

Mario Gallegos isn’t always the most eloquent speaker in the Senate, but he does put on a show. On Wednesday, he outdid himself.

Like other Democrats, Gallegos spoke against the bill for cutting too deeply. He said the budget reduced state funding for two community colleges in his district by 54 percent and 34 percent respectively.

He then called the budget a giant “hot check.” This was partly a reference to the 2006 tax swap plan that didn’t balance—lawmakers instituted property tax cuts they couldn’t pay for, which created a structural deficit that’s still with us. (Then-comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn famously called the plan the largest “hot check” in Texas history.) Gallegos may also have been referencing the current budget’s questionable financing. By removing the Rainy Day Fund money, Ogden is betting that an improved economy will bring in enough money to pay the state’s bills. It’s a gamble.

Gallegos brought a prop to make his point. He unfolded an Ed McMahon-style giant check, with the words “insufficient funds” printed in red across the front. Gallegos then turned toward the cameras arrayed along the edge of the floor and held his giant hot check for the film at 11.

Ogden watched the scene unfold looking rather bemused.

Gallegos continued. In his Houston neighborhood, he said, stores paste hot checks on the counter. Customers who write them can no longer do business there. “Sen. Whitmire knows what I’m talking about,” Gallegos said.

We assume he meant Whitmire knows Houston businesses, not that he writes hot checks.

Child’s Play

A common theme in many Democratic speeches was that the budget doesn’t provide funding for the state’s population growth. Several Democratic senators contended it’s the first time Texas hasn’t paid for increased enrollment in its schools.

Eventually, Florence Shapiro had heard enough. The Republican from Plano rose to set the record straight.

She claimed the budget does pay for enrollment growth. All the new kids coming into Texas public schools will be paid for, she said. She wanted to make clear: No child won’t be paid for. “We are paying for every single student who goes to school in Texas,” she said.

This was a bit misleading. No one was claiming that school children won’t be paid for.

The issue is that because of a booming population, the state will have to pay less for each student. It isn’t rocket science. There will be more students attending Texas schools during the next two years. The budget doesn’t account for that growth. So schools will have to use the same amount of money (less money, actually) to pay for more students. That means less money for each student.

It wasn’t clear if Shapiro had missed the point or was just being misleading. But either way, her math wasn’t adding up. 

 

Producers vs. Leeches

If you ever tune into some of the more vile right-wing talkers on AM radio—Neal Boortz or Michael Savage for example—you’ll know that America can be neatly divided into two camps: the leeches and the producers. The leeches are worthless saps who do nothing but collect handouts from the government. Producers, on the other hand, represent everything that is good and right: hard-work, thrift, and personal responsibility. Producers pay taxes so that leeches can sit on their duffs. And so on….

Yesterday, Sen. Jane Nelson, a Lewisville Republican, indulged in a sanitized version of this vulgar sociology. “I truly believe that this bill addresses two sets of people that we need to keep in mind,” she said, “those people who depend on our state services and those people – we need to remember their faces – who are the taxpayers, who pay for these services. Let’s put a face on the taxpayer out there right now.”

Nelson is no Neal Boortz. She’s got way more class than that. But the ugly division is the same: One group uses government services; the other pays for them; and never the twain shall meet.

It’s not true of course. In Texas, sales taxes—notoriously regressive—constitute roughly a quarter of all revenues. Unless you’re the Unabomber, you pay a sales tax. In fact, if you’re poor, then you spend a much larger portion of your income on sales tax. Of course, many folks in need—children, the elderly, people with disabilities—may very well receive much more in government services than they’ve chipped in in taxes. But that’s just a fact of civilized society.

Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, later took issue with Nelson’s comment.

“You’re right, he said, “we need to worrry about the taxpayers. Guess who are the taxpayers? Because of our tax system in this state, it’s the same people who need our services.”

Where Have You Gone, Steve Ogden?

Perhaps the most blatantly political remarks of the day came from the person you might least expect—Steve Ogden. The Republican from Bryan has been a consistent source of clear-thinking and moderation this session. (There’s a reason every speaker on Wednesday—both Democrats and Republicans—began their remarks by praising Ogden).

But just before he officially passed the Senate’s budget—and set up a tough conference committee fight with the House—Ogden made a closing speech that was oddly political.

He said he believed that during recessions, government must ensure continued economic growth in the private sector. Fair enough. And, he continued, that meant the state couldn’t raise taxes, especially taxes on business, without hurting the economy. He praised the budget plan for not raising taxes on business.

This was the same Steve Ogden who, back on the session’s first day, pleaded with his colleagues to address the state’s structural deficit by raising the business tax: “None of us were elected to go out and raise taxes on anybody, but the margins tax is different,” he said back then. Go figure.

When even Ogden’s contradicting himself, you know things have gone amiss.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.