A Glimpse Behind the Senate’s Closed-Doors Budget Fight

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For the first time, the Senate’s secret fight over the budget came to light on the chamber floor.

After a closed-door meeting this morning, lead Senate budget writer Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, announced that he still lacked the votes to bring up the budget, and would instead bring up two small “fiscal matters’ bills.

All week, he’s been scrounging for enough votes to bring up the Senate’s version of the budget. It spends almost $12 billion more than the version the House approved but even with the extra money, the Senate version still has drastic cuts to health care and education. Some Republicans are worried that it spends too much, while Democrats argue the bill relies too much on cuts.

The “fiscal matters” bills, however, were minor—the first one would only generate $9.7 million over the next two years—pocket change for a state budget that spends tens of billions. But suddenly, Ogden found himself in a tough fight with Democrats over the measure. In fact, he ultimately had to call the bill up a second time in order to pass it. Democratic senators squashed Ogden’s bill early in the afternoon, voting 11-20 to not to bring it up for debate. (To consider a bill in the Senate requires two-thirds support.)

Democrats said they couldn’t support the bill—which set fees—because they worried those fees would go towards balancing the budget generally and not towards their specified purposes.

“The practice that the Legislature has gotten into the habit of taking fees and taxes that have a designated purpose, but then they get swept and used to balance the budget,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. There is “no assurance in the future that these fees won’t be used for other purposes.”

Ogden, clearly frustrated, was frank with his colleagues.

“I know how to cut,” he said. “What these fiscal matters bills are doing is providing the statutory authority to spend more in” the budget. The alternative, he said, would be to cut spending from health and human services, education and public safety programs.

The Senate ultimately passed the measure after Ogden brought it up for a second time later in the day. (Ogden blamed the initial snag on senators simply not listening to him as he laid out the bill).

Senators also passed a similar revenue-generating bill related to the judiciary. But even that didn’t even go smoothly. Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, took issue with the bill’s provision that would divert money away from what the state pays jurors.

“This is not a good way of doing this,” he told Ogden. “I don’t think we ought to act like we don’t have choices because we do.”

Ogden quickly pointed out regardless of how the budget is funded, something needs to happen soon.

“If it’s the will of the Senate not to use these tools [like fee increases] I understand, but we’re going to balance that budget,” he said. “The implication of voting these [fiscal matters] bills down is that I have to go in there and cut something.”

After all that, however a much more vital bill needed to help plump the Senate’s budget breezed through. Sen. Jane Nelson’s legislation to limit Medicaid spending, which totals $3 billion in savings, passed unanimously. Once the measure passed, Nelson got a bear hug from Ogden.

Ogden has been met with objection for all sides in trying to craft a budget that doesn’t drastically cut crucial social services and education. A main point of contention among his conservative colleagues is the use of $3 billion of the Rainy Day Fund.

“I know the right thing to do is to use the Rainy Day Fund, and I think the criticism of it is just flat wrong,” he told reporters this morning after a one-and-a-half hour closed-door caucus meeting. “What do we have it for? If you’re not going to use the Rainy Day Fund when it’s raining, we may as well get rid of it.”

While some Senate Republicans take issue with using the Rainy Day Fund, some Democrats will almost certainly reject a budget that doesn’t tap the fund.

“I have the votes for the budget if we use the Rainy Day Fund, I have the votes for the budget if we don’t use the Rainy Day Fund,” said Ogden. “I have votes if we spend more money, but I don’t have a bill between the foul lines yet.”

If one thing that’s clear after today’s debacle: senators are still deeply divided over the budget, and it’s not just the Rainy Day Fund holding the budget back. Senators can’t agree on a way to fund their larger budget, and Ogden said he purposefully brought up today’s bills to start a conversation.

“That problem with getting this [budget] bill out is the method of finance, [today’s fiscal matters bills are] one method of finance,” he said. “I wanted to begin to frame the issue and I’m glad it turned out the way it did.”