Are Democrats Hoping for a Special Session?

If lawmakers fail to pass a budget this session, they'll have to meet again this summer to finish the task. That may be the outcome some Democrats are hoping for.

For most of this legislative session, there’s been an ongoing joke—”Don’t make plans for July.”

Facing an unprecedented budget shortfall and redistricting, no one had a whole lot of confidence that lawmakers would finish their business during the 140 days of regular session. But few were actively hoping for a special session—when the governor calls back the Legislature to either pass a bill or complete unfinished work from the session.

But it appears that at least some House Democrats are now crossing their fingers that a special session might yield the kind of document they’re hoping for—a budget without drastic cuts to state services.

Currently chief budget writer Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, is unable to muster the two-thirds support necessary to debate their version of the budget. While there are significant cuts to education and health care, the Senate version spends over $10 billion more than the House to soften the cuts. It goes too far for some Republicans, while not going far enough for some Democrats.

Reps. Mike Villarreal, Sylvester Turner, Craig Eiland and Ruth McClendon-Jones, all of whom are on the House Appropriations Committee, gathered Thursday to publicly support the Senate’s delays in passing a budget, arguing the Senate version still did not go far enough. They particularly pointed to those Republican House members who supported the House’s bare-bones budget with a confidence that the Senate would return a less drastic document.

When a reporter asked if the general public grasped the magnitude of the cuts, Villarreal called the lack of general awareness about the cuts “one argument for continuing this public conversation into the summer.”

Later, I asked Villarreal and Turner if they had any concerns about going into a special session.

“How does it get worse?” Turner asked.

“It can only get better,” Villarreal said. More people would pay attention, he argued, and “when more eyes are on us, we make better decision.”

When I asked House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, what that extra attention might mean, he shook his head at me.

“A lot of people that have free time in the summer will be here that may not have free time today,” he said vaguely.

“Public employees?” I asked. “Teachers?”

“Texans!” he said with a smile.

I’ll translate. If we go through the summer, we’ll likely see a lot more people at the Capitol. Most of them won’t be happy. Thousands of teachers and public employees are already getting pink slips. I’d expect to see hundreds of them at the Capitol each day of a summer session—when they won’t have a job to go to—demanding fewer cuts. Meanwhile, outside hard-right groups like Empower Texans, which already wield a fair amount of clout in the Capitol, can also expend more energy watching budget proceedings and pushing for less spending. It won’t be easy to find common ground. And the governor will have to get directly involved for the first time—after all, he’ll be the one to call them back.

That may be the goal for Democrats. Special sessions draw attention to the leadership. Democrats have spent all session demanding that Republicans “own” the budget—and take responsibility for the drastic cuts. But for the most part, Gov. Rick Perry has been able to lay low this session. A special session would put the spotlight on him—and the state’s budget woes. With all the speculation that Perry will run for president or vice president, national media may well start paying more attention to Texas’ legislative struggle. He’ll have a harder time distancing himself from the massive layoffs and cuts to state services. 

“He just keeps taking pictures with the A&M basketball team while they’re laying off professors,” exclaimed Turner. “The governor has to be a part of this discussion.”

Still it’s not clear how lawmakers will hammer out a compromise either in this session or a special one. In a special session, Perry would certainly be part of the picture. But how that picture will come to include a passed and signed budget is anyone’s guess.

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Published at 12:11 pm CST