Apparently a constituent texted state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, this morning and told him to keep smiling—it helps the medicine go down. “I’m not sure it does,” he said, as yet another representative got up to criticize the draft budget that Pitts, House Appropriations Chair, had just explained.
The draft budget, which Pitts explained informally after the House adjourned, contained tremendous cuts—not shocking given that there’s an unprecedented shortfall. The total budget for the next two years only spends $156.4 billion, compared with our current $187.5 billion budget, and it assumes zero growth in areas, like public schools or health care, where the state will obviously grow. It cuts 9,287 public employee jobs. Pitts explained the only major area without serious cuts is the border security.
Pitts tried to emphasize that “draft” part of draft budget. “It does not address all the needs that have been identified,” Pitts explained, “nor reflect all of the saving that may be achieved.” But for all his pleading that this bill was only a starting point, he then took “questions.” Well not so much questions as complaints about the bill.
Most notably, the budget recommends closing four community colleges. Republican state Reps. Dennis Bonnen, Jim Keffer and Tryon Lewis all took to the mic to protest the closures. “The press has reported that it’s a done deal,” Keffer said of the college closures. “It’s the height of irresponsibility.” Bonnen held up a Houston Chronicle story with the headline “Brazos Port College To Be Closed.” Was there a way, he asked, to assure these schools that “they hopefully, most likely, won’t be closed?”
Pitts demurred. “There’s nothing in this bill that’s not painful,” he said. “I can’t guarantee that we’ll bring it back but I hope we can keep these community colleges open.”
For the most part, Pitts took the various criticisms calmly, without arguing or advocating his decisions. He continually promised to make it better, to work with members.
Some Democrats took a rather different tack. State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, took the floor to make what felt like a speech. Throughout a well-rehearsed set of “questions” he argued the draft budget dropped “the torch” and began discussing the structural deficit—the consistent problem Texas faces because its tax system does not produce enough revenue.
“This financial crisis that we find ourselves in today is much larger than the temporary downturn in our economy,” Villarreal said. Others in his party—Joaquin Castro, Trey Martinez-Fischer and Pete Gallego—made similar arguments to reform parts of the tax system or use the Rainy Day Fund.
Among the most concerning problems, raised by members of both parties, was whether the cuts would actually produce as much savings as expected. For instance, the budget assumes that closing some community colleges will save money. However if the students from those schools go to other facilities, those facilities will have increased cost. Similarly, the payouts to community-based care programs take a major hit. Normally that would mean those who relied on the care programs would go to nursing homes. But nursing homes will also see a cut, as well as an assumption of zero growth in services. Pitts avoided getting into details—though he introduced the various staff members who could handle the questions.
Now that they’ve seen the budget, cuts and warts and all, lawmakers must decide if they really aren’t going to draw on new revenue or spend some of the Rainy Day Fund (if not all of it). Pitts explained that he’d been charged to create a budget without such sources, but that does not preclude members from introducing such measures. Democratic state Rep. Sylvestor Turner, for his part, seemed willing to aquiesce. “We are going to balance this budget with cost reductions,” he said. “I don’t agree with it but I accept the parameters that we are operating under.”
Now I’m off to the Democrats’ press conference. I have a feeling they won’t have nice things to say.