It was supposed to be a predictable debate—and on its face, that’s how it seemed. Thursday the House debated two measures meant to allow the state to pay its bills for the current fiscal year. One measure cut state agencies by around a billion dollars, the other used around $3 billion from the state’s $9 billion Rainy Day fund to plug the hole. The bills both ultimately passed. As expected, Democrats offered amendments to restore funding to various programs and Republicans voted them down. With less than a third of the seats, Democrats couldn’t do much, it seemed.
Until one Democrat brought down a Republican amendment from the rep who chairs of the Texas Conservative Coalition.
Ultra-conservative Rep. Wayne Christian locked horns with Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, over the System Benefit Fund, which uses a 65 cent tax on energy consumption in deregulated areas to help the poor and elderly pay their electric bills. In an effort to cut the budget for this year—and help the state pay its electric bills—Christian wanted to cut the fund by an extra $20 million. Turner was irate, pointing out that more than $60 million was already coming out of the fund—and that the extra money coming out would have devastating impact on seniors.
“You want to touch the elderly and the low income on their electricity bills?” he exclaimed. “The effect of your amendment is that you will turn off the lights for seniors and low income people in the months of May, June, July and August of this year.”
Christian tried to argue that there was already plenty of money in the account—over $500 million that he repeated referred to as a “slush fund.” While the account has a lot of money in it, little of that has actually been appropriated to helping the seniors and low income pay their bills. The bulk is already being used to certify that the budget balances.
“Your amendment takes from that very small portion that is actually going to the people,” Turner said.
As Democrats went to the back mike to support Turner’s position, Republican Rep. Jim Keffer urged all members to pay attention. “We all have a vested interest” in the program, he told his colleagues.
One Republican tried to help Christian. Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, tried to point out that the Public Utilities Commission, which runs the System Benefits Fund, was already cutting their assistance levels back. That discovery, as Forrest reported a few weeks ago, caused a meltdown in an Appropriations hearing. Turner, among others, wants the commission to revote on the issue.
And then, all of a sudden, Christian withdrew the amendment. It seems that Christian’s own Republican colleagues urged him to give up.
The story makes more sense in context. There had been much discussion of whether or not Appropriations chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, had the votes to use the Rainy Day fund. Some Republicans wanted to balance the budget using cuts alone. Christian, who has previously challenged the more moderate Republicans and helped lead the unsuccessful fight against House Speaker Joe Straus, appeared to be a key player in deciding whether or not the ultra-conservative faction of the House would support the Rainy Day fund bill.
The group had gone to Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts to cut a deal. According to one Republican House member, Christian’s amendment was one of four that House ultra conservatives wanted in exchange for supporting the Rainy Day fund bill. Two of the amendments passed on party line votes—one by Phil King that required agencies to get the governor’s approval before filling empty positions and another from Rep. Bill Zedler that required that the cuts be instituted before the state can use the $3 billion in Rainy Day money.
But Christian’s fell, after other Republicans got skittish about the extent of the cuts to the elderly. And it wasn’t the only one. Rep. Ken Paxton carried the other amendment in the deal, that would have required a 0.625 percent pay cut for state employees making over $60,000 per year. Much like Christian, Paxton found himself staring down another of the most senior Democrats of the House—Rep. Senfronia Thompson.
Thompson, who commands respect with on both sides of the aisle, admonished Paxton in no uncertain terms. “It’s time for us to start acting like adults,” she said.
Paxton soon withdrew his amendment as well.
The Democrats can hardly brag—the bills passed yesterday carried tough cuts to state agencies and the House has only approved of using a third of the Rainy Day fund. But Republicans are scared. This is an ugly budget, with deep implications for education, health care and the future of state employees. On background, most House members I’ve talked to say they’re banking on the conference committee—when the Senate and House hammer out a final version of the budget—to produce a happier product. Since conference committees are often held behind closed doors, everyone will be able to be more honest about what’s actually needed. Furthermore, the scars from the speaker’s race remain. Paxton challenged House Speaker Joe Straus, arguing he wasn’t conservative enough. Christian and other conservatives backed Paxton, involving grassroots organizations it what’s normally an insider-fight. Many moderate Republicans were upset that Paxton, Christian and others brought so much pressure to bear.
If Democrats can exploit those anxieties, they can win some small victories. Or at least keep the hard right from winning further cuts to state services.