Sometime after midnight, after more than 15 hours of debate over the Texas House budget, state Representative Jay Dean, R-Longview, came forward to speak on a very important issue. In 2009, Tommy Merritt, one of Dean’s predecessors, tacked on an amendment to that year’s budget that allocated more than $4 million in civil asset forfeiture money to purchase a single police helicopter, “to be stationed in Longview,” and tacked on an additional $900,000, taken from the state highway fund, to run it.
A while back the chopper, a Eurocopter AS350 Écureuil, got sent down to the Valley for the state’s phantom border security operation. Dean’s amendment, number 173 of 402, simply asked: Could Longview have its helicopter back? An amendment to Dean’s amendment was offered, proposing that Longview could instead receive “a helicopter of equal or greater helicopter class,” whatever that means, but it was withdrawn. After deliberation and a few jokes, the judgment was rendered. Call sign N405TX, the pride of Longview, would be returning home, pending further review of the amendment’s language by the budget conference committee and the further discretion of the Department of Public Safety.
House budget day is normally one of the biggest circuses of the legislative session. As such, it encapsulates a lot of what’s weird about how the Texas Legislature operates. For one thing, representatives aren’t really debating the budget, the contours of which have been hashed out behind closed doors. At the end of a tedious and long day, it passed 131 to 16. What most lawmakers are doing, like Dean, is fiddling around in the margins. Everybody wants their helicopter. The House and Senate budgets have some pretty severe billion-dollar holes. Medicaid is in for a pounding, with $2.4 billion missing from the House budget, and at the moment the Legislature seems unlikely even to fix the very obvious mistakes it made last session with service cuts for disabled children. Higher ed faces draconian cuts. The school finance funding system is broken.
But much of the debate that took place on Thursday centered on tiny programs that cost a few million dollars each, or on symbolic gestures involving social issues. Lawmakers took $20 million from the state’s environmental regulator and gave it to the Alternatives to Abortion program. Tea party lawmakers pushed loud efforts to defund paltry sums from smoking cessation and feral hog eradication efforts.
When state Representative Jeff Leach tried to siphon $10 million from the Texas Lottery Commission’s promotional campaigns, Leach talked repeatedly about the importance of “priorities” in a bad budget year. That message was heard over and over again.
What are the Legislature’s priorities? The state’s problems are structural and vast, and it’s easier for lawmakers to play small ball. For the last few sessions, Republicans in the Legislature made tax cuts their priority. Now they have an effective budget shortfall, which no one knows how to close. In the Senate, potty talk reigns, while the budget cuts 6 to 10 percent from universities. In the House, the better part of a day was spent fretting over programs that amount to rounding errors in the budget, while the state’s health care program for the poor is about to get sucker-punched.
It’s hard to blame individual lawmakers for wanting their helicopters — or, more often, the symbolic victories and scalps that accrue from making small changes in policy and adjustments to the budget. What’s missing is a sense, from either Democrats or Republicans, of some greater and comprehensive future for state government, a standard to which good men and women can repair.
For better or worse — worse, mostly — the only guy in the process with a vision is Dan Patrick. He wants to make Texas look like Sam Brownback’s Kansas. The House is reactive in nature, not proactive, and I couldn’t tell you what Governor Greg Abbott is doing. Democrats seem generally content to try to shape and mold bad budgets, even when, as it is this year, the Legislature is climbing into a hole it dug itself. So: little fights. After Thursday, the governor’s Texas Enterprise Fund is defunded in the House budget, except maybe it won’t be later on. Film tax credits are gone, but maybe they’ll come back. Maybe the Alternatives to Abortion program won’t get all that money. All the while, the edifice we live in, such as it is, is sinking slowly into the sand.
Health care advocates were optimistic that the Legislature would do something this year to address high, and rising, uninsured rates; high rates of maternal mortality; and the rural hospital closure crisis.