In the Wee Hours, a House Budget is Born

House Speaker Joe Straus
House Speaker Joe Straus

There would be blood, promised state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford). Lawmakers were fed up. They weren’t gonna take it anymore. But in the end, as if the Texas House was a kindly-treated Carrie, there was none. Just five of 150 reps voted against the $209.8 billion budget—a relatively pitiful showing.

From noon on Tuesday to just short of 6 a.m. on Wednesday, the House worked through hundreds of amendments to its budget, House Bill 1. Although delirium—and perhaps, some more potent intoxicants—brought out the worst in a number of legislators, House leadership was able to avoid most of the pressing fights that might have come before it. Democrats and Republicans voluntarily withdrew many of their most divisive bills over abortion and immigration. Even Stickland played along.

The night’s headlining bout, state Rep. Abel Herrero’s (D-Robstown) attempt to preemptively ban vouchers for the second year in a row, likewise was canceled, though word had it that his amendment came down primarily to save Republicans a tough vote—vouchers being, perhaps, dead in the House anyway.

What to make of it? In previous years—especially in tough budget years, like 2011—the House budgeting process was a carnival. People scrapped over money, and both Democrats and far right Republicans fought the middle, even if just for show. This year, though, the fire is gone from the belly of the tea party to some degree, and there’s a sense among most of the House that the enemy is the Senate.

That didn’t stop a few unusual amendments from getting passed, and a few legislators from saying things they shouldn’t have. At the top of the list in both categories might be state Rep. Stuart Spitzer (R-Kaufman), who authored an amendment to take $1.5 million per year from the state’s HIV/STD prevention program and use it to juice abstinence education.

In the course of the debate, Spitzer—who said the state’s goal should be to ensure no one has sex before marriage—told the crowd he’d only ever had sex with one woman, his wife, when he got married at age 29. He recommended it. For this, he was subject to a mildly ungentlemanly remark from state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston). But Spitzer’s story shows how state government is getting more tolerant—not too long ago, admitting to your colleagues you’d only had sex with one woman would be a serious political liability at the Lege.

Less funny is that Spitzer’s amendment passed easily, though it’s an open question whether his amendment is going to stay in the budget. He did not give any sign of being especially well-liked by those in control last night. When he offered a measure to move money from arts programs to courthouse preservation efforts, another Republican successfully amended his amendment so that the money would instead come from a community college in his own district, forcing him to voluntarily withdraw his bid.

Things got sloppier through the night. When state Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney) offered a bill to put a dent in the Texas Lottery Commission, citing the need to protect the poor, state Rep. Borris Miles (D-Houston), passionate but slurring his words a bit, told Sanford at 2:42 a.m. he was “full of shit.” Hours later, reps called points of order on six consecutive bills, as if just for the fun of it (one killed an ill-conceived attempt to prohibit TxDOT from funding rail projects.)

An attempt by Rep. Tony Dale (R-Cedar Park) to hack more than $50 million out of the Health & Human Services budget to pay for sweet new airplanes for DPS border operations was defeated, though by one of the closer votes of the night. At 3:53 a.m., an angry Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) slammed state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) over his bid to kill the Racing Commission with a sentence that started with “If you had any respect for horses…”

Democrats spent much of the evening trying to add data reporting to the budget. Most of them were defeated. One amendment by state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) aimed to expose gender pay discrepancies in state agencies. It was torched, too. Earlier in the night, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D- San Antonio) offered a series of symbolic amendments, trumpeted by the Texas Democratic Party, to increase school funding and attempt to force the attorney general to settle the state’s school funding lawsuit. These, too, were easily defeated.

A final note—there’s a word for the idea behind debating a budget for 16 hours straight, until the birds on the Capitol lawn are greeting the morning. It’s “stupid.” The 140-day calendar the Lege works with—and stuff is only really happening for 90 days of that or so—imposes a lot of constraints. Even well-informed people can’t really know what’s going on half the time in the Capitol’s dark recesses, thanks to the quickening pace as we head toward June.

But the House easily could have broken this budget debate into a couple of days, so that reps were more sober and less tired and could focus on what’s on the page in front of them. But, you know, maybe that’s the idea. It’s like having toddlers—get them tuckered out.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 12:30 pm CST
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