I’m guessing few Texas Democrats actually saw Disney’s 1995 masterpiece, Heavyweights. In that epic saga, some children expect a summer of fun and sunshine, only to discover that their parents are sending them to fat camp. While Citizen Kane it is not, Heavyweights offers some surprisingly helpful advice to Democrats, the metaphorical fat kids of state politics. After all, only a few months ago, Democrats still clung to the hope that they’d now control the governor’s mansion and have a loud voice in a Legislature divided closely between both parties. Instead, they must now fight for any voice in the process at all. The disappointment of losing the governor’s race has melted into a broader despair at losing 22 House seats and, most recently, watching an additional two members from the blue ranks dive into a welcoming red sea. Like our Disney heroes, it’s as though the Democrats were promised the legislative equivalent of a fun summer at Camp Wahlu Wahlu, only to discover they’d actually spend the sunny months subsisting on a regimen of lettuce and calisthenics.
The plot looks predictable. On symbolic issues, like voter identification and anti-abortion bills, the Republican right will almost undoubtedly prevail. And the unprecedented budget shortfall of $27 billion, offers conservatives a path to some policies they’ve long been lusting after—cutting funding for health and human service programs, for one, leaving state residents to rely on churches and charities for a hefty number of services once provided by the state. (Better hope little old Mrs. Johnson’s potato salad is to your liking!)
But here’s where our fat-camp friends might offer some anecdotal wisdom for the out-numbered, seemingly out-of-luck Democrats. In Heavyweights, the campers wait until the right moment and capture Ben Stiller, the camp’s fitness guru. They divide the counselors, take over the camp and then figure out ways to lose weight on their own.
For the out-numbered Dems, it’s a lesson about self sufficiency and power-leveraging. The Grand Old Party, with its grand majority, isn’t exactly cohesive. When state Rep. Ken Paxton challenged House Speaker Joe Straus, two warring factions came into relief. Grassroots activists who got their start in the Tea Party movement teamed up with hardline economic and social conservatives, and they mounted an all-out attack on moderate, so-called establishment Republicans. When it comes to the gigantic budget shortfall, there’s little consensus within GOP ranks. Tuesday, legislators will see the first draft of the budget, and odds are, the cuts to public education and health and human services programs will be stunning.
There’s almost no way that budget cuts—even drastic cuts to every agency—can cover the shortfall by themselves. To come even close to solving the problem, the Legislature will have to tap the Rainy Day Fund, a $9 billion piggy bank for emergencies. However, to use that money requires a two-thirds vote (100 House members). That’s not politically feasible vote for most of the Tea Party newcomers, many of whom have promised to leave the Rainy Day money alone. Yet the draft budget—which assumes no new revenue, no new taxes and no Rainy Day Fund money, will likely be a bloodbath of drastic cuts. To balance the budget, moderate Republicans will have to turn to Democrats for help.
It’s not a lot, but it’s something. The Democrats have a chance to bargain for a few top priorities, and this may be their only chance to prove their relevance. From a defensive perspective, the Democrats could offer their support for using the Rainy Day Fund in exchange for keeping hard-line immigration legislation to a minimum. Alternatively, they could tackle the budget. State Sen. Kirk Watson has already started the Rainy Day bartering, proposing an “Honesty Agenda” in exchange for his support of the budget. His policy wish list is heavy on budget transparency, including a push to end fees that don’t go toward their specified purposes. Watson may be overshooting his list of priorities—he lists a bunch of minor points in the agenda—but he’s on the right track for his party.
The minority Democrats have so far been pretty good at presenting a united front (with the exception of their party-switchers). If they can come to a consensus on a few specific policies they’d like to see passed or saved, the party would go a long way toward proving it’s still got some oomph. By bartering their Rainy Day vote, Democrats can wield power for at least a brief moment during the session.
As any good Disney movie will tell you, in the end, teamwork tends to lead to at least a few happy endings. Even for the archetypal fat kids of Texas politics.