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Texas Budget Ping-Pong Begins

Chambers now start carving away at each other's proposals
Richard Whittaker, 7:00am, Sun. Mar. 24, 2013
Photo by John Anderson
House Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie: Round one of budget ping-pong with the Senate begins
Budget rubber met the spending road this week at the House of Representatives got its hands on Senate Bill 1, the Senate's draft budget for the next biennium. In the proposals out of both chambers, Texans saw what they expected: A legislature that has seemingly never heard of inflation, and forgot about its 2011 cuts.

Late on March 20, the Senate voted 29-2 to approve the work of the Senate Finance Committee (the two nays were Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who is already Republican public enemy number one for her 2011 education filibuster, and freshman Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who makes her first vote a memorable one). It was immediately sent over to the House Appropriations Committee. They, cuckoo-style. tore out all the Senate numbers, stuck in their own proposals, and now have sent that draft to the House floor, which is expected to debate it on April 1.

The headline figures are obviously the grand totals, and both chambers propose putting extra cash back into the state budget. However, these must be put into the context of prior spending. In 2011, the Tea Party-riddle house made corporations' year by passing a hack-and-slash budget, and services, state agencies, employees and the Texas economy took a hit because of it. Here's a quick comparison:

Biennium 2010-11 2012-13 Senate
2014-15
House
2014-15
All funds (billions) $187.5 $173.5 $195.5 $193.8

Now there's a lot of fine tuning to be done here, even if House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, has stressed that there are more similarities than differences between the two drafts. In a statement, Pitts conceded that ""We have not replaced every dollar that was removed during last session's cuts." However, he added, "Nor should we have." In an exercise of having one's cake and eating it, he called the cuts in the 2011 fiscal bloodbath "severe" but praised agencies for "finding better efficiencies in providing services to citizens and reducing unnecessary administrative costs."

The biggest fight will almost inevitably be over school finance. In 2011, the Tea Party wrecking crew, under the watchful eye of Gov. Rick Perry, left Texas schools in a $5.4 billion hole. Not only did they fail to cover enrollment growth, but they actually cut fund (astonishingly, radical right wing think tanks like the Texas Public Policy Foundation still try to deny this ever happened).

In a small gesture of conciliation (ie fighting off family fury at the ballot box), the Senate attempted to track enrollment growth and increased its contribution to the Foundation School Program by $1.4 billion. According to Senate Finance Committee Chair Timmy Williams, R-The Woodlands, this is a baseline: Better revenue forecasts across the session will give leeway for even more investment. However, the House forced his hand by immediately adding another $1 billion on top of his proposal.

This still leaves the Legislature well short of catching up with the 2011 figures, and does nothing to cut into the years of ignored enrollment growth. To do that, and to raise Texas spending to cover longstanding shortfalls, would take roughly $8 billion to $9 billion in state spending. But, then again, since there is a reasonable chance that the current school finance system will be gutted anyway. Judge John Dietz has already ruled it in violation of multiple clauses of the Texas Constitution, and his ruling seems likely to withstand appeal to the Fifth Circuit or the Texas Supremes, wherever Attorney General Greg Abbott wants to go.

And a coda: Even with that stingier contribution to core school funding, the Senate budget allocates almost $600 million more in total education funding. Budgets are all about finding devils in details, and hidden in these differences are someone's bugbear, or another lawmaker's pet project.

And a second coda. Education funding remains the number one wedge issue at the ballot box. The most effective PAC in both primaries and the general election last year was the Parent PAC. Its influence can be seen the both the House Public Education Committee and Pitts' Appropriations hearing room: Both are filled with PPAC-backed candidates of both political parties. The idea that there would not be an election backlash in 2014 if lawmakers didn't, as the saying goes, dance with them as brung 'em, seems misguided.

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