Budget Busters or Busted Budget

Conference committee to close $11 billion gap

The ten members of the Senate Bill 1 conference committee (click to expand)

Top row (l to r): Reps. Jim Pitts, Sylvester Turner, Myra Crownover, John Otto, John Zerwas

Bottom row: Senators Steve Ogden,
The ten members of the Senate Bill 1 conference committee (click to expand)
Top row (l to r): Reps. Jim Pitts, Sylvester Turner, Myra Crownover, John Otto, John Zerwas
Bottom row: Senators Steve Ogden, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, Jane Nelson, Tommy Williams and Robert Duncan

The list is out: Today Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced his appointees to the Budget Conference Committee, the five senators that will join five state reps to finalize the 2012-13 biennial budget. Now they have less than three weeks to close the $11 billion gap between the House and Senate drafts, the list could be bad news for schools, good for health.

Yet again the snub to Austin and San Antonio is complete, while the bulk of the committee comes from suburban Houston and Dallas. There is only one member that represents a truly city center district (Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston) and only two Democrats (Turner and Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen.) However, there are six veterans of the 2009 conference committee (see list below.)

But beyond the geographic issues, the list of picks suggest the committee's strengths will be on the health and human services side. Both Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, were part of the big session-opening launch of the Child Protection Roundtable. Nelson, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, has also taken a more moderate and reasoned position on Planned Parenthood than many of her fellow Republicans.

That could be vital. Article II, the Health and Human Services budget, is estimated to finally come in at around $64.5 billion when all spending for the 2010-11 biennium is counted. Both chambers propose cutting that figure dramatically ($8 billion on the Senate side, $11 billion for the House) so having two GOP advocates for at least not decimating such spending in the room could be a big plus.

The big minus is indicated by the absences: No Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston; No Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano; And no Sen. Judith Zafirini, D-Laredo. In other words, no big education advocates. Since schools and higher education are, with health and human services, the other big line item on the chopping block, that could bode ill for any attempts to salvage something from the oncoming budget axe.

The room will undoubtedly be Republican-dominated, but there is a question how radical it will be. Zerwas is noteworthy for advocating fixing the under-performing margins franchise tax. Combine that with Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, who was charged with finding extra revenue under Senate Bill 1811, the fiscal matters bill, and there is the makings of a group capable of offsetting the more orthodox conservatives in the room. That said, they will still be looking to build a budget that can pass the increasingly radicalized House.

Here's the full list of conferees (* indicates membership of the 2009 budget conference committee):

Senate Steve Ogden, R-Bryan*
Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen*
Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound
Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands*
Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock

Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie*
John Zerwas, R-Richmond*
Sylvester Turner, D-Houston
Myra Crownover, R-Denton
John Otto, R-Dayton*

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State Budget, 82nd Legislature, Senate Bill 1, SB 1, Steve Ogden, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Jane Nelson, Tommy Williams, Robert Duncan, Jim Pitts, Waxahachie, John Zerwas, Sylvester Turner, Myra Crownover, John Otto

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