Texas Budget Ping-Pong Begins

Chambers now start carving away at each other's proposals

House Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie: Round one of budget ping-pong with the Senate begins
House Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie: Round one of budget ping-pong with the Senate begins (Photo by John Anderson)

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
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.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More 83rd Legislature
The End of the Dewhurst Era
The End of the Dewhurst Era
Will the Senate strip the powers of the next lite guv?

Richard Whittaker, June 5, 2014

No Room at the Health Care Inn
No Room at the Health Care Inn
State policies endangering women's lives in the Valley

Jordan Smith, Nov. 12, 2013

More State Budget
Last Day at the Lege
Last Day at the Lege
Sine die arrives as threat of a special session looms

Richard Whittaker, May 29, 2017

How Much Will Texas Spend?
Budget in Progress
The Legislature's conference committee spending proposals

Richard Whittaker, May 21, 2015

More by Richard Whittaker
Geeky Lifestyle Brand BoxLunch Brings Exclusive Indiana Jones Pop-Up to Austin
Geeky Lifestyle Brand BoxLunch Brings Exclusive Indiana Jones Pop-Up to Austin
Fortune and glory awaits you at Barton Creek Square this weekend

June 1, 2023

<i>The Ride</i> Star Lives Life Eight Seconds at a Time
The Ride Star Lives Life Eight Seconds at a Time
Austin Gamblers bull rider Ezekiel Mitchell has become a streaming success

June 2, 2023


83rd Legislature, State Budget, Rainy Day Fund, Education, Sylvia Garcia, Wendy Davis, Tommy Williams, Judge John Dietz, Jim Pitts

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle