On the Lege: Bombshells and Budget Officers

The Legislature begins to get down to business.

Tom Craddick
Tom Craddick (Photo by John Anderson)

As the Legislature entered its third week, the heady air of Republican celebration began to subside a bit, and a few early cracks began to appear in the façade of unity and shared governance. Not surprisingly, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn generated some of the fissures, as legislators continued to react testily to Strayhorn's public accusation that if the Lege hadn't "partied" with the public's money last session the state wouldn't be in the nearly $10 billion hole it finds itself now.

Indeed, Strayhorn was repeating that canard to the Texas Association of Business even as Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, was gaveling to order the first session of the Senate Finance Committee. Bivins began by noting that virtually every state is suffering badly from "the worst economic situation since World War II"; a few, like California, are in much worse straits than Texas. "That doesn't make our task any easier," Bivins said, "but at least it provides some perspective."

The perspective got a little narrower as the committee tried to imagine how the Lege can come up with just the additional $1.8 billion needed to pay this fiscal year's bills by Aug. 31 -- a figure that Bivins called a "bombshell" after Strayhorn announced it Jan. 14. State agencies have already been ordered to immediately cut 7% of their 2003 budgets in hopes of saving $700 million, but it remains unclear where the Lege can dig for the rest of the short-term cash.

While the comptroller was busy schmoozing the T.A.B., Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton pursued the unfortunate task of speaking for his boss. He suggested a couple of fallback possibilities for bridging the $1.8 billion near-term gap. These included pushing some payments into the next budget cycle (although the Lege is already behind on last session's bills), hitting up the tobacco settlement account (although that's supposed to be dedicated to health care), or tapping the state's rainy-day fund -- even before the Lege considers the much larger deficit Texas faces in the 2004-05 biennium. The latter sounded a little odd coming from Strayhorn-ville, since the comptroller insists it isn't even drizzling.

The committee didn't have time to come directly to grips with those options, because several senators spent the morning working Hamilton over for Strayhorn's headline politicking of the deficit. Democrats John Whitmire of Houston, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo each took a turn at bat, saying it was irresponsible of the comptroller to characterize the state's already "parsimonious" budget as spendthrift. But not only Democrats got in their licks; Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, joined Whitmire in wondering how it was that the comptroller's staff couldn't discover until January that a $5.1 billion deficit projection Strayhorn insisted for months was "concrete" was actually about 100% off the mark. They found it difficult to accept Hamilton's argument that holiday sales-tax receipts were unpredictably deficient; the dramatic decline in statewide sales-tax revenues has been apparent since at least last spring. The discussion got heated enough to prompt Strayhorn to write the committee the next day defending her staff and her estimates.

She may have to do so again this week, when the House returns from a brief hiatus to memorialize the Columbia disaster. The House Appropriations Committee has yet to meet, but a former member of that committee, Houston Democrat Scott Hochberg, told the Houston Chronicle that the true scope of the revenue shortfall was apparent by May; only a miraculous economic recovery could have kept the deficit down to Strayhorn's original estimate. Maybe new Appropriations Chair Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, can explain away the discrepancy.

There were no dramatic surprises in Speaker Tom Craddick's much-anticipated appointments list, which reflects November's solid GOP victory. Appropriations, where much of the action will be this session, is 17-12 Republican (including Austin's District 50 fledgling Jack Stick, who will also be chief budget officer for Corrections), but several of the committee Dems, including Austin's Dawnna Dukes (also chief budget officer on State Cultural and Recreational Resources), Houston's Sylvester Turner, and Galveston's Craig Eiland are familiar enough with budget warfare that they may hold some ground. Some early Craddick-crats received interesting chairs: El Paso's Norma Chavez helms the new Border and International Affairs Committee; Helen Giddings of Dallas leads Business and Industry; San Antonio's Carlos Uresti chairs Human Services; Houston's Harold Dutton leads Juvenile Justice and Family Issues; San Antonio's Robert Puente chairs Natural Resources.

The power shift toward the GOP is apparent in the Central Texas delegation. Former prosecutor Terry Keel will chair Criminal Jurisprudence and serve on General Investigating (a "budget-scrubbing" committee) and Law Enforcement; Mike "Highway" Krusee chairs Transportation and serves on Civil Practices and Redistricting (perhaps a stealth committee, unless the GOP can quickly balance the budget with smoke and mirrors); freshman Todd Baxter hasn't yet gotten a chair, but garnered three seats: Juvenile Justice and Family Issues, Local and Consent Calendars, and Regulated Industries.

Perhaps most surprising is Pete Laney loyalist Elliott Naishtat's appointment as vice-chair of Human Services and membership on Public Health -- Naishtat lost his chair, but these appointments could mean that even Craddick knows that without experienced Democratic input, health care legislation could end in gridlock. Rookie Dem Eddie Rodriguez didn't quite make Appropriations with Jack Stick, but will sit on Economic Development and also Judicial Affairs; his Dripping Springs counterpart Patrick Rose has three committees: Civil Practices, Local and Consent Calendars, and Pension and Investments.

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