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The Process: This year's state budget reads suspiciously like 'Catch-22'

By Michael King, April 25, 2003, News

There was a great deal of talk of "the process" -- the legislative process -- on the House floor last week. Virtually every member who bothered to rise during the three-day-and-night debate on the House's budget bills paid honor to that mysterious series of steps whereby, as we were duly informed in high school, a bill becomes a law. The Republicans said they were serving "the process" by wholeheartedly supporting HB 7 (this year's emergency appropriations bill) and HB 1 (for the next biennium) -- and that, in any case, they could all take another whack at both bills when they return from conference committee next month. Meanwhile, most Democrats said they, too, were serving "the process" by offering amendment after amendment -- almost 500 in all -- knowing that virtually every one would be routinely rejected by the GOP majority. And a group of Democratic swing votes in the Lege -- sometimes a handful, sometimes more than two dozen -- said that they were also serving "the process," by cooperating with the GOP leadership, defending the budget repeatedly on the floor, and making their own "motions to table" whenever a Republican wasn't handy.

Most prominent among the latter were Appropriations Committee and Subcommittee members and officers -- like Vilma Luna of Corpus Christi, Sylvester Turner of Houston, Roberto Gutierrez of McAllen, Joe Pickett of El Paso. They were among the Craddick-crats who had quickly lent their support to Tom Craddick's bid to become speaker as the session opened, received important committee assignments in return, and were now expected to close the deal.

At nearly midnight last Wednesday, after all remaining amendments to HB 1 had been withdrawn and the vote for passage was inevitable, Turner took the front mic again to "vote for the process." He had fought hard on the committee, he said, to preserve preventive criminal-justice programs (his specialty) as much as possible, and if a long ago "hand up" from his impoverished Acres Homes neighborhood had been good enough for him, "it should be good enough for young Texans now." Even so, he would be "voting for the process," as he repeated frankly, "We can do better, members; we can do better."

Power vs. Embarrassment

"I very much respect Representative Turner," fellow Houstonian Garnet Coleman said a couple of days later, "but you can't be half for and half against this budget." Coleman was among several Democrats who followed Turner to denounce HB 1 just before passage, and Coleman asked simply, and almost certainly in vain, that the House members eventually appointed to the conference committee (to work out the inevitable differences with the more moderate Senate's budget) consider what the minority had repeatedly proposed on the floor. "This was our only opportunity to state those priorities," concluded Coleman, "and I can't support this bill, but I support this process." Coleman was among the most relentless would-be amenders of the budget, joined by others -- notably Pete Gallego of Alpine and Scott Hochberg of Houston -- who by seniority rules would have been on Appropriations themselves, except that Craddick had insisted those rules be changed so that he could control the entire committee.

Several members predicted exactly what happened -- bitter public debates over children's health care vs. corporate welfare, teachers' health insurance vs. West Texas brush control, courthouse repair vs. the lives of the elderly and disabled. "They're just trying to embarrass us," complained Tyler Republican Leo Berman.

Actually, the GOP had done quite a good job of that all by itself, simply by abusing "the process." Former Speaker Pete Laney could not remember a more acrimonious floor budget debate in 30 years. Normally, Laney said, appointing reps. with a broad and balanced range of interests and experience to the budget committees "allows all these things to come to compromise, to be worked out in committee." That is, had Gallego and Hochberg and Coleman been seniority members of Appropriations, the budget priorities would have been fought out there, and like Turner those experienced hands would have found themselves defending a different budget to their fellow Democrats.

"They [the GOP leadership] have the votes to do whatever they want," said Laney, "and they're doing it. This is about power, not policy."

Welcome to the Process

Even though the state budget is (conservatively) $10 billion in the hole, the House GOP leadership refused all discussion of new or broader taxation. That meant that real state needs -- most prominently health care and education -- would compete for the same funds, with no good outcome. Prior to the debate, Republican members were informed that the leadership expected unanimous GOP votes to reject every amendment but one -- a sleight of hand offered by Appropriations Chair Talmadge Heflin of Houston, that supposedly moves $524 million from Medicaid to public education, based on "declining Medicaid caseloads."

Two days earlier, the same House had passed HCR 56, requesting program waivers from the federal government because Texas expects an increase in Medicaid caseloads of some 500,000 people. The health and welfare of the citizens must have improved quite a bit in 48 hours.

The GOP's forced march only stumbled a couple of times. On Wednesday afternoon, a motion to table an amendment that would have moved any "unexpended balances" (i.e., free money) from the Legislative Council to teachers' retirement failed (even Republicans understand that retired teachers vote) and then failed again, by a larger margin, despite Craddick's insistence on a "verification vote" (every member called by name). But when the motion on the amendment itself was called, Craddick took the rare step of announcing, "Show the speaker voting 'No.'" (Rarely do House speakers ever vote on any measure.) Enough Republicans got the message to flip the vote. Craddick repeated his maneuver on a similar amendment a little later, with the same result.

Those were the only moments of mild rebellion to disturb the speaker's equanimity. He and Heflin now send their budget to the Senate, which is expected to tinker a bit with the numbers, perhaps push some (largely phantom) money around, and then go to conference. When it returns to the House, no amendments will be in order. That may explain El Paso Republican Pat Haggerty's statesmanlike contribution in the closing discussion: He stuck out his tongue and gave his colleagues the raspberry.

The result will inevitably be a budget that, in the words of Houston's Senfronia Thompson, "feeds and protects the big dogs and throws the little dogs to the wolves."

In Texas, that's called the process. end story

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