House Budget Shrinks Spending, Slashes Services

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, speaks with Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, on the House floor during the budget debate.
Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, speaks with Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, on the House floor during the budget debate.

The Texas House started with a $164.5 billion budget and ended with the same total. But lawmakers spent the better part of a weekend making changes inside the budget for 2012-13 before giving it their approval on a largely party-line vote of 98 to 49 late Sunday night.

The debate began first thing Friday morning, carried into the first hour of Saturday and then resumed late Sunday afternoon. The essentials remained the same, with an overall plan that's 12.3 percent smaller than the current budget; leaves public education and health and human services spending short of what it would take to maintain current services, especially given population growth and inflation; and requires none of the remaining $6 billion in the state's Rainy Day Fund or any new taxes (though it does include $100 million in new fees).

Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, characterized it as a draft that will be changed over the next two months. House Speaker Joe Straus emphasized process, telling members, "We need to move this bill." But House Democrats chastised their colleagues for not using the Rainy Day Fund to preserve programs from pre-kindergarten to financial aid, and implored them to send the whole bill back to committee. "Tonight, our best simply isn't good enough," said Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas.

The budget now heads to a Senate that's on track, at this midpoint, to spend more money — about $10 billion, for now — than the House. And the reconciliation of those two disparate notions of state government will frame what's left of the legislative session. If they can't find middle ground, it could go into overtime in special sessions after the regular session ends on Memorial Day.

The weekend votes on the budget amendments went pretty much the way the Republicans in charge wanted them to go, just as they did on Thursday, when the House considered two pieces of legislation designed to fill the $4.3 billion deficit in the current budget. 

 

Democrats, left after Election Day with fewer than a third of the votes in the House, don't have the juice to make any changes by themselves. That left them with a strategy of voting against the Republicans on most things and, when the majority offered them unpleasant choices — as in a series of amendments that cut family planning dollars and gave the money to autism and other programs Democrats favor — to cast "present, not voting." They were neither for nor against on those issues.

For the Democrats, it was a way of disowning a Republican budget. For the Republicans, it was the difference between winning by a 2-to-1 margin and winning by near acclamation. That says something about how the state representatives see the political risks here: If they were worried about future general election contests against Democrats, Republicans would be breaking away from the pack as local politics required. Instead, they ignored the Democrats and stuck to voting in favor of cuts and against more spending.

Two votes broke the pattern. One would move $3.5 million from the Texas Commission on the Arts to the Department of Aging and Disability Services; it passed by just six votes, 67-61, with Pitts and former House Speaker Tom Craddick among those on the losing side. "It's the right thing to do," said Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview. "I have nothing against the promotion of the arts, but Austin is doing well on its own. It's the music capital of the world, and we put the weak among us, those who are dependent, first."

Another would have moved $1.5 million from the governor's film and music marketing budget into state aid for libraries. It failed 79-55, with Pitts again on the losing side. Both of those votes broke the Republican-Democrat pattern that prevailed on most of the votes on budget amendments.

Members began working quietly right after the arts vote to bring it up later for reconsideration, but couldn't find enough support to change the outcome.

Conservatives successfully raided family planning funds in the budget, stripping money from those programs and sending it to others, including one for autism, another for mental health services for kids and yet another for trauma care. "We don't choose between good and bad," said Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center. "We choose between necessary and necessary." Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was on the other side of that argument and started the nonvoting with this line: "I will not be caught trying to decide whether to fund child one or child two."

The debate on education issues lasted six hours. Members took money from the public school system for Texas prisons and put it into community colleges.

They turned back an attack on the Texas Education Agency that would have whacked its funding and cut the commissioner's salary to $50,000 from $186,000. "I don't know any of us that go home and say 'hip, hip hooray for the TEA,'" said Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, the author of that amendment. But after opposition from a fellow Republican, House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler of The Woodlands, the House voted to leave the agency alone. Another from Democratic Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston also fell short, after he expressed his vision for the agency as "one guy and one phone."

 

Democrat Pete Gallego of Alpine tried a front-loading amendment, moving money from the second year of the two-year budget to the first in the hope that the Legislature will find money for the second year before it arrives. That fell far short of being added to the budget.

Before the House stopped early Saturday morning, members turned to a series of votes on controversial social and cultural issues. One debate started a buzz inside and outside the Capitol, when Christian proposed requiring "family and traditional values centers" at colleges and universities where any state money supports gender and sexuality centers or any "other center for students focused on gay, lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, transsexual, transgender, gender questioning, or any other gender identity issues." That was adopted, overwhelmingly, by a 110-24 margin.

The next debate was ugly, when Christian proposed requiring that colleges and universities getting state funds should make sure that at least 10 percent of their courses "provide instruction in Western Civilization." The line formed quickly at the back microphone, where members can question people who are at the chamber's front mike presenting legislation. Christian got flustered in his descriptions of what would and wouldn't qualify as Western studies. Asked by Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, whether that would include African-American or Asian-American studies, Christian suggested the first might belong in African studies. Miles, who is black, implored him, "Let's take this down, brother." But it went to a vote, with Christian and 26 fellow Republicans voting for it and 108 other House members voting it down.

On Sunday, lawmakers worked from late afternoon into the night, with Democrats throwing out some last-ditch efforts to save programs. Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, offered an unsuccessful amendment to set an 18-month, as opposed to two-year, budget, which would allow them to come back and appropriate more money after they see what state revenue looks like. 

In the end, after several impassioned speeches, the budget passed 98 to 49. Simpson and Rep. Aaron Peña were the only Republicans to vote against it on second reading, or tentative approval. Turner was the only Democrat who didn't vote no — in protest, he voted "present not voting." Rep. Alma Allen, whose husband died this week, was absent.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story, citing what turned out to be a clerical error from the Texas Legislative Service, said that Reps. Jim Jackson, Eric Johnson, Susan King, and Tracy King had changed their votes between the second and third reading. That wasn't the case: Jackson and Susan King vote for the bill; Johnson and Tracy King voted against it.]

"It lives within the available revenue that we have to work with," Pitts said, adding, "This budget is the result of the worst recession that anyone in this room has ever experienced." 

Offered Dutton, echoing the comments of many other House Democrats: "Thank God for the Senate." 

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