Failed Budget Vote Threatens Texas Senate Tradition

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, listens to debate after bringing budget bill CSHB1 to the floor on May 3, 2011.
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, listens to debate after bringing budget bill CSHB1 to the floor on May 3, 2011.

Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden tried, and failed, to get 20 state senators to vote with him on a proposed state budget Tuesday. On Wednesday, he's going to see if he can find 15.

The Bryan Republican is trying to get enough Senate support to pass a budget and, if he has his druthers, to put him in a strong negotiating position when the Senate and the House sit down to reconcile their very different budgets later this month.

If he can pull the votes together, he'll send a $176.5 billion blueprint to the House, which earlier approved a $164.5 billion plan, and the budgeteers from the two chambers will then try to reconcile their differences. The current budget, at $187.5 billion, is bigger than either proposal, and the amount requested by the various state agencies that were trying to keep current programs in place with additions for population growth and inflation was bigger still.

Ogden's success hinges on Senate rules and traditions. Under the rules, Senators consider bills in the order they come in. Going out of order requires a two-thirds vote, and there is usually a "blocker bill" so that such a vote will be required. But on two days each week, House bills come before Senate bills. Wednesday is a House day, and the budget this year is a House bill, so there will be no hurdle to jump. That means only a simple majority is required to pass Ogden's bill.  

Although that's well within the rules, it's customarily not the way things are done in the tradition-bound Senate. Ogden would rather have two-thirds, as would Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for the simple reason that a bill passed by a unified Senate puts negotiators in a stronger position than one passed by a Senate split — as this one was tonight — along partisan lines. Senators voted 19-12 on straight party lines to consider the budget — a failure on a day when two-thirds were required.

Ogden wouldn't say outright that he's angling for a simple vote, saying he only had 12 votes as of last week, 19 today, and hopes to have more than 21 when it finally comes to a vote. But time is relatively short with the legislative session ending on Memorial Day and if Republicans can't get two-thirds, they'll vote anyway. "At the end of the day, I will pass a budget," Dewhurst said. "Whether I'm standing on my head or I'm standing up straight, I will get a budget passed out of here."

Of course, that's only an intermediate step in the budget process. Once approved there, it'll go to the House, which already passed its much different proposal. The House will likely turn it down and send it to a conference committee set up to reconcile the differences. That result of that committee's work has to get approval from both the House and Senate before the end of the legislative session. Gov. Rick Perry will then have almost three weeks to sign it, veto it, veto parts of it, or let it become law without his signature.

It is, by all accounts, a year when the question is not whether there will be cuts, but how deep they should be. Perry and the House have been stingier than the Senate, especially when it comes to tapping the state's $9.2 billion Rainy Day Fund. They've been willing to use it for the current deficit; the House approved a $3 billion draw on the fund for the current budget. But they don't want it used to balance the 2012-13 budget. The proposal from the Senate Finance Committee proposed using another $3 billion from the fund as a guarantee of sorts in case state revenue falls short of what the comptroller predicts. The full Senate balked, so Ogden promised to remove that provision and replace it with a mix of deferred payments and spending that will only take place when the money for it actually appears in the state treasury.

That lost what little Democratic support he had. And it's not the most daunting challenge. Senators on both sides of the party line say the House's budget is inadequate, particularly in public and higher education, nursing homes, and some other areas. More than half of the difference in the plans, according to Ogden, can be attributed to the additional money the Senate wants to spend on public schools. The Senate's biggest battle lies ahead, when negotiators meet to reconcile their differences. If Ogden and his crew come back with something that looks like the House budget, they'll have a hard sell in the Senate.

"We didn't come this far to give it away next week," he said of the coming talks.

Still to be seen: How something like the Senate budget would fare in the House. There is already some grumbling in the lower chamber about how the Senate paid for its budget; taking the Rainy Day money out will help, but it's not the end of that conversation.

The immediate issue is in the Senate and whether it will pass a budget and what that will contain. The party-line vote could change overnight. For one thing, the Democrats know that it's hard to get on the budget conference committee if you vote against the bill. And Ogden and the budgeteers would rather have a big bipartisan majority when they face the House, so they're still working and trying to find a way to get more senators behind the plan.

"This is a good budget for the state of Texas," Ogden said, "And I'm going to find a way to get it out of here."

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