Signs of Legislative Motion

TribLive at the Austin Club featuring State Sen. Tommy Williams and State Rep. Jim Pitts on financial issues facing the 83rd Texas Legislature.
TribLive at the Austin Club featuring State Sen. Tommy Williams and State Rep. Jim Pitts on financial issues facing the 83rd Texas Legislature.

Some progress: The House, like the Senate, now has committees. The governor has given his State of the State speech. And Rick Perry told WFAA-TV in Dallas that he and Attorney General Greg Abbott have talked and that Abbott won’t run for governor if Perry seeks another term.

Leave that last one for later; Perry is either putting off the date when he’s marked as a lame duck, sending a message to the state’s top lawyer, or popping off to accomplish both ends. This has happened before, if you just got here: Lots of smart people thought he wouldn’t run against Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2010. Mark Perry as a possible candidate. Mark Abbott as an interested and ambitious and well-funded potential successor who is keeping his head down and playing nice. No point at this point to poke an incumbent who tends to run into political fights instead of away from them.

The Legislature, meantime, is thawing out.

The first supplemental appropriations bill — the one aimed at the $4.5 billion hole in the state’s Medicaid budget — should be out of the Appropriations Committee and on its way to the full House by the end of next week. Lawmakers short-sheeted the program two years ago, intentionally funding less than the full 24 months of the program in order to make their budget balance. The money is available now, so they can balance the budget and still have a Medicaid program. Still to come: supplemental appropriations for prison medical care, for wildfires, and — depending on how the debate goes — for catching up on some of the accounting tricks used to balance the current budget.

The lead budgeteers — Jim Pitts in the House and Tommy Williams in the Senate — both say they’re looking for ways to use money in the Rainy Day Fund without having that spending count against the state’s limit on spending increases.

Several things are at play. One is that they think they have more money than they can spend if they honor that cap. Another is that several outside analysts say the budget can either cover current services or break the cap, but not both.

It turns out they could break the cap without doing much to the current budget. Perry, in his State of the State speech, proposed to spend about $6.8 billion, including $3.7 billion on water and transportation infrastructure, $1.8 billion on tax breaks (refunds and/or cuts and/or exemptions), and $1.3 billion to end a diversion of money for state police from funds dedicated to highways. And the supplemental appropriations could add up to a like amount.

That’s $13 or $14 billion before lawmakers have taken a serious shot at replacing cuts made two years ago.

Williams and Pitts appear to have little appetite right now for putting money back into public education, though both said at a TribLive event this week that lawmakers wouldn’t have made those cuts had they known the state’s revenues would be what they turned out to be.

The two want to set aside some money — that’s another subtraction from what’s available — against what they think will be a losing verdict in the pending school finance lawsuits.

Williams predicted a helluva row about school finance in 2014 — a hint that the big fights in the budget will be deferred until next year.

The governor’s call for tax breaks will take some selling, if Williams and Pitts are an accurate reflection of the legislative mood, but his call for money for water and for transportation appears to be in line with what lawmakers are already doing.