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Legislators and the Great Balancing Act of 2011

Legislators have to choose between mobs — one under the Gadsden Flag with the snake and motto “Don’t Tread on Me”, the other a recent phenomenon under signs like, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

A protester's sign asks for a tax increase to fund Texas public education at the Save Our Schools rally on March 12, 2011.

Texas legislators have to choose between mobs.

One group has gathered several times over the last two years under the Gadsden Flag — the yellow one with the snake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” The other is a more recent phenomenon and its members gather under signs that say things like, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

Legislators attempting to balance the budget are also doing some political balancing, trying to find a way to calm the voters so they can get re-elected and keep their jobs.

That was evident this week. Faced with a $4.3 billion budget deficit for the current biennium and with no other way to keep things going, Gov. Rick Perry and Texas House leaders agreed to tap the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

And then the governor slammed the door, saying he wouldn’t sign the next budget — with an even bigger projected shortfall — if it relies on any of the more than $6 billion left in the state’s savings account.

Senate sentiment is different. Senators from both parties have been lamenting cuts for days, especially if the state has the money on hand and just won’t spend it.

In the House, the stronger urge is to cut spending and to leave money in the bank account against future budget problems. It takes a supermajority to get into those savings. The deal cut this week will probably get the 90 votes it needs in the 150-member House — but getting the 100 required for the next budget would qualify as a magic trick.

House Democrats owe little to the Republicans in charge. That’s one of the effects of the Republicans’ 101-49 supermajority; the leaders didn’t really need the Democrats to organize the House, so they didn’t do the sorts of favors they can call in now to get the votes they need on the budget.

That’s compounded, to some extent, by the leaders’ priorities. Lawmakers have been busy with a plate full of red-meat conservative issues like pre-abortion sonograms, photo voter ID, sanctuary cities, eminent domain and a balanced federal budget.

Leaving the Rainy Day Fund untouched would remove Democrats from the budget equation on the House side. The Democrats’ leverage comes from the split in the GOP: Not all Republicans want to get into the state’s bank account, and those who do will need help from the Democrats to get the required 100 votes. The Democrats are willing to do that, but only if budgeteers are willing to pay for education and social service programs that are dear to their constituents.

If the Republicans don’t tap the fund, they won’t need 100 votes in the House, which probably means they can pass a budget without a Democratic vote. But it takes two-thirds of the Senate just to bring up the budget for consideration, and Steve Ogden, the Republican of Bryan who chairs the Finance Committee, has said he doesn’t have the votes for a bare-bones plan. Ogden adds votes in favor of the budget as he adds meat to its bones, but getting to the needed 21 votes without tapping the $6 billion still in the state’s savings account seems unlikely, if not impossible.

There are other distractions. Lawmakers are drawing new political districts this year. Redistricting hasn’t been getting a lot of attention from outside the building — the budget has been gulping up that oxygen — but members will be increasingly preoccupied by politics as the session continues.

The House is pinching pennies and is on track to give its initial approval to a budget that cuts deeply into public and higher education and social services. The Senate plan will be more expensive, relying on the Rainy Day Fund, new revenue sources or both. The negotiations over the differences will last most of the next two months.

And then it’s down to the governor and whether he’ll sign what they come up with. Without new money, he’s got problems in the Senate. But now he’s got promises to keep.

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