Behold the mighty freshman Republicans of the Texas House of Representatives.
They’re supposed to be quiet, to bow to their tenured colleagues, to stay out of the way. The Texas Legislature has been described as high school, but with money. And the freshmen here get the same respect you got on your first day of high school.
But here they are, quietly and deferentially exercising some clout on the only piece of legislation that absolutely has to pass: the state budget.
After the House Appropriations Committee voted out a budget that will go to the full House this week, Jim Pitts, Republican of Waxahachie and the committee’s chairman, gave this explanation for the cuts it contains: voters.
He didn’t blame it all on the new guys, but he said the budget is tight, in part, because the House is full of members who believe the voters want cuts. And he pointed out that the numerous newbies are the core of that sentiment.
“It’s a budget that reflects the money we have,” Pitts said. “There’s a lot of members of the House, this is as far as we can go. They feel like they were elected to make cuts and they just accurately reflect what their constituents want.”
The strength of the freshmen is in their numbers. Voters put 36 people in the House who weren’t here last time — 30 of them are Republicans. Those new Republicans popped up in an extraordinarily conservative year, and came away from the polls with the idea that their constituents wanted things in Austin and Washington to work differently, that the budgets should shrink and that taxes are worse than termites.
Those freshmen might be resolute, but they’re also inexperienced. And with almost half of the legislative session to go and the final votes on the budget two months away, they’ll soon be learning much about lobbying, both from professionals and from civilians. Their opposition to new spending has made them targets, both for those who want to change their positions and those who want them to hang tough.
Pitts is trying to strike a balance between the group that won’t vote for anything that expands government or requires taxes, and the group that won’t vote for anything that shrinks school financing or closes nursing homes. That’s easier on the budget itself, since it can advance with a simple majority. But if the budgeteers decide to tap the remaining $6 billion-plus in the state’s Rainy Day Fund, they’ll need two-thirds of the House and Senate to go along. Should they decide to go that way, they’ll almost certainly need votes from legislators of both parties.
The Appropriations Committee voted 18-7, on party lines, in favor of a $164.5 billion budget last week. That’s about $8 billion short of what it would take to finance public education using current formulas, and $6 billion short of what state Medicaid officials say they need. That spending package goes to the full House next week — April Fools’ Day, the jesters have already noted and tweeted — and then on to its biennial collision with the Senate’s version.
Each iteration brings the proposals closer to current spending levels. The original House proposal fell $31 billion short of current spending, a number that has changed by $8 billion. The day after the House committee vote, the Senate added $6 billion in spending to public education in its version of the budget, if senators can figure out where to get the money.
It’s during that reconciliation between the House and Senate bills that the final budget will be written. Lawmakers have until the end of May or thereabouts, leaving about two months for the various interested parties to lobby their lawmakers. And the votes, starting with the House floor vote this week, will give those interested parties a road map showing who voted which way on what amendment — who’s soft on that provision and firm on that one.
Pitts, a veteran legislator and budgeteer, gave them a head start: Call a freshman.