Less than two days after approving a state budget that cuts $23 billion from current spending, House leaders are already talking among themselves about how much more money they'd be willing to spend.
House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts said this afternoon that he's already asked Rep. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, who heads the House Republican Caucus, whether the conservatives in the House would be willing to spend another $5 billion if it can be located.
"I asked the caucus chair, 'If I brought you a bill back that's $5 billion more than we had on the floor, what would be the reaction from the caucus?' And he said, 'Well, it depends on where the money comes from,'" Pitts said to reporters Tuesday afternoon after watching House Speaker Joe Straus be interviewed on the University of Texas campus.
In that interview, conducted by Jim Henson of the Texas Politics Project, Straus said House members were able to disagree cordially during the lengthy budget debate. He was happy about that, and talked about the budget more as a stop along the way than as the final blueprint for the next two years of state government.
He said at one point that he was "more pleased with the process than with the product, really."
Straus agreed with what Senate leaders said earlier in the day about the need to rework how the state gets its money, but doesn't think there's time left in the session. "I don't think in the next 54 days that there's much chance of that … we only have a short window of time to write a two-year budget," he said.
Others in the House have talked about an interim committee on revenue and taxation. Straus likes that idea. "We need to have a serious discussion immediately about the next two years," he said.
That conversation could have started two years ago, in Straus' first session as speaker, but the federal government intervened with the stimulus — Straus called that "an ingenious term" — and the state was able to defer its shortfall until now.
"I have problems with the stimulus program as a federal program," Straus said. "But did it help us balance our budget last time? Yes, I think it did."
The House bill walked past some easy-to-get money in writing its $164.5 billion budget plan. Deferred expenses aren't in there, for instance, and Pitts has legislation that would accelerate tax collections and raise at least $1 billion and perhaps much more ("Frankly, I had good news today that I don't have any industry opposition to it," Pitts said). There are funds outside of the treasury that might be available, like an endowment set up years ago in a settlement between the state and big tobacco companies. And a group of senators is working on a list of suggestions for non-tax revenue that might become public this week and that could total $10 billion.
"I think we can make it go better," said Pitts to reporters after the Straus interview ended. And he listed some areas that he says must be improved: TEXAS Grants, nursing home Medicaid shortfalls and public schools.
"You know, it's funny. Since we passed the bill on Sunday night, I've had some of the members that are more of the 'We came here to cut' and you know there's a big group, especially freshmen, who feel like they've been mandated to cut," Pitts said. "But they're coming to me and they want, 'Don't cut this program, or don't cut that program. Don't cut in my back yard'. So, we may start hearing more of that and they may say, 'If there's some new revenue, we won't have those cuts in my back yard.' It's been real interesting the last couple of days."