Democrats did something rare on Sunday on the floor of the Texas House: They pleaded with their colleagues in the Senate to stop a budget bill they did not have the votes to block, and used strong words to send their message across the rotunda.
“Thank God for the Senate,” said state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston.
“I appreciate their sentiment. We’ll do our best,” was the wry response from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. “We have a fair amount of latitude, but we’ve still got to address how we’re going to pay” for the budget.
The Texas House, where Republicans control 101 of 150 seats, passed a two-year budget that is widely considered to be so austere that the chamber’s head budget writer, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, somberly promised the body he would do everything he could “to make the bill better” as it moved forward to the Senate.
House Bill 1 would reduce state and federal spending over the next two years by $23 billion by slashing financing for public education, reducing reimbursements for Medicaid, which could shutter nursing homes, and cutting off scholarships for incoming college students.
Many Republican and Democratic senators have openly said that cuts of that magnitude are unacceptable.
“We’re not going to throw people out of nursing homes,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.
Now that the bill is in their court, senators have hinted at efforts to craft an alternative budget that would include putting about $10 billion back into health and human services and public education. In March, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst appointed a subcommittee to find an additional $5 billion in non-tax revenue. On Tuesday, Ogden called on lawmakers to review the state’s business tax, which was changed in 2006. He said it has consistently failed to generate the income that was anticipated and is part of the reason the state’s budget has a structural deficit.
Senate leaders, unlike their House colleagues, have not ruled out the possibility of withdrawing additional money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which is expected to be left with a $6.3 billion balance at the beginning of the new fiscal year on Sept. 1. Senators are also developing a budget at a time when more Texans are realizing how the proposed budget cuts could affect them.
“We need to have a coffee party to wake people up to what’s going on,” said state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In November, “a lot of voters didn’t realize the extent of the deficit. The challenge is to convince the House that the Senate budget is more humane and much better for our state.”
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the longest-serving member of the Senate, said that at this point, the Senate has the upper hand because “we don’t have to pass the budget. We’re getting pressure to hold it because we need some guarantees” services will be protected.
“You’ve gotta use the tools and guns you’ve got while you got ’em,” said Whitmire, who also serves on the Senate Finance Committee.
The momentum is expected to shift again within weeks. Ogden said he has planned for the Senate Finance Committee to revise the House bill and to send it to the floor before Easter. If the bill wins the support of at least 21 senators, it will be sent to conference committee, where five lawmakers from each house selected by the House speaker and lieutenant governor will try to work through the differences. The goal is to produce a compromise budget that can pass with a simple majority in both chambers.
Pitts, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, says the Senate can change “anything they want,” of the $164.5 billion budget in the current bill. But he said that he has told the Senate that there is a lot of reluctance among House members to spend more.
“I don’t automatically assume we can’t come to a mutually satisfactory agreement,” Ogden responded. “We’ve done it every time I’ve been over here.”
The betting game has already begun on whether the budget battle between a more moderate Senate and a far stingier House will lead to a standoff — and a special session in the summer. The two committee chairmen refuse to say whether one body may have more sway than the other in the final outcome.
“The last thing we need to do is beat our chest. That’s not the way to find agreement,” Ogden said. “It’s really a battle amongst equals. We’ll all do the best we can.”
Pitts says: “All the eyes of Texas will be on the Senate to make this better, but we’re going to be very mindful here in the House of not spending any more of the Rainy Day Fund and living within our means. This is not a power struggle.”