It might not matter, in the end, whether the Senate wants to use some of the Rainy Day Fund to balance the budget. The House isn’t likely to go along unless the proposition is delivered on a tea cart pushed by Gov. Rick Perry and an entourage that includes the leaders of the third-party conservative groups who have been hounding lawmakers via email, phone banking and television advertising to hold the line.
It’s even harder to go on that sort of suicide mission behind a lieutenant governor who tells senators one day that he supports using the fund — on a convoluted contingency basis — then tells the news media that his preference is to use “non-tax revenues,” and then tells the senators, in a public letter also distributed to the news media, that he’s behind the budget as prepared by the Senate Finance Committee, complete with the Rainy Day thing. And, as that’s going out, says he’s behind them, but would prefer those other alternatives.
It made the senators skittish, to put it lightly. The finance panel approved the bill with only two Democrats on board and with one Republican among the nays — saying the budget was fine but the financing was troublesome.
That vote was effective backlash bait. The Texas branch of Americans for Prosperity and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, among others, immediately began rallying conservative voters against the Senate proposal. While the bill cuts 5.9 percent from current spending, and allots nothing for population and inflation increases, the Senate managed to position itself as a profligate spender. The House budget is lower still and doesn’t rely on the state’s savings account.
Perry chimed in with the outside groups, reiterating his lack of support for anything that uses the Rainy Day Fund. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst fell off the wagon and then jumped back on. Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm lent his voice to automated phone calls to conservatives, urging them to call on state lawmakers to hold the line.
Senators freaked out. Here’s what that actually means, when you’re talking about the Texas Senate: They went into private meeting rooms and caucused, sometimes with Republicans in the room, sometimes with Democrats, sometimes with bipartisan blends.
Steve Ogden, the Bryan Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, was trying to pull together the 21 votes needed to bring up the budget for consideration, and all indications were that he’d been making headway. But in the face of the backlash and of Dewhurst’s public unease, Ogden’s band of reluctant lawmakers broke into pieces.
Even without the noise, it would be difficult to get this particular Humpty Dumpty back on the wall. With all of the Republicans on board, Ogden would still need two Democrats.
And he doesn’t have all of the Republicans. On the right, a half-dozen senators ran for cover, worried on the one hand that the fiscal hardliners would come with pitchforks, and on the other that the cuts in the budget would incite suburban and exurban Republicans to come hunting for the rascals who cut public education. The Democrats are getting hit from the left, from other senators who say the Senate budget doesn’t meet the state’s needs and doesn’t deserve Democratic endorsements, from groups like the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which is telling them that a budget without Rainy Day money is too skinny to support, and from Dewhurst himself, who suggested that Senate Democrats are making this a partisan fight.
Ogden likened it to a baseball diamond, to the outside groups as the foul lines on the left and the right, and to his job as just trying to get a fair hit. The resolution is the only way to get the bill out of the Senate and on its way to the House and Senate committee that will reconcile the differences.
That’s where the real problem is. Ogden’s counterpart, Jim Pitts, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has made it clear he can’t get the 100 votes needed in the House to tap the Rainy Day Fund. He’s not sure the conservative House wants to spend the money even if it comes in with no political strings.
That uncertainty is keeping senators awake at night.