The Texas Senate voted along party lines Wednesday to pass its own version of HB 1, the House’s budget for the next biennium. The 19 Republicans outmaneuvered the 12 Democrats in the chamber by skirting a traditional two-thirds vote required to bring up the bill for a debate on the floor. Instead, they brought up the lower chamber’s bill on a day when they needed only a simple majority to send the bill back to the House and on to the conference committee that will reconcile the two proposals.
Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said his committee’s $176.5 billion budget reflects the will of the Legislature and the people of Texas because it cuts about $11 billion in state spending and restores House cuts to funding for education and health services — all without raising taxes.
"It is a bridge to the future. It does not hurt the economy. In fact, I think it helps it,” Ogden said during his closing statement. “I think it's a courageous thing to vote for this budget. It's not the critic who counts. ... For the 19 of you out here who have the courage to vote for this bill, I will fight for it. And every one of you will be in the arena with me."
The plan spends more than the House’s $164.5 billion blueprint, which would cut spending by $23 billion from the current biennium. Republicans and a number of outside groups argued that it is a big improvement over the lower chamber's version. However, the Democrats argued the cuts proposed in the Senate version of the bill are still “draconian” and “awful.”
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the longest-serving member of the Senate, criticized the Senate’s bill and the process the GOP majority used to get it passed. He argued for a more balanced approach, which would include a mix of spending cuts, closing loopholes, and generating new revenue. You cannot take $11 billion out of state government "without a lot of pain, misery," he said.
Ten out of 12 Democrats spoke out against the bill on the floor.
"The people of Texas want us to be lean, not mean,” remarked Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.
Democrats said they felt blindsided by the chain of events. Some were willing to vote for the bill provided it included a contingency rule that would allow the comptroller to spend about $3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund if other revenue can’t be found. Ogden removed that provision on Tuesday after it became clear that some Republicans would refuse to vote for a budget that might resort to that account and that leaving it in didn't attract enough Democrats to make a majority.
At one point during the debate, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he and Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, were ostracized by their caucus for voting the finance committee's substitute bill out of committee. Neither supported the bill when it came before the full Senate.
"This is about using some of the Rainy Day Fund for education," West said. "In 20 years, we have never had the budget passed along partisan lines, so does this budget represent the best interests of the state of Texas? Or does this budget represent what the Republican Party wants to do, because if that's the case, you have the numbers. You can do what you want to do."
Not only did the Democrats lose their power to stop the bill under the traditional two-thirds rule, but they may have lost their chance for a Democrat to join the conference committee where five senators and five representatives will develop a compromise bill.
“It’s a little difficult to place people on [conference committee] who’ve voted against the budget, but I may make an exception,” said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Dewhurst told the media the two-thirds rule is still significant. He said the Senate tried its best to emerge with a bipartisan bill, but the process fell apart late last week when some Republicans expressed their distaste with the Rainy Day provision and Democrats argued the proposed budget didn't spend enough.
“This has more to do wanting with more money than it does with anything else,” Dewhurst said. “Some of our colleagues wanted more money than we could afford to put into the budget.”
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said the simple majority loophole used Wednesday has been before used for minor bills, but “never for a high-profile bill” such as the budget. Van de Putte told reporters she is worried the Senate has set a dangerous precedent for the future.
“I think it shifts tremendously the balance that we have internally between the Senate and the House,” she said. “The two-thirds rule seems to exist when it’s convenient.”
Gov. Rick Perry weighed in on the latest developments in the Senate shortly after the vote by saying he is ready to work with both chambers.
“I look forward to signing a fiscally responsible, no-new-taxes state budget in the next few weeks that funds Texas schools, border security and health care priorities, while protecting Texas job creation and preserving the remaining balance in the state’s Rainy Day Fund for future emergencies,” Perry stated in a press release.