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The Brief: May 5, 2011

Democrats — stripped of power on Wednesday after Republicans skirted a Senate procedural tradition — may now be shut out of the budget debate entirely.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, speaks on the Senate floor against the state budget on third reading on May 4, 2...

The Big Conversation:

Democrats — stripped of power on Wednesday after Republicans skirted a Senate procedural tradition — may now be shut out of the budget debate entirely.

That's the danger they face, at least, as a conference committee of five representatives and five senators prepares to reconcile the House rendition of the bill, passed in early April, with the Senate version, which the upper chamber passed Wednesday along party lines.

The vote, as reported by the Tribune's Thanh Tan, came after a day of familiar debate over the proposal, which cuts about $11 billion in state spending but restores funding for education and health service cuts approved by the more conservative House. Democrats still balked at the bill, calling it "awful" and "draconian."

"The people of Texas want us to be lean, not mean,” said Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.

But Democrats also bemoaned the procedural oddity Republicans used to pass the budget through the chamber. After failing again on Tuesday to corral the 21 votes needed to bring a bill to the Senate floor, Sen. Steve Ogden, the Bryan Republican who chairs the chamber's Finance Committee, indicated that he'd use an obscure Senate rule — requiring only a simple majority on Wednesdays and Thursdays — to get the bill passed.

"I think it shifts tremendously the balance that we have internally between the Senate and the House," said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. "The two-thirds rule seems to exist when it’s convenient."

But Ogden called it "a courageous thing" to vote for the budget. "It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better," he said, quoting Teddy Roosevelt. "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena."

As for that conference committee, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the presiding officer of the Senate, hinted that Democrats might have cost themselves spots by insisting for fewer cuts. "It’s a little difficult to place people on [conference committee] who’ve voted against the budget," he said. "But I may make an exception."

Culled:

  • The Obama administration's rejection of Gov. Rick Perry's request to designate the state a federal disaster area in light of the recent wildfires set off a fierce partisan battle on Wednesday between state Republicans and Democrats. Feeding the Texas vs. Washington narrative, Perry, as well as U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, accused Washington of deliberately disregarding Texans, while Democrats fired back at Perry for blasting Washington while demanding aid. In its denial, the Obama administration said it had already offered Texas more than 20 kinds of federal assistance in recent months.    
  • Adding to the list of seemingly incongruous bills to receive support from Texas lawmakers during tough budgetary times (a list that already includes a yacht tax-break bill), the House voted Wednesday to cut a tax on loose-leaf chewing tobacco. The bill's author, Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, said the legislation corrected an unfair tax on such tobacco products, but the proposal shocked one of Ritter's fellow Republicans. "We just created an incentive for people to use cancer-causing products," said Rep. Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs. "When we have the fiscal problems that we have, it's wrong to be cutting taxes on products like chewing tobacco."
  • With just over three weeks left in the legislative session, the Trib's Julián Aguilar looks at whether one of the major pieces of immigration-related legislation this year — requiring Texas employers to use the federal electronic verification system known as E-Verify — stands any chance of passage.

"It is a bridge to the future. It does not hurt the economy. In fact, I think it helps it." — Sen. Steve Ogden, the Bryan Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, on the budget bill passed Wednesday

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