It’s funny that you can win four statewide elections and still have people think you’re a goofball, in over your head. But maybe Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s fumbles leading to the Texas Senate’s budget vote give the lie to that. Maybe he’s goofy like a fox.
Passing a budget with no Democratic support and with Republicans chafing at the leash might have caused some momentary discomfort in the Senate, but it doesn’t appear to have hurt Dewhurst’s standing with conservative voters. For a guy on the verge of running for higher office, that’s the standing that counts.
Last week, while state Sen. Steve Ogden, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was shopping for votes, Dewhurst told reporters he was baffled that the senators had included a portion of the state’s Rainy Day Fund in their budget. That came as a huge surprise to the senators, who said Dewhurst was in on that deal. And then Dewhurst wrote a letter to the senators — a letter he made public — saying that he was okay with that provision but would have preferred that they’d relied on “non-tax revenue” to make the budget balance. That two-day conversation lit up the conservative Internet-phone-bank-e-mail machine outside the Capitol, and the quick admonitions against drawing down the state’s savings account spooked enough senators to undermine Ogden’s effort.
In an interview the next day, Dewhurst blamed “two or three” Democratic senators (he wouldn’t name them) for undermining Ogden with their protests that the Senate budget, while better than the one approved by the House, left schools and social services with too little money to do a good job.
In and around the Senate, the lieutenant governor’s behavior was criticized as inept, unhelpful and unaware. At a news conference this week after the first of several budget debates, Republican senators assembled behind Ogden and Dewhurst did everything but a synchronized eye-roll when their presiding officer was speaking to reporters. Their crankiness could be troublesome when the senators lunch with their leader, but it’s not the thing that plays publicly. What plays publicly is the result.
The Senate approved a budget that cuts $11 billion from current spending and ignores population growth and inflation. It doesn’t rely on new taxes. It does not, in fact, use the Rainy Day Fund. It gives public education all of the money that Robert Scott, the state commissioner of education — and an appointee of and former aide to Gov. Rick Perry — said is absolutely necessary to run the schools. It includes a Medicaid subterfuge that gets the state in position to spend what federal law requires on that program without actually putting the full dollar amount into the 2012-13 budget right away.
It is the Republican Senate's attempt to mollify the voters who want certain services preserved — education and nursing home care, to name two — and also the voters who want to park state government next to a liposuction machine.
When Ogden’s committee voted out the budget, with nine Republicans and two Democrats in the majority, it immediately came under criticism from outsiders who said they preferred the House version, which cuts $23 billion from current spending and doesn’t use the Rainy Day Fund. Senators had somehow managed to cut current spending by 5.9 percent in a fast-growing state and to be labeled as spendthrifts. That’s no way to start a negotiation.
Two weeks later, after the Democrats were painted into the partisan corner, the Senate defied its tradition of getting two-thirds support before debating the budget, allowing 19 Republicans to take out that pesky Rainy Day provision and to vote out a budget over the objection of their minority-party brethren. They even lost the two Democrats who had voted for the budget in committee, including Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen, Ogden’s vice chairman.
In the end, if you stand back and ignore the personal and internal frictions between Dewhurst and the Republican senators, they are in much better political shape with the conservatives outside the building. And they enter the conference committee process — which will reconcile the House and Senate versions this month — in a position to argue about education and nursing homes instead of defending what was seen as the Republican Senate’s appeasements to the Democrats.
Maybe it was a happy accident. Maybe Dewhurst is a sort of Chauncey Gardiner type amiably bopping through Texas politics. Or maybe he knows what he’s doing.