The end-of-session budget drama sets up nicely. The building blocks, in no particular order:
• Texas lawmakers have more money than they can spend without voting to exceed the constitutional limit on growth.
• The comptroller expects the state to end the next biennium with almost $12 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, and state leaders hostile to using that money for anything but one-time expenses have warmed somewhat to other uses.
• Both houses have approved budgets that remain below the limits. The House's general revenue budget totals $93.48 billion, while the Senate's sum is $94.08 billion. The current budget, including supplemental spending adjustments made by the Legislative Budget Board, uses $87.39 billion in general revenue. That's off to conference committee for reconciliation.
• Each house is asking its members to approve more spending than the cap would allow. The Senate wants to send a constitutional amendment to voters, asking them to approve a $5.7 billion withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund to use for transportation, water and education programs. The House is asking members next week to approve a $2 billion draw from that account to pay for the water bill already approved by the House this session.
• Another supplemental appropriation bill is on tap in the House that could serve as a test vote on how this might all work out.
• Gov. Rick Perry told Republican legislators that they should use money from the Rainy Day Fund for some of these programs, so long as they leave $7.5 billion, more or less, in that account to keep the bond rating houses happy and to use when the next economic surprise comes along and the state needs cash.
• Perry also told his fellow Republicans that they shouldn’t worry about busting the spending cap — that he stands ready and willing to defend them against anyone who comes after them for it.
• Democrats aren’t really included in that mix, but don’t forget about them. If education money comes out of the extra spending going on at the end of the session, they might not join in. Combine that with conservatives who want to hold the line for whatever reason and supporters might find themselves scrounging for votes. A water-only plan might work, and the House is trying that next week. Senators added education to their constitutional amendment to get the Democrats on board, but it might be difficult to get 100 votes for that in the House. It might be hard to get a water funding bill through the Senate without money for transportation and education.
Democrats want to replace the education cuts made in 2011. Members from both parties want to fund the water legislation if for no other reason than four-fifths of the state is in drought and voters are watching. Transportation projects go on hold pretty rapidly without new money, and there is bipartisan support for some of those.
This comes down to whether members — particularly Republicans — are more tuned to financial worries over taxes and fees and preserving the Rainy Day Fund and breaking the spending cap, or to concerns about programs and services, especially water, transportation and education. Efforts to reorder the state's spending priorities fell far short during the budget debate in the House, but that could return if lawmakers think they can find the money for their darlings by cutting other spending already in place.