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Analysis: Budget Debate is About More Than Money

The House is working on the budget, the only bill lawmakers have to pass. And that's why there are 354 proposed amendments: If you can get your idea attached to the only bill that has to pass, your chances get much better.

House Appropriations Committee chair John Otto, R-Dayton,l, and State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Gainesville, listen to amendments on the budget March 31, 2015.

Here’s the thing about the only bill the Legislature has to pass: If you can get your pet project attached to it, your chances of success go way up.

That is the answer to this question: Why did members of the Texas House prepare for this week’s budget debate by proposing more than 300 amendments?

These people are just full of ideas.

Four hours after they started their debate, the members of the House were 43 amendments into the pile. The controversies were few and far between, but not for lack of trying. Various members launched forays on programs they don’t like — state money for movies seemed to be a favorite — and proposed putting that money into programs they do like.

This happens every two years, and most of these amendments won’t get into the final budget. But it’s an important day in the course of a legislative session. The budget is usually the first big bill to make it to the floor of the House. It’s a massive pile of information, a blueprint for running the state of Texas for 24 months. Because the debate comes early, it provides an early look at how the House debates, who fights over what and how they fight, and a measure of the splinter groups that make up the 150-member debating society.

This is an odd time to write a state budget in Texas, as lawmakers have more money available to spend than they are willing to spend. If they spend every dime they’re allowed under a constitutional spending cap, they’ll leave Austin at the end with $6 billion left over and another $11.1 billion piling up in the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Arguing over feast beats arguing over famine. The fretfulness over cuts in programs that were made in 2011 — the last time lawmakers faced a large shortfall — is replaced now with hopefulness over what might be possible with all of this money available.

Lawmakers have a little taste of what it’s like to win a big bet. Maybe that’s a bad metaphor — one proposed amendment would get rid of the Texas Lottery Commission.

So the money is easier. But the ideological battles remain. The budget is a pile of numbers, but they are the numbers underlying the state’s programs and services. Legislators are not allowed to change general law in the budget — that’s what all of their other bills are for. But if you change the funding for something, you can effectively change the game. The state could pass a law creating a program or service, but it wouldn’t mean anything if someone took the money for the program out of the budget.

Moving the dollars is a way to move the government.

It’s also a way to get people on the record, showing everybody at home where they stand on things like pre-kindergarten and school vouchers, or Medicaid and the children’s health insurance program, or increased presence of state police on the state’s Mexican border. In a true two-party state, voters can easily distinguish between Democrats and Republicans. But in a state like Texas, where primary elections are usually more competitive than general elections, votes on budget amendments can loom large. They offer a way to tell this Republican from that one, or this Democrat from that one.

The functional purpose is to guide the House’s budget negotiators in their coming negotiations with their Senate counterparts. It’s an expression of the will of the House, useful in that final conference committee where the final budget is actually written. If the House really, really likes something in these amendments, it might actually end up in the budget. If an idea gets an institutional raspberry, that might be enough to overcome support it got in the Senate.

And success or failure at this stage can foreshadow the fates of some of the 6,000-plus other pieces of legislation that will get passed or die during the next nine weeks.

Texas lawmakers always pass a budget — they have to. And that’s why it’s the best ride for any proposal they can attach to it.

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State government 84th Legislative Session Budget Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature