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What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

As budget conferees begin work, the two chambers are finding it difficult to get on the same page on taxes and other issues.

State Rep. Denis Bonnen at the front microphone while taking amendments on HB11 border security bill March 18, 2015.

With the appointment of budget conferees this week, the two chambers can now get to the business of hammering out a final form of the budget that can be put before lawmakers for final approval.

One can only hope that they communicate better once they get behind closed doors than they have in public this week.

The gamesmanship between the House and Senate usually accelerates around this time of session as lawmakers begin to take notice of the fact that their bills are sitting around not getting discussed across the building.

The chattering has only gotten louder as the week has progressed. The architect of the House’s approach to border security funding this session, Dennis Bonnen, pointedly complained about the Senate’s tactic of passing its own bill rather than work with the bill sent over by the House.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick later complained of bills sent over from the Senate that haven’t been referred to committee yet on the House side. And, of course, there was the fractious legislative breakfast this week where Gov. Greg Abbott was forced into the fray after one of his signature issues, high quality pre-K, was lambasted by an advisory panel working with Patrick.

The budget, of course, will never succumb to legislative neglect. It is, as it is often remarked upon, the only bill that has to pass in every session.

But the House and Senate haven’t been on the same page with this budget because of their different approaches to granting tax relief. It's a problem unique to this legislative session and an unusual one at that — they can't agree on how to give tax revenue away.

The Senate cooks its tax relief proposal — predicated on property and business tax cuts — directly into its version of the budget.

The House favors a different approach on tax relief, based on a reduction in the state sales tax rate along with a business tax cut. And on the tactical level, the House prefers to keep the discussion on tax relief separate from the budget debate.

In keeping with that approach, the House on Wednesday gave its budget conferees nonbinding instructions to keep tax cuts out of budget talks. The Senate included no such instruction to its conferees on their appointment Thursday.

House leaders on Wednesday promised that they planned to raise the issue of tax cuts on the floor soon. That promise was borne out on Thursday when Bonnen’s tax cut bills were placed on the House floor agenda for Tuesday.

The final outcome of the House and Senate impasse is hard to predict because there’s not really room to compromise. Either the conferees will talk taxes or they won’t.

In other words, one of the chambers is going to have to budge more than the other. Who’s it going to be?

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