Analysis: Budget Battle Might Seem Boring, But Don't Doubt Its Impact

Gov. Greg Abbott is shown in November 2015 proposing reforms against "sanctuary cities" that he wants Texas lawmakers to consider in the 2017 legislative session.
Gov. Greg Abbott is shown in November 2015 proposing reforms against "sanctuary cities" that he wants Texas lawmakers to consider in the 2017 legislative session.

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If you want to make big changes without raising too much attention, make them boring.

For an example, look at how some serious power over the state budget shifted from the Legislature to the governor. Taking his veto powers where previous governors have feared to go, Gov. Greg Abbott knocked out several spending items that state lawmakers had composed not as “appropriations,” but as “informational items.”

The lawmakers’ idea, a common tactic in Texas state budgets, was that the spending part of a budget — the part where the governor’s veto pen is a threat — is where the money is set aside. Everything else, as practice has it, is for informational purposes only.

Abbott challenged that after the 2015 legislative session, vetoing some of the Legislature’s spending plans by dipping into the fine print and saying the finance people couldn’t block him with its use of “magic words.” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick unexpectedly sided with the governor instead of with his own senators. Comptroller Glenn Hegar was confounded enough to ask the attorney general for a legal opinion. And Ken Paxton, the AG, opined that the governor is right.

 

Paxton’s opinion isn’t a legal ruling; push can still come to shove. But for now, the governor is enjoying power over the budget that his predecessors never asserted.

Boring, isn’t it?

It turns out that we are collectively dumb in ways that can be useful to people in positions of power. Go see or read "The Big Short," the Michael Lewis book and movie about the collapse of the financial markets and the housing industry. People who commit simple crimes get punished. People who commit complicated crimes get bonuses.

Why? Because holding up a convenience store is dramatic. Guns are involved. The whole thing can be played back on grainy security footage.

Stealing with a fountain pen is unremarkable to watch, even if the numbers involved have lots of commas in them.

But enough about crime. Let’s get back to the Texas Legislature.

You’re supposed to think that legislators write the budgets and then control them. That’s true, to a point. Some legislators write budgets, and everybody else goes along with the judgments of those budgeteers.

Most of them find budgets as boring as you probably do.

 

And most of them find enough to like in the state budget to ignore the parts that they don’t like. Lawmakers from across the political spectrum vote in favor of things they oppose every time they vote on legislation as complex as a state budget. Each, for his or her own reasons, has to be at least 51 percent satisfied. Truth be told, most of them are more approving than that, but it’s also true that almost all lawmakers can find millions of dollars in the budget that they’d rather not spend.

The trick is that it’s a different item of spending for each group of lawmakers.

A governor has a much freer hand — especially if Abbott’s interpretation, bolstered by Paxton, survives any challenges.

Abbott has a line-item veto, meaning he can strike any single item from a budget that he doesn’t like. This legislative trick of using line items is designed to thwart governors. If you put all of the funding for a university in one line and then list the services the school should provide without numbers, the governor can either keep the whole school or lose the whole school. 

So far, no governor has been so bold.

But lawmakers also want to hold the agencies of government accountable. They like to make sure money is spent the way they want it spent. It forces them to be specific, even in their so-called informational items, and the more specific they get, the more they expose themselves to vetoes.

Several targets of Abbott’s vetoes had dollar amounts attached to them, and have helped him make the case that those were, as the lawyers put it, “Items of Appropriation.”

Eyes glazing over a bit? That could be a sign that something momentous is going on. Instead of talking about how many people get what kind of nursing home care or whether police officers have solid pensions or whether the schools are great or good or fair or poor, they can talk about numbers, items of appropriation, informational items and whether the governor can or cannot have a meaningful say in how the state operates.

Budgets are not just piles of boring numbers. If you pay attention, they are the government’s operating instructions. This is an argument about who gets to write them.

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