The Cold War
Sun April 19, 2009 10:07 am

The House budget debate had a lot in common with the Cold War. The two sides came to the battlefield fully armed, but they engaged in frequent diplomacy that avoided a nuclear conflagration. Jessica Farrar, for the Democratic caucus, and various Republicans, Phil King among them, held a summit on reproductive issues–strategies to prevent abortion, for the R’s, and family planning funds, for the D’s, both of which were under attack from the other side–and agreed to total disarmament. All proposed amendments were moved to Article 11, where dreams go to die. Nothing came to a vote.

All this peace and harmony slowed down the House’s already glacial pace. Motions to table amendments were rare. Instead, the chair would intone, “The amendment is withdrawn,” and the glacier would grind to a halt while members looked for a way to fix the problem. For example, Mark Strama had an early amendment to state the intent of the Legislature that not less than 70% of the research superiority grants from the Emerging Technology Fund should be for clean energy research and development. Otto didn’t agree with stating an exact percentage, and everything stopped while they worked out agreeable language.

Occasionally an amendment would spur the ideologues into action. Martinez-Fischer had an amendment to encourage the Employees Retirement System to hire more minority fund raisers. Christian, the chair of the Conservative Coalition, jumped into the fray: What is a minority? Do you know the performance of minority fund managers? Give me a fund where a minority fund manager has performed well. Phillips followed with an amendment to the amendment that would have required fund managers to be chosen on the basis of experience, skill, education, and demonstrated success. Point of order! Sustained.

The most dreaded words of the debate were: “Rule 8, Section 4”–the grounds for a point of order that an amendment was attempting to make law in an appropriations bill, in contradiction to the text of the rule: “General law may not be changed by the provision in an appropriations bill.” This was the graveyard of many an amendment, including Berman’s immigration amendments. Sometimes, as in the case of Christian’s proposal to remove all funding for the Public Integrity Unit and give the authority to the attorney general, the amendment was quietly withdrawn. This was clearly the worst public policy in the entire debate, and I wonder if Abbott planted the suggestion. I wouldn’t be surprised if more amendments weren’t killed on points of order this year than last, but nobody seemed to mind, except Phillips, who made a personal privilege speech after Martinez-Fischer killed his attempt to tack on a contingent teacher pay raise.

Sylvester Turner has not played a prominent role this session, which is the session’s loss, but he emerged to confront Debbie Riddle over criminal justice funding. Riddle’s subcommittee had undone much of the work Turner had accomplished in the area of probation, and Turner had several amendments to restore the funding that she had reallocated. It was not a fair fight. The other criminal justice heavyweights, Madden and McReynolds, supported Turner, as did Pitts, who accepted one of Turner’s amendments even as Riddle was fighting it.

The big loser of the debate was clearly Rick Perry. Numerous amendments sought to shift funding from the Enterprise Fund. Pitts had shredded the credibility of the governor’s office with his questioning of staffers regarding the shell game of fund-shifting on the $50 million research grant to Texas A&M, and Perry had no support on the floor, even from his own party. Fresh in members’ minds was the embarrassment Perry had inflicted on the state with his talk of secession. The smartest move of the night was the Republicans’ decision not to engage with the Democrats by leaping to Perry’s defense. That is exactly what the Democrats wanted them to do.

Most of the attacks on the governor’s funding came from Democrats, most notably caucus chair Farrer, but Republican John Davis shifted $18.7 million for mental health services away from the governor. The Dallas Morning News reported that the amendments removed 96% of the funding for the governor’s office. GOP caucus chair Larry Taylor calmly noted that the governor’s office would be fully funded by the conference committee–and it will be. There was no Cuban Missile Crisis in this Cold War.

Most floor amendments do not survive to be included in the final budget. The two most significant survivors of the 2007 session were Heflin’s rider prohibiting a voucher program and a portion of Noriega’s teacher pay raise. Heflin passed his voucher prohibition again this year. Another amendment that has a chance to survive is Villareal’s restructuring of teacher incentive pay. This was another defeat for the governor, because the incentive pay would no longer flow through the Texas Education Agency, which the governor controls, but instead would flow through the school finance formulas to school district. This is another stake through the heart of high-stakes testing, because incentive pay currently is based on the performance of students on standardized tests. The vote was 146-0.

If Perry was the big loser in the budget debate (and the defeat was only temporary), then Straus and the insurgents who thrust him into the speakership were the big winners–not so much because of the 149-0 vote on second reading but because the House functioned as the former insurgents had envisioned. Members worked with other members across party lines, and talent and intelligence prevailed in the debate. There was no atmosphere of tension in the chamber. The debate certainly didn’t hurt Straus’s chances of being reelected as speaker, but I don’t know whether it helped. There is still no Straus “team” out there, especially among Republicans. As for the 149-0 vote, don’t put too much stock in that. It represents more of an affirmtion of the process than the result. The real test will come on the vote to adopt the conference committee report. I think a lot of Republicans will want to vote against the budget because of the increase in state spending and because of the liberal use of federal stimulus funds. Fiscal issues are going to be front and center in the 2010 Republican primary, and Perry may decide to raise the stakes by vetoing the budget. For the moment, though, the winner of the Cold War was clearly Joe Straus.

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