Dewhurst wanted to bring up SB 22, the school finance bill, this afternoon, but couldn’t get the two Democratic votes he needed to suspend the two-thirds rule, even after a thirty minute huddle in the middle of the floor before the end of today’s session. Finance chair Ogden has identified SB 22 as one a handful of bills that must pass for the Senate’s version of the budget to work. Another was SB 1811, the non-tax revenue bill, which the Democrats supported unanimously last week. But that was before the railroading of the Democratic caucus on House Bill Wednesday.
The budget the Senate passed out Wednesday spends about $6 billion more on public education than the House, but the district by district funding levels apportioned in SB 22 must pass to realize that benefit. The problem, as a Democratic senator put it to me, is a) the budget still cuts public ed by $4 billion, and b) the new funding model in SB 22 might “institutionalize” the structural deficit created by the 2006 tax swap. In other words, the fear is that SB 22, which cuts school districts’ state funding by an average of 5 to 6 percent, will become a “new normal,” and any incentive to return to previous funding levels will be lost.
“This is our only hope of keeping the Senate’s level of public ed funding, so we’d all better get behind it,” one frustrated Republican senator told me at the railing. Dewhurst worked hard to get the votes–reportedly trying to flip Carlos Uresti–but eventually he gave up so senators could go home for the weekend. Apparently the “it’s better than the House” argument has lost some of its persuasive power after what happened on Wednesday. After all, that argument only works if you have faith in the esprit de corps of the Senate–faith, for example, that the Senate’s budget conferees will not cave to the demands of the House at the negotiating table. It’s looking likely, at this point anyway, that the guests invited to that party will be nine Republicans and Sylvester Turner. (One staffer’s guess at Senate conferees today: Ogden, Duncan, Williams, Nelson, Shapiro.) The Democrats’ imprimatur will not be on this budget, and their incentive to “move the process along” has dwindled to near zero.
Still, by blocking SB 22, the Democrats have found a way to exercise some leverage. What could they get? Floor amendments to lessen the pain for districts? More Rainy Day money in HB 4, the supplemental appropriations bill–another “must pass” bill, both for this biennium and the next? It all points to another test of the 2/3 rule (if “rule” is the proper term to describe a guideline that applies at the discretion of the presiding officer) coming early next week. SB 22 has an “S” in front of it, not an “H,” so the House Bill Wednesday option is out. Of course, before Wednesday, many of us weren’t familiar with that particular piece of Senate arcana. Who knows what else Dewhurst has been holding onto for a rainy day?