A Name Problem
Wed May 4, 2011 12:25 pm

Senator Deuell stopped by the press table yesterday in the ominous quiet before the budget debate storm began, and told us a story about Archie Bunker. Sally Struthers (or maybe it was Meathead) walks into the kitchen and asks Edith what she is cooking. “Yankee pot roast,” she says. Whereupon Sally/Meathead looks in the pot and says, “Ma, that’s Beef Stroganoff.” No, Edith, says, it’s Yankee Pot Roast. It seems that Archie doesn’t like Beef Stroganoff, so Edith has to call it something else to get him to eat it. “Archie doesn’t have a food problem,” Edith says, “he has a name problem.”

The name some of Deuell’s Republican colleagues have a problem with, of course, is “Economic Stabilization Fund.” They don’t want to see that phrase, more commonly called the Rainy Day Fund, in the budget, so Ogden stripped it out to get them on board. It was clear from last night’s painful debate that this was far from his first choice. He firmly believes that it never would have been used anyway, since it was made contingent on tax revenues not rebounding sufficiently—a “backstop” he has been calling it. But in agreeing to the conservatives' demands, he lost any chance of bringing two Democrats on board, which leads us to today’s expected assault on Senate tradition—circumventing the two-thirds rule to pass a budget bill on “House Bill Day,” without any bipartisan support. It has never been done, despite Dewhurst’s feeble admonition after last night's debate that the journal was “replete” with examples of house bills being passed on House bill days with out a two-thirds vote to suspend. As everyone knows, there are bills, and there are bills.

But here’s the thing—Ogden’s solution is a change in name only, because the Rainy Day Fund is still in the stew.

Under the new plan, the budget balances only by pushing $1.25 billion of Medicaid funding into the next biennium. Keeping in mind that the Senate budget already shorts Medicaid by at least $2.7 billion, we are now talking about a shortfall of nearly $4 billion for an entitlement program. This guarantees an enormous supplemental bill in 2013. How will we pay for it? Last night, after the budget debate, Dewhurst pointed out that by taking the Rainy Day Fund out of HB 1, we will have plenty of money in the fund to pay for any shortfall due to entitlement programs like Medicaid. So under the new Odgen/Dewhurst plan, the Rainy Day Fund will act as a sort of, what’s the word…backstop. Here’s your takeaway: By taking out the backstop now, we will have the Rainy Day Fund available as a backstop in 2013. Good news: Beef Stroganoff is off the menu! Now let’s all sit down to a nice plate of Yankee Pot Roast.

At the post debate press conference last night, I asked Dewhurst if this meant, in effect, that he was planning in advance to pay a predicted shortfall in 2013 with the Rainy Day Fund. He said, “No.” Why not? Well, for one thing, because we would realize considerable savings due to Senator Nelson’s SB 23, the Medicaid reform bill, which among other things brings Medicaid managed care to the Valley. Nelson, standing behind him, nodded confidently. But the fiscal note on Nelson’s bill is only $467 million for the biennium. That’s a hell of a lot of money, and a major reform by any reckoning, but it is not $4 billion, or even $1.25 billion. Ogden then stepped up and said what he has been telling members all along—that the rebounding economy meant we would likely have a surplus in 2013, and all of this acrimony will be but a bitter memory. This is exactly what he told the conservatives in Senate Finance to get them to vote for putting the RDF in the bill as a backstop—just do it, because we likely won’t need it anyway.

The rebounding Texas economy may make Ogden look smart in two years, or it may not. One thing is clear now, however: The acrimony won’t be gone, not in the Texas Senate at any rate. Not if the majority rams this bill down the throats of Democrats. Last night, in a poignant moment after three hours of tense debate, Senator Ellis asked Ogden, who has strongly suggested that this is his last session, if he really wanted this to be the last thing he did at the end of an admirable career in public service. The answer was clearly “no,” though Ogden made the best case he could that this was a good bill and the best budget available under the circumstances. But there really is no way to put a good spin on what is about to happen today: Decades of senate tradition down the drain, all because of a name problem.

NATE BLAKESLEE

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