R.G.'s Take: No budget joy in Mudville
Thu April 28, 2011 5:53 pm

Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden stands like Casey at the Bat, fully wanting to score.
And nothing but a base hit, or a walk, perhaps, will get him to the floor.

As this week ended with the scoreboard showing naught, Ogden admitted he lacked the stroke to bring his budget up for Senate debate. He described his position in baseball terms: The right foul line is the conservatives who want no additional money taken from the rainy day fund to balance the next two-year budget. The left foul line is the liberals who want to increase taxes to avoid deep cuts in public education. Neither side has the votes to prevail, Ogden said today. “I don’t have a bill between the foul lines yet, but we’re working on it.”

The dilemma for senators on both sides is they hold the most power now because the vote to debate requires two thirds vote of those present, while a House-Senate conference committee report requires a simple majority to pass. But to pay for the Senate plan, 21 votes also are required to spend money from the rainy day fund. So both votes require a combination of Republican and Democratic senators. Ogden said those holding out for more spending should give up because the Senate bill is as good as it is going to get. And as bad as his proposed two-year budget would be for Texas, politically, it probably is the best that can be passed by the current Legislature.

Other than a redistricting bill, there is nothing more political than the state budget. Deciding how to spend the taxpayers’ dollars may seem like a noble task of stewardship. But it is really about chasing campaign dollars and votes. And that is what derailed the Senate budget plan this week. First, look first at the inside fight of what senators called “twosies versus threesies,” Article II Medicaid versus Article III education. Senate Republicans decided to fund nursing homes and doctor’s reimbursements ahead of higher and public education. That erased the specter of nursing homes closing across Texas. It also cooled opposition from the health care industry, which pours about $7 million into legislative campaigns every cycle. But that meant less money for education, important to Democrats.

Second, let’s set aside the myth that the Texas House cannot pass a tax bill. It already has: HB 2403 won House approval this week 122-23 to force Amazon to pay state sales taxes. Based on my purchases last year, that bill would have cost me an extra $111 in sales taxes. There is a fairness issue about giving online retailers an tax advantage over local businesses, but don’t pretend this was not a tax increase. And proposals to eliminate the August sales tax holiday means the poorest among us will pay more in taxes for clothes and supplies to send their children to school. If the Legislature can raise those taxes, they also can raise taxes to help balance the budget. By some estimates, a half-cent increase in the state sales tax would produce $3 billion, and that would be the kind of consumption tax often promoted by Republicans. Just as the House voted to close the Amazon loophole, watch for the Senate to vote—possibly as early as Friday—on closing a natural gas drilling loophole that could bring as much as $2 billion into the state coffers.

Let’s be honest, this fight is not about balancing the budget; it’s about shrinking government. And the real debate is not over taxes, but over how much of the $9 billion rainy day fund to spend to avoid deep cuts to Medicaid and education. And that’s where those pesky outside pressure groups come into play.

“One of the strengths of the Senate has always been that it was pretty hard to penetrate the club, but these outside groups have done it, and it’s making it harder to pass a bill,” Ogden told reporters. “There are people both on the right and the left that want to see the Senate fail, and if the Senate fails it advances their political agenda. Both the right and the left can see some advantages in a Senate meltdown.”

On the right, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), Empower Texans, Americans for Prosperity, the Liberty Institute, and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform began running television ads in Austin opposing the Senate budget, and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, which is affiliated with Empower Texans, sent senators a memo that a vote for the current budget proposal would be used against them in next year’s election.

Last year TPPF vice chairman Tim Dunn, of Midland, published a paper of the group’s website calling for free-market reforms of public schools to create competition: “Do school districts need more money? Perhaps: But not to keep doing the same thing, the same way with the same people.” But Dunn is also chairman of Empower Texans, vice chairman of the Liberty Institute and the found of the Bible-based Midland Classical Academy, where five of his six children attended high school. Is his argument more about creating more cost-efficient education, or is it an opportunity to downsize secular public schools?

On the left, a meltdown could create a special session during the summer, when teachers could flood the Capitol to lobby for more spending. Passage of the House budget, with its deep cuts to Medicaid and education, also could create an opportunity for the Democratic party. Democrats won’t speak openly about it, but they clearly remember the backlash after the draconian budget cuts during the 2003 session that doomed the 2004 election campaigns of TPPF Executive Director Arlene Wohlgemuth and fiscal policy director Talmadge Heflin. And for the “educrats,” don’t be surprised if angry school board members across Texas enter House GOP primaries to take on incumbents, much like when former Arlington school board member Diane Patrick defeated House Education Chairman Kent Grusendorf in the 2006 GOP primary.

School districts also are fighting for their funding. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, near Houston, has an entire website dedicated to debunking the education claims of the right, especially Americans for Prosperity. Fort Bend ISD has a brochure that says the House budget would push the district back to its operating budget for 2005-06, “prior to the opening of 13 new campuses.” Plano ISD Superintendent Doug Otto called the Senate plan the “best case scenario” and the House plan the “worst nightmare.” Otto on the district’s Web site says, “Plano ISD will lose a generation of students who are under-funded because the state legislature couldn’t put together a tax plan to generate enough funds to pay for its most precious resource, and that’s our students.”

I asked Republican representatives Charlie Howard of Sugar Land and Van Taylor of Plano how they squared their votes for the House bill with what their school districts are saying. Both recited the conservative mantra that the districts can use some of their reserves, find efficiencies, and reduce administrative overhead to keep from having to cut teachers in the classroom.

In fairness to the conservative groups, the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities is not without its own Democratic connections. The board includes former Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, whose family foundation is a donor. Another donor is Naomi Aberly, an active fundraiser for the Democratic party and Planned Parenthood. CPPP’s influence is limited mostly to Democrats. But that influence could be felt this week when Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst waffled this week on supporting a contingent raid n the permanent school fund to pay for education in the Senate bill, CPPP Executive Director F. Scott McCown withdrew support for the Senate bill: “There is no reason to support a budget that the Lt. Governor won’t help defend in conference.”

So here we are ending the week in Mudville, with the mighty Ogden at the bat. Lonely is he at the budget plate. Just because you build your field of dreams, it does not mean they will come.

By R.G. RATCLIFFE

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