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Today the House will debate HB 1, the general appropriations bill. Like almost everything about this session, the appropriations process has been strange. Three things in particular stand out that are different from previous sessions:
1. Speaker Craddick arranged the process so that Democrats never had the opportunity to challenge the Republicans’ budget priorities. Not that the Ds could have won. But they could have forced the Rs to cast votes in defense of making property tax cuts the highest priority of state government, at the expense of education, health care, and all the other things that Democrats think should be the priorities. Craddick and Chisum thwarted the Democrats in two ways: The first was by putting the money for the property tax cuts in a separate, earlier spending bill (HB 2, which has already passed) rather than in a line item in HB 1. This put the money out of the Ds reach. What Democrats would have liked to do was offer an amendment to reduce the size of the tax cut (say, by 10 cents) and use the money for a teacher pay raise. That would have put the Rs on the spot. But it couldn’t be done, because you can’t take money from a bill that isn’t before the House (HB 2) and spend it in one that is (HB 1), nor, earlier in the session, was it possible to take money from a bill that was before the House (HB 2) and spend it in one that wasn’t (HB 1). The second thwarting of the Democrats was accomplished by squirreling away some $8 billion that was available to be spent but wasn’t. This was prudent rather than punitive–the Frew case could still cost the state a hunk of change, and the estimated revenue from the new business tax appears to be less than was hoped for–but the effect was that the Democrats can’t reach into that pot of money either.
2. The Appropriations committee met a lot, heard lots of testimony, but didn’t do very much. The reason is that the Legislative Budget Board bill, which is usually a bare-bones budget that the committee members can build on, was fairly generous. Unlike previous years, when the base bill was bare-bones, this one was more generous. do. Article III (education) did get more money for teacher retirement and for Texas grants, and there was some disagreement over CHIP, but for the most part, the decisions had already been made at a higher level.
3. The committee membership didn’t get the usual assortment of goodies. For those who are willing to suffer through mind-numbing talk of FTEs and salaries of lottery directors in New York compared to Texas, the payoff has always been the opportunity to bring home some bacon for their districts or their pet programs. Often this is in the form of riders. But the riders ended up in Article 11, a sort of purgatory where they are not really in the bill but might get there if circumstances are right. Usually that means, if there is enough money. This session there is plenty of money; it just hasn’t been spent yet (see #2). So why are all the riders in Article 11? The answer is that the unspent money will be handed out in the conference committee, and those members who want it are going to have to be good little boys and girls and vote with the leadership or else their Christmas stockings are going to be empty. This is another way that the speaker is able to centralize power (and rewards) in his office.