Swingers in the Senate
Tue April 26, 2011 5:22 pm

Traditionally, swing votes are found in the middle of the political spectrum, but this session’s Anthony Kennedy in the state Senate may come from the far right. While all eyes have been on Royce West and Chuy Hinojosa, the two Democrats considered most likely to vote with the Republican caucus to bring the budget to the Senate floor this week, Dan Patrick has quietly positioned himself as a third key figure. Patrick told me this afternoon that his “intent” was to vote to suspend the rules so that the budget could be debated. And he said he “supported” the budget in general, despite his “no” vote in Senate finance. What he would not say was whether or not he would vote “aye” when it came to the floor

Patrick said his opposition in committee was meant to signal his displeasure with the decision to use $3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to balance the budget. Now he says he can live with that concept—noting that, the way the bill is crafted, the money might not get appropriated if the Texas economy rebounds sufficiently to boost tax revenues. What he wants now is 1) an interim committee dedicated to finding long term solutions to school finance, and 2) an amendment to the sales tax speed up in Senator Duncan’s non-tax revenue bill. The tax speedup was one of the biggest sources of new funds—$880 million—found by Duncan and his Fiscal Matters Subcommittee colleagues, but Patrick thinks it is too burdensome for small businesses, and he wants them protected. (Let me pause here and make sure you understand that I understand that we all understand that neither this $880 million, nor virtually any of the other revenue sources found by Duncan’s subcommittee are actually “new funds” in any reality-based sense of the word.) If Patrick gets his way, however, that means the $880 million figure will come down, and some other source of funds will have to be found in the next day or two.

It sounds like Patrick is really trying to get something in exchange for his vote on the budget, though he may just be stalling to see how much animosity there is out in the heartland about the spending levels in the Senate’s budget, viz a viz the much more austere House version. In which case he may vote to suspend—which is, after all, the really crucial vote—and then feel free to cast a symbolic “no” vote on the bill itself, knowing it has still has the votes to pass. On the off chance that this was his plan, I asked Michael Quinn Sullivan, who has been lambasting the Senate’s version of the budget on Twitter for the last several days, how his organization would view such a maneuver. I put it to him just as a hypothetical, not mentioning Patrick. “There’s just something smarmy about that,” Sullivan said. “When it’s done in a disingenuous fashion, so that senators can say to one group, ‘Oh, I was for the budget,’ and then to another, ‘Oh, I was against it.’”

  • In addition to being smarmy, the other problem with this hypothetical scenario is that a “no” vote from Patrick—or some other Republican senator—might well be more than merely symbolic. Normally a budget bill requires only a simple majority of 16 senators to pass, but because this bill appropriates money from the Rainy Day Fund for the next biennium, it requires a super-majority of 21 votes. Which raises the question: what happens to the bill if 21 members vote to suspend, but the bill only gets 20 ayes (or fewer) when Dewhurst calls the question on the bill itself? The first three senators I put this two said “I don’t know.” The answer, apparently, is that the budget bill still passes, but without the $3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund. In other words, if all of the Democrats except Hinojosa and West vote “no” on the budget—and they are joined by Patrick or some other Republican—the bill goes over to the House $3 billion poorer than when it came out of Senate Finance.

    Patrick said he hadn’t thought of that. And, further, he wasn’t sure he believed it. As to whether or not the idea was appealing, he didn’t say. It may be academic anyway, since the House has said from day one that dipping into the Rainy Day Fund is a non-starter, and will never survive the conference committee. House conferees might give a little on public education, using some of the money Appropriations chair Jim Pitts has already dug up from the couch cushions, but they will likely reject many of the Senate’s restorations to Medicaid funding. How can they do that, if Medicaid is an entitlement? Easy--just don’t budget for caseload growth, then throw up your hands and act surprised in 2013 when the bill comes due and the next legislature faces a massive supplemental appropriations bill. (This is not deficit spending, by the way. Deficit spending is unconstitutional in Texas.)

    After the gavel today, Dewhurst told reporters that the ball was in the Democrats’ court. Which is technically true. But maybe the sport isn’t basketball--maybe it’s fishing. As one Senate staffer put it to me, that $3 billion in Rainy Day Fund money, is looking more and more like bait dangled by Dewhurst and Ogden to get Democrats to vote to suspend. They get to bite it, but they don’t get to swallow it. (Then you either get eaten or chucked back into the lake with an extra hole in your mouth.) Are they going to take it? Hinojosa, as Vice-chair of Appropriations, has been working closely with Ogden all session and has a lot invested in the bill. He seems a foregone conclusion. And West? “I haven’t decided,” he told me this afternoon. That’s the thing about fishing: You have to be patient.

    NATE BLAKESLEE

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