The showdown between Greg Abbott and the Legislative Budget Board can be summarized as follows: this is a separation of powers case. And it’s a substantive and provocative case, to boot. To give a quick summary, the debate concerns Abbott’s line-item vetos to the state’s biennial budget, which the governor signed June 20th, after whittling it down by about $300m, mostly by cutting appropriations for state facilities.
Last month Ursula Parks, the director of the Legislative Budget Board, sent a letter to Glenn Hegar, the comptroller, arguing that a number of Abbott’s line-item vetoes exceeded his constitutional authority, and therefore were invalid. Briefly put, LBB’s argument is that although the governor can veto items of appropriation, he can’t veto the budget riders that direct portions of those appropriations for, say, a new parking garage; those line-item vetoes should be ignored, Parks says, and the comptroller should go ahead and release the funds as appropriated by the Lege. The governor’s office, naturally, disagrees. Their reasoning, as summarized in a brief memo written prior to the vetoes and detailed in the 62-page brief I mentioned Friday, is that the aforementioned budget riders are functionally equivalent to items of appropriation, and that the Lege is trying to use “magic words” to protect its parking garages and whatnot from the governor’s veto pen.
After puzzling over these documents, I think the LBB is correct, and also that I wouldn’t want to get caught in a courtroom fight with these Abbott attorneys. (I’ll explain why in a separate post, though.) First I’d like to deal with the side drama that was spurred by the substantive dispute. Ultimately, Dan Patrick’s adverse reaction to Parks’s memo tells us nothing about the constitutional question. But it does tell us something about Patrick.
Necessary context first: Per the Texas Constitution, the lieutenant governor is a statewide elected official, elected separately from the governor, whose office is part of the executive branch. In addition, Texas’s lieutenant governor is the president of the state senate. In some contexts, his role corresponds directly to that of the Speaker of the Texas House; Patrick and Joe Straus are, for example, the joint chairs of the Legislative Budget Board. In some respects, however, the lieutenant governor’s control over the upper chamber exceeds the speaker’s control over the lower one. In the House, for example, a pair of committees—Calendars and Local & Consent—schedule bills to be heard on the floor; Straus appoints the members of these committees, and can exert some pressure on them, but not to a despotic degree. The Senate has a quasi-corresponding intent calendar, but the lieutenant governor decides the order in which bills are heard on the floor, or whether they are heard on the floor at all.
This hybrid legislative-executive role helps explain why the lieutenant governor is sometimes described as the most powerful statewide official in Texas. It does not help explain Patrick’s inexplicable response to the LBB memo.