A Sigh of Relief
The Democrats in the Texas Senate might not be crazy about this year's budget, but most of them are a lot happier than they were in 2011.
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Ever since January, when the comptroller’s biennial revenue estimate showed that the Lege would have much more money to work with this session than the last one, it seemed clear that any budget squabbles in 2013 would be a pale imitation of the battles Texans saw in 2011. That is, in fact, what has happened: on Wednesday, when the full Texas Senate passed SB1—the budget bill that the Senate Finance Committee passed earlier this month—there was little carnage, and mostly camaraderie. The vote in favor was 29-2.
In 2011, by comparison, the budget bill passed on a 19-12 vote. Some of the funding that was cut that year will be restored, though not all, and SB1 even calls for some new infrastructure investments. Robert Duncan, a Republican senator from Lubbock, said that he was happy the state would finally be able to take on some projects that had been pushed off for years because the money just wasn’t there.
The most vigorous opposition came from Wendy Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, who drew statewide attention in 2011 after a filibuster at the end of the regular session that effectively triggered an immediate special session—a filibuster that was in protest to that year's harsh budget cuts. Davis has already tangled with Tommy Williams, R-Woodlands, several times this session, over the supplemental appropriations bill, for example, and over a bill that would require drug testing for welfare recipients. In this case, she revived the criticisms she made during the debate over the former: if Williams had been willing to use money from the Rainy Day Fund to fill the gaps in the current biennium, the state would have been able to spend that money more than $6 billion in the 2014-2015 cycle.
During previous iterations of this debate, Williams has argued that he only wants to use the rainy day money for one-time expenses, for a number of reasons, including that the state's credit rating might take a hit. Davis, in her comments on Wednesday, acknowledged that line of thinking but suggested it wasn't relevant here: the gaps in the 2012-2013 budget were one-time gaps, she implied, unless the state plans to make a habit of these accounting games.
Setting that aside, however, Davis's main point was that the budget bill at hand "fails Texas children," and she therefore couldn't support it. A new report had noted that Texas ranks 49th in per-capita school funding, she said, and she felt that parents and teachers around the state were anxious to see the cuts from last session restored, at the very least. Davis also offered an amendment that would have required any additional revenue collected over the next biennium—additional to what the comptroller expects the state to have—to go straight to the schools, although Davis explained that she wasn't going to ask for a vote on the amendment. That wouldn't, she observed, be in anyone's interest.
Davis was one of only two senators who voted against the bill in the end. The other was Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat from Houston who was sworn in last week. Most of the Senate's Democrats, then, voted for the budget; many of them expressed some reservations, or clarified that they hope the state will end up stretching further in the final iteration of the budget, which will come at the very end of session.
Even so, however, Democrats said that the situation had clearly improved since last year, because of the revenue outlook but also because of the leadership. "Senator Williams, I think you are the story of this session," said John Whitmire, from Houston. Rodney Ellis, of Houston, agreed that Williams had done a great job—especially, he added, compared to some previous chairs. Judith Zaffirini, of Laredo, explained that Williams' leadership of the committee had helped her decide to support the bill. As introduced, she said, she thought SB1 was too abstemious, and she would have voted against it, as she did in 2011. Over the first half of the session, however, she decided that both the process and the outcome were an improvement over the 2011 versions; Williams took hours and hours of witness testimony, and the version of the bill that passed out of the finance committee called for about $5 billion in additional spending, based on what the senators had heard. "Quite frankly, you impressed me," Zaffirini said.
It was high praise coming from Zaffirini, who is not, in general, easily or overly impressed. Williams, on the receiving end, was almost bashful. "We've come a long way, baby, since last session, is about all I can say," he said.