Who has more clout: A fictional Texas Ranger and a former major corporate CEO or a cadre of right wing interest groups? Texas Senate Republicans gave an unabashed nod to the interest groups this week by passing a state budget that balances without tapping the rainy day fund. Instead, the Senate budget relies on accounting tricks and contingent spending. If an economic recovery fails to materialize, even deeper cuts to public education will occur. The battle was for the senators’ heads and hearts on one side and fear of political retribution on the other. The public school coalition Raise Your Hand Texas ran television commercials featuring Tommy Lee Jones, who starred in the classic mini-series Lonesome Dove, and former GM and AT&T executive Ed Whitacre urging Texans to press against cuts to education. However, when the smoke cleared from the Senate’s budget debate, it was Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans, Peggy Venable of Americans for Prosperity, and Brooke Rollins of the Texas Public Policy Foundation who had carried the day. The trio also ran commercials urging Republican senators to stick with state spending cuts proposed by the House. But lobbyists and lawmakers tell me the deciding factor was really the threat that the groups would find Republican primary opponents to run against incumbents and make sure the opponents were well financed. “It's just intimidation,” said former Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, one of the lobbyists for Raise Your Hand.
Articles by R.G. Ratcliffe
Apr 28, 2011 — By R.G. Ratcliffe
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.
Apr 22, 2011 — By R.G. Ratcliffe
If you think of the two-year budget passed by the Texas House as a bankruptcy filing for the State of Texas, then the budget approved by the Senate Finance Committee yesterday is a reorganization plan that requires a substantial liquidation of assets. Finance Chairman Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) and other senators who supported the plan bragged on how the Senate budget contains $12 billion more than the House budget, but the $176.5 billion Senate version still cuts $11 billion from current state services. It’s sort of like Dish Network saving Blockbuster Video from going completely out of business in bankruptcy court. Even in saving Blockbuster, Dish still plans to close hundreds of stores, putting an untold number of people out of work. It may be good for business, but not for all the employees or customers.
Apr 18, 2011 — By R.G. Ratcliffe
Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden today talked to reporters about the Senate’s two year budget proposal. The bottom line numbers, they said, will remain a squishy secret until Thursday. And how extra money for the plan will be raised will be revealed Tuesday. But for…
Apr 14, 2011 — By R.G. Ratcliffe
Senator Eddie Lucio recently rode in a parade for Brownsville’s Charro Days Fiesta, a festival created in 1937 to raise the spirits of those living through the Great Depression. Suddenly, a man in the crowd shouted in Spanish at Lucio: “There goes the state official who is going to cut the funding for our public schools for our children!” For a Democratic legislator fighting against state budget cuts, the man’s anger was surprising and disturbing. “They look at me as a state official symbol,” Lucio said. “They read and hear the state is cutting public education; they’re cutting healthcare; and they look at me and say: There’s the guy who’s going to cut our funds.” Senator Bob Deuell (R-Greenville), a family physician, told me in medicine a phenomenon such as this is called “displaced anger.” And Deuell believes a different kind of displaced anger is driving the state budget debate: Voters angry over runaway spending in the federal government are blaming all of government. Conservative Republicans are responding to the displaced anger of their voters by slashing the state budget. Democrats have to make certain their constituents don’t blame them for the cuts. And, in between, lawmakers like Deuell are trying to find ways to minimize the cuts without costing the state in the long run. So far, the House passed a two-year spending plan that cuts about $23 billion from current state services. The Senate is trying to close the gap by adding $6 billion to $10 billion to a rough draft that the finance committee will vote on next week. The problem with the Senate’s spending plan is it is like the Maltese Falcon--it’s the stuff dreams are made of. “They keep adding magic beans, but they still don’t have the money to pay for it,” one lobbyist told me. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and several senators tried to water those beans on Tuesday in a private meeting with Comptroller Susan Combs. Lawmakers had pinned their hopes to the rumors that her revenue estimate could be raised by $1.8 billion. Combs told the senators to forget it.
Apr 13, 2011 — By R.G. Ratcliffe
The initial House redistricting plan released today by Chairman Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, was not the freshman slaughter that it might have been but it does target a Democrat who is annoying to the GOP leadership. Pairings in the plan include: Veteran Dan Flynn of Van against freshman Erwin Cain of…
Apr 8, 2011 — By R.G. Ratcliffe
Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst’s sincere effort to overhaul state Medicaid to save taxpayers money and improve health care for the poor has become the best jibe of the session, mirthfully described in Capitol hallway whispers as “Dewbamacare.” That may be nothing more than a joking reference to the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, derided by conservatives as Obamacare. But political reality suggests something else: The moniker is designed to kill Dewhurst’s package. The fact that a single word can define a piece of Medicaid legislation shows what a quagmire health care is for lawmakers. Politicians who enter the swamp can see their careers die there; those who are fortunate enough to emerge victorious only do so with a fresh set of scars. But, in Texas, both conservatives and liberals can claim to be right on health care for the poor. It is a shame that a quarter of the state’s population is without health insurance and often relies on the emergency room as the primary care physician. But it is also an inescapable fact that Medicaid is breaking the bank, growing at a faster pace than state tax revenues.
Apr 1, 2011 — By R.G. Ratcliffe
The open-air rotunda in the Capitol extension is the demarcation line between business and government. South of the rotunda are the numerous committee rooms where businesses settle disputes using the Legislature as an “honest broker.” North of the line, the business of government is conducted as the state budget is written in the House appropriations and Senate finance committee rooms. This year business lobbyists are whistling Dixie and staying south of the rotunda lest their clients be asked to raise their hands and say, “Tax me.” That doesn’t mean Texas business refuses to see the current budget battle as a business issue. The state’s mostly Republican mainstream business community is publicly and privately expressing angst over the level of cuts in the House budget bills being debated this weekend. Massive cuts, business groups say, are a down payment on a bleak Texas future. But those same business leaders are providing little guidance to lawmakers on how to pay for a revenue-shortfall state budget without cuts. Instead they are abdicating their influence in the House to lawmakers’ fears of angry, libertarian anti-government voters. House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) told me business leaders tell him they are worried about the economic impact of the budget but so far none are willing to help him find ways to pay for the cuts. “I have all these people come see me, some pretty substantial business people in Texas, and I’ve told them they need to do the lobbying,” Pitts says.
Mar 30, 2011 — By R.G. Ratcliffe
The next several days of Texas House budget debate may be as much about the culture wars as state spending. Pre-filed amendments to the three budget-related bills before the House contain limitations on private school vouchers, funding for Planned Parenthood and directives to higher education to fund centers for traditional family values if they provide funding for support centers for gay students. Debate is set to begin Thursday on House Bill 4 to erase a deficit in the current budget and on House Bill 275 to take $3.2 billion out of the state's so-called rainy day fund. Debate is set for Friday and into the weekend on House Bill 1, a bare bones spending plan for the next two years. Some of the pre-filed amendments may never be debated because there is a possibility that they are not procedurally proper for an appropriations bill. But they do show state spending is about more than just spending – or in this case cutting.
Mar 28, 2011 — By R.G. Ratcliffe
(Editor’s note: Every week, for the remainder of the legislative session, BurkaBlog will be publishing an original column by R.G. Ratcliffe, who was the state political reporter for the Houston Chronicle for twenty years. During those two decades, I’ve known R.G., who resigned from the Chronicle in February to work on a book, to be one of the most trusted voices in the Capitol press corps. I’m thrilled to have him posting here. His columns will offer a deeper take on one of the week’s top stories. –P.B.) This session’s budget crunch has turned into a twisted episode of "The Biggest Loser," the reality television show in which overweight contestants compete to see who can lose the most weight. At the Capitol, the question is, which parts of our state budget will lose the most money in the plans being floated to bridge the $27 billion shortfall. Who will be our biggest loser? Most of the attention has been on teachers, children, and the elderly in nursing homes. Rallies at the capitol and heavy coverage on the nightly news about the impending disaster these groups could face from state cuts have put them at the forefront of the debate. But as the House prepares to vote on a bare bones available-revenue-only proposal next week, there’s another, more often overlooked contestant on the show—Texas’ 154,000 state employees, many of whom could face effective wage cuts of up to 40 percent under current Texas budget plans. Who are these folks? Well, they are child protection caseworkers, prison guards, tax auditors and rank and file bureaucrats. They work for the government. In a staunchly fiscal conservative, Tea Party world, these employees are often viewed skeptically.