R.G. Ratcliffe

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Articles by R.G. Ratcliffe

R.G.’s Take: Did the Davis filibuster do more harm than good?

Jun 2, 2011 By R.G. Ratcliffe

[Editors note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Texas Association of School Administrators and the Texas Association of School Boards were among the groups that met with Senator Royce West last weekend to discuss the school finance plan. Neither TASA nor TASB were present at a meeting with West. However, sources close to West confirm that the TASB did convey to him that it was ambivalent about the possible benefit of a special session. The post has been corrected.] The test pilots of the 1950s had a saying for when one of their own messed up and lost an aircraft. The pilot, they said, had “screwed the pooch.” Senator Wendy Davis, her Democratic colleagues, and their consultants have—in the lingo of the test pilots—screwed the pooch. Davis’ session-ending filibuster on the public school funding formulas was hailed earlier this week as a noble stand for education and a kick in the shins of the possible presidential aspirations of Governor Rick Perry. But after talking with many sources this week who have intimate knowledge of the events leading up to the filibuster, I have a different view of it. Now it looks far more like a pyrrhic victory that increases the possibility that bills will pass that will harm teachers and the Texas Democratic Party for the decade to come.

R.G.’s Take: The Budget Session Nobody Enjoyed

May 30, 2011 By R.G. Ratcliffe

As the 82nd Legislature hurtled this weekend toward a crash landing, freshman Republican Representative Lanham Lyne of Wichita Falls stepped up to the front microphone of the Texas House to deliver his first major legislative speech. Lyne was arguing on behalf of the budget, which cuts billions, yet he seemed ambivalent, and in his impassioned soliloquy he managed to sum up the challenges of this session. He argued that his voters didn’t understand what they were doing when they demanded state budget cuts, but since they elected him he was obliged to give them what they want. This was, above all else, a budget session, and the legislators—both Democrats or Republicans—had bent themselves to the task without enthusiasm. They all knew that even though it would satisfy some voters in the short run, a budget containing massive cuts to state services was likely to make more constituents unhappy in the long run. The rumor was that the school finance plan that passed the House on Sunday by 84-63 already was unraveling with Republican members concerned about casting a vote that would hurt their district twice. Dewhurst gloomily predicted that a special session had the potential of lasting the full thirty days. So it was with fascination Saturday evening that I watched Lyne plead for passage of the available revenue budget with a speech that sounded like he was against it. He frankly recounted his own ignorance as a candidate—and that of his voters too. He held aloft a copy of the Texas Fact Book, a statistically compendium of how far behind the rest of the nation Texas is in funding services and education “Everywhere I went, the people said: Cut the budget, cut the budget, cut the budget. I’m not sure they knew Texas was not Washington, D.C., that we don’t spend money like Washington, D.C.,” said Lyne. “I did what the people sent me here to do from my district. But I guarantee you there are a lot of angry, unhappy people in my district because they didn’t want us to cut theirs, and they didn’t want us to raise taxes either. This is what the people who voted for the majority of the people here want to see, but I promise you they don’t know what gets spent in our Texas Legislature.”

R.G.’s Take: Perry Gets His Way Again

May 26, 2011 By R.G. Ratcliffe

Oh, ye liberals, Democrats and college professors, weep. There is no doubt now that the man you love to hate – Governor Rick Perry – will be the biggest winner of the 82nd Legislature. Perry has gotten his way on almost every item on is legislative agenda and squeezed the state budget turnip until it bled. Perry is the flavor of the week nationally for the politicos and pundits looking for a candidate of principled policy and pizzazz to join the Republican presidential contest. And Perry’s biggest public relations flop of the session – meddling with higher education – hasn’t fazed him in the least. If you believe the higher education community and alumni and newspaper backlash to Perry’s support of Jeff Sandefer and his proposed “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for university reform have prompted Perry to back off, think again. Sources close to the governor tell me that in either late June or July, Perry will unveil his own proposal for higher education reform. While the details are still being worked out, it is sure to contain his call for $10,000 undergraduate degrees, greater efficiencies in the teaching of undergraduates, teacher accountability and a potential rebalancing of instructional and research budgets with a goal of lowering the cost of a bachelor’s degree. Perry, in his Austin American-Statesman op-ed, said academia wants him to “butt out.” He’s not going to: “Our knowledge-dependent economy and you — the taxpayer footing the bills — deserve better.”

R.G.’s Take: The Nanny State of Texas

May 24, 2011 By R.G. Ratcliffe

Once upon a time, not so long ago, in a faraway land called Pennsylvania, a woman named Sarah Palin brought 200 protest cookies to school for children at the Plumstead Christian School - because she had read a report – mistaken as it turns out – that the state was going to ban such sweets from public school parties. Sarah mocked the policy as a “nanny state run amok.” She was there to fight for the freedom of sweet treats. “Who should be making the decisions on what you eat … in school, choices: Should it be government or should it be the parents?” Sarah asked her crowd. “It should be the parents.” Oh, no, said I, if this is true, then Texas has three of the biggest nannies in the land: Susan Combs, Todd Staples and Rick Perry. And the Legislature has been nannying up a storm as of late, seeking to impose government dictates on its citizens for their own good. Let’s start at the beginning, when government was wise, children were wonderful and we all wanted what was best for our future generations.

R.G.’s Take: 82nd Legislature rolls the dice, betting on the come

May 20, 2011 By R.G. Ratcliffe

Betting on the come, in gambling terms, means: You don’t have what you need but you’re betting that you will have it when you need it. Betting on the come is exactly what House and Senate Republicans are doing with Governor Rick Perry as they press for a final budget deal before the legislative session ends on Memorial Day. They are betting that the state’s economy will improve enough by 2013 to raise enough additional tax revenues to cover what essentially is $6 billion to $10 billion in deficit spending. The Republican leadership is pushing some of our budget problems down to local governments while also engaging in accounting tricks and deferrals that will come home to roost in the next budget cycle, if not sooner. Their budget pushes about $4.8 billion in Medicaid spending off to the next budget (as a federal entitlement that is money that cannot be cut), and counts on unapproved federal waivers to reduce Medicaid spending. It also defers $1.8 billion in payments to school districts by a month, pushing that spending into the next budget cycle too. If a new school funding formula fails to pass, then current law will trigger a system of proration. That means the state will not pay school districts money they currently are owed but would have to pay those districts in the next budget cycle. That would add somewhere between $5 billion and $6 billion to the Legislature’s deficit tab. Proration is avoided by changing the funding formulas to short-change school districts. One of the latest bright ideas from the Senate is to simply change the estimate on how much revenue property taxes will raise for local school districts. The more money property taxes raise for the districts, the less money the state owes them. House Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands told me that would be worth about $800 million for the budget balancers. It also would be a hidden cut to the state’s school districts. The GOP leadership is jumping through all these budget hoops all in the name of preserving the rainy day fund because we may need the money in the future. With this budget, we are almost guaranteed to need the money in the future.

Deal or no deal

May 19, 2011 By R.G. Ratcliffe

When senators Florence Shapiro and Steve Ogden earlier today said they had a budget deal, the deal apparently was just among the senators. House Speaker Joe Straus just issued this statement:

Dewhurst said deal left in Straus’ hands

May 19, 2011 By R.G. Ratcliffe

Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst just emerged from a meeting in Speaker Joe Straus’ office and said he left the Senate’s budget “deal” with the speaker to consider. Dewhurst said he had 21 senators signed onto the deal — the 19 Republicans and Democratic senators Royce West of Dallas and Juan…

The deal is coming down to massaging the revenue

May 19, 2011 By R.G. Ratcliffe

Senators Florence Shapiro and Steve Ogden both tell me a deal is done on the budget. Ogden says negotiations continue on exactly how to pay for it but that it is close. Public education will be funded at the Senate level, which is about $4 billion more than was in…

Ogden frustrated, says special session possible

May 18, 2011 By R.G. Ratcliffe

Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden stormed off in the opposite direction from other conference committee negotiators as they left Speaker Joe Straus’ office. Caught in the stairwell behind the House, Ogden made a dour prediction: “We really haven’t made any progress. “There’s several issues. The thing that’s frustrating to me…

R.G.’s Take: Texas Partisanship Week

May 13, 2011 By R.G. Ratcliffe

Thursday was to have been Teacher Appreciation Day in the Legislature under House Republican plans to bring up HB 400 to make it easier for school districts to furlough or fire teachers, while giving those who remain employed the opportunity to teach more children in larger classes. Only a House deadline postponed the love. Tuesday was Welcome to America and Mother’s Day as the House Republicans approved Gov. Rick Perry’s emergency “sanctuary city” bill and sent the governor the informed consent bill that requires women to have a sonogram before they can terminate a pregnancy. Monday was Texans for Lawsuit Reform Day as the House approved “loser pay” on a party line vote. It’s all been part of Texas Partisanship Week in the Legislature.

R.G.’s Take: Redistricting, election threats, and the Texas Senate

May 6, 2011 By R.G. Ratcliffe

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.

R.G.’s Take: No budget joy in Mudville

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.

R.G.’s Take: Senate budget plan is still bad business

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.

Steve Ogden’s Sweet Spot

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…

R.G.’s Take: Susan Combs Says No to Magic Beans

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.

Initial House redistricting plan

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…

R.G.’s Take: Medicaid, “Dewbamacare,” and Why We All Should Care

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.

R.G.’s Take: Businesses want the state spending, but how do they want to pay for it?

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.

Pre-filed amendments to budget bills set the stage for culture wars on spending

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.

R.G.’s Take: What the Lean House Budget Bill Means for State Employees

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.