With apologies to our favorite public radio show, “Car Talk,” here is the Puzzler Of The Day: Why does the Senate want to tackle the most important and most difficult issue of the session — voting to exceed the constitutional spending cap — the hard way, by requiring a vote of the people to amend the constitution, rather than the easy way, by making the decision themselves?
Okay, we all know that the cap has to be lifted to pay for the local property taxes passed by the special session of the Legislature last spring: The tax cut counts as spending. But why do the voters have to weigh in on this deal when the Legislature can get the legal authority it needs with a resolution adopted by a simple majority of both House and Senate? After all, the constitutional amendment sets a much higher bar: approval of two-thirds of both chambers, plus the pain of a May statewide election.
“Frankly, it’s bizarre,” Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden told me late Monday. Breaking the cap “requires legislative action, but you could do it with a resolution that takes only a majority vote.”
With David Dewhurst pressing hard to round up votes for the constitutional amendment, speculation at the Capitol centered on Dewhurst’s ambition to win the governorship in 2010. He is assiduously working to buttress his conservative credentials, and, the theory goes, he wants to pass the buck to the voters rather than let the Legislature vote.
Ogden shrugged when presented with this scenario. “I don’t think the Senate cares particularly” how the spending cap issue is resolved, he said. His theory? “There’s an underlying current that says House members are more comfortable voting on a constitutional amendment (which brings voters into the equation) and to accommodate their concerns, we need to pass it over in the Senate.” But the word in the House is that the speaker can’t come close to rounding up the 100 votes necessary to pass a constitutional amendment and would rather try for a simple majority. Even that might fail without help from Democrats, which would require some sort of deal—such as increasing the homestead exemption, as has been proposed in previous debates by Scott Hochberg.
The Senate did not take action today, as many members attended the funeral of Florence Shapiro’s father. But time is running out. Action must be taken this week by both Houses in order to get the issue before the voters in May. Otherwise, a 76-vote solution is the only way for Texans to get the promised property tax relief. And we all know what happens when Dewhurst and Craddick can’t agree.