The comment I heard most frequently yesterday about the fierce floor debate over SCR 20 (lifting the spending cap) was some variant on, “It’s only February but it feels like May”–meaning that seldom have the early days of a session been so filled with long and heated debate. This was another grinding day filled with arcane parliamentary maneuvering by the Democrats, who lobbed one point of order after another into the proceedings, each one followed by a long period of inactivity while Craddick tried to come up with ways to overrule the points that didn’t sound too ridiculous.

The key vote came on the Eiland motion to postpone further consideration of SCR 20 until one hour after HB 1 — the general appropriations bill — passed on third reading. The Ds argument was that to pass the resolution now was to give a blank check to the Appropriations committee; members should wait to find how the money has been spent before casting their vote. This makes a great deal of sense in the real world: If one of my children were to ask me for a thousand bucks, I would certainly insist upon knowing how they planned to spend the money before I gave it to them. But the House is not the real world, and Eiland’s approach would have risked letting the Democrats and disgruntled Republicans hold the appropriations bill hostage.

The vote mostly followed party lines. Five ABC Republicans voted with the Ds (Geren, Jones, Merritt, Pitts, Talton), and six Ds voted with the Rs (Cook, Guillen, Pickett, Quintinila, Ritter, Rose). Rose was the only one of the fourteen Craddick Ds who jumped ship; Guillen was the only D on the Appropriations committee to vote with the Rs.

The points of order proved to be tricky because the House was breaking new ground. The Legislature has never voted to bust the spending cap before, with the exception of the earlier Senate vote on SCR 20, so there were no precedents to go by (not that precedents mean much these days). The calendar for the day consisted of HB 2 on 3rd reading (final passage), followed by SCR 20 on 2nd reading, in that order. In the normal course of business, 3rd readings must appear on the calendar before 2nd readings. But the House couldn’t pass HB 2 on 3rd reading without subjecting it to a point of order that it violated the spending cap, which had yet to be voted on. So the spending cap had to be considered before HB 2. But that wouldn’t work either, because it is against House rules to take up a bill out of calendar order. The Democrats could hardly conceal their glee. Whatever Craddick did would violate the rules and render SCR 20 vulnerable to a point of order.

Wrong again. Craddick ruled, in effect, that the rules created an absurd situation that made it impossible to implement a procedure stipulated in the constitution–lifting the spending cap–and he wasn’t going to uphold a point of order in that situation. Here is the key part of Craddick’s ruling as published in the House Journal:

Under the current system of calendars, there was no method of calendars for setting an SCR required under the Constitution and House Rules on second reading that is specific to the engrossed version of HB 2. This is a blind spot in our rules. The rules require the resolution but don’t give us a system of calendars to accomplish it. In fact, the rules specifically exclude the placement of emergency concurrent resolutions, like SCR 20, on any other calendar but the emergency calendar.

Accordingly, the chair has two choices: agree with Mr. Dunnam and not have an appropriate calendar to place it on, even if passed at a later date, or place SCR 20 before HB 2. Likewise, if we had taken up HB 2 first, members could have raised an objection that it was improper to move forward because both the House Rules and the Constitution require a second reading concurrent resolution (SCR 20), which could not have been placed in front of HB 2 on third reading because the two matters were placed equally on the calendar.

The chair declines to sustain a point of order in such a situation and it is in the chair’s opinion that the interpretation does the least violence to the House Rules and is in line with our rules and the Constitution.

When I first heard Craddick overrule the point of order, I thought the speaker was up to his old tricks of overruling ironclad points of order, and I was writing an indignant posting in my head about how the rules must be respected, etc., etc. After reading the Journal, however, I think Craddick was justified in ruling as he did. The rules created an anomaly that made it impossible to carry out a procedure that was sanctioned by the constitution. The ruling to allow a piece of legislation to be considered out of calendar order is specific to this situation; it is not a general precedent.

The question that needs to be asked is whether the situation could have been avoided by not splitting the property tax funding from the remainder of the Appropriations bill. This hocus-pocus was designed to give Republicans cover for busting the spending cap by linking the vote to HB 2, the property tax cut. It has been amusing to see rock-ribbed conservatives like Republican caucus chairman Frank Corte justify this maneuver. Notice how Corte describes SCR 20 in a press release:

SCR 20: Housekeeping Resolution

The Texas House Republican Caucus supports the passage of SCR 20 to allow the Legislature to appropriate funds up to $14.19 billion more than the amount allowed under Article VIII, Section 22 Texas Constitution for the purpose of funding school district property tax relief.

It’s good to see that Corte hasn’t lost that less-than-endearing smart-alecky quality that marked his debating style when he was chair of the conservative caucus years ago. “Housekeeping Resolution” indeed.

What conservatives should be concerned about is that a precedent has been set for rendering the spending cap meaningless. The purpose of the spending cap is to limit overall spending. By severing the property tax funding from the rest of the Appropriations bill, Craddick allowed the Republicans to vote to bust the cap on that issue alone, which amounted to less than 10% of state spending. If the Rs had gone about busting the spending cap straight up, by including the property tax funding as a line item in the general appropriations bill and voting to lift the cap after passage to 2nd reading, as Eiland proposed doing, the House rules would not have been an impediment. It was the tortured procedure that created the violation. It’s a good thing for the leadership that their former nemesis Carole Keeton Strayhorn is not comptroller, because she would have a great excuse to refuse to certify the budget.

The vote to adopt SCR 20 was 95-50. This means that the D leadership, which had hoped to make the resolution a litmus test vote, lost 18 net votes between the Eiland motion to postpone (68 nays) and the vote to bust the spending cap. Thirteen were the remaining Craddick Ds who joined Rose in voting to lift the cap. Dunnam, Coleman, and Gallego are skillful and dangerous adversaries, but they have been on the mike a lot this session, and there’s a long way to go–which raises the question of whether the Democratic rank and file is going to continue to follow them. A lot of Democrats broke ranks with what Republicans call the Kool-Aid Caucus on the final vote yesterday: all of the Craddick Ds–no surprise–but also Cook, Escobar, Farabee, Howard, McReynolds, Menendez, Pickett, Ritter, and Strama. It is much too early to tell whether this is a permanent development.

Once again, I think that Dunnam and friends made a dubious decision. They have been waging long and arduous battles over procedural issues that are unwinnable. They score some points–Republicans had to cast more bad votes yesterday on HB 2–but they are never going to be able to get what they want, which is for Craddick to have to negotiate with them. When Craddick negotiates with the Ds, it will be with the Craddick Ds, and I’m not sanguine about how successful the latter will be either. The Democrats best chance is to engage with the Republicans on substantive issues, particularly education. A war of attrition by the minority can’t work.