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. Combs was described as “gun shy” about raising the revenue estimate after missing the mark for the current biennium by $4 billion. She told the group she wanted to keep a conservative estimate–and this was before it was revealed that Combs’s agency had accidentally exposed personal data on 3.5 million Texans, including most members of the Legislature. Of course, even if the Senate passes its version of the budget, it still would represent a cut of about $13 billion from current state services, creating the possibility of more displaced anger in the form of voter blowback in 2012. On one hand, Republicans fear reprisals from soccer moms and community leaders unhappy with cuts in public schools, transportation infrastructure and healthcare. On the other hand, conservatives worry also face potential backlash from the Tea Party voters to whom they had promised state budget cuts. And, as Lucio learned in his hometown, Democrats face the possibility their voters will blame them for the Republicans’ behavior. That is one of the reasons Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) is holding town hall meetings in her district with a PowerPoint presentation placing the current budget crisis at the feet of the 2006 Republican-driven school funding reforms. Democratic senators tell me they are not afraid of shutting down the budget debate by blocking the bill from consideration in the Senate. They believe a summer special session would allow teachers from every legislative district to flood the Capitol and lobby for increased education funding. On the Republican side, the hard part is figuring out who will suffer from the outcome. Take for instance Deuell and his neighboring senator, Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler). Both are arguing for reasonable budget cuts using some increases in revenue. However, the Republican House members who represent the same geographic region as Deuell and Eltife want to hold the line on spending to available revenue. The same voters put them into office. What’s the deal? For one, Deuell defeated a Tea Party candidate in his primary; Eltife won his re-election with 23,000 more votes in his district than Gov. Rick Perry. “I’ve got thirteen different state reps,” said Deuell. “So the senators, I think we have a broader base of support. Also, politically, it’s probably easier to defeat a state representative than a state senator. A smaller group of people for whatever position they take can get organized. The flip side is a smaller group of people put them in, so they feel loyal.” Eltife told me that as a former city councilman and mayor of Tyler, he feels an obligation to do the right thing for state government. “I’m not interested in being here and not solving problems,” Eltife told me. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Let’s just cut everything and go home.’ But that’s not in the taxpayers’ interests in the long term.” Essentially, both men believe that budget cuts can be penny-wise but pound-foolish. Medicaid cuts mean federal dollars go to other states instead of coming home to Texas. Cuts to mental health services mean the ill will end up in county jails or prisons, costing more in the long run. Across the rotunda, the 2010 GOP primary vote indicates that the House conservatives in Deuell and Eltife’s districts better hold their line. In Representative Dan Flynn’s district, which extends across Hunt, Rains, and Van Zandt counties, small-government advocate Debra Medina drew more votes for governor than U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. In Representative Leo Berman’s district, which is based in Smith County, Medina and Perry together received 75 percent of the primary vote; they took 71 percent in the district of Erwin Cain, which covers parts of six counties in northeast Texas. Deuell won re-election campaigning for a gas tax increase. More than 60 House members won election pledging not to raise taxes in any way. “I don’t disagree that those people are angry at Washington, but they don’t want the same thing going on down here,” Cain told me. “My campaign was very clear about not raising taxes, cutting spending where we could. It resonated well, and I got elected on that platform.” Berman, whom I’ve known since his days on the Arlington City Council, told me the difference between House members and Senators is simple: Senators have bigger districts with more diversity than House members who “know our district better. The Senate is always more liberal than the House. They’re going to be more swayed by teachers, people on Medicaid, people who are disabled who need home care. They’re always going to want to spend more money,” Berman said. Politicians tend to fight the last election, and that might be foolish when faced with potential voter blowback. But the indications at present are the next election may be a repeat of the last one. President Obama is running for re-election, and the unsettled GOP field creates a high likelihood that the presidential fight could last to the Texas primary. That means the high profile rhetoric driving the GOP turnout will be anti-Washington spending — another political reason for the House members to dig in now. At the end of the day, will the Senate’s “magic beans” sprout money? And can the Senate stand firm against House negotiators – be it in regular or special session? “I think we can get a budget that we can get out of the Senate, but I don’t know where we go from there,” Eltife told me. “A lot of my House members are brand new members, they just got elected and they got elected in a mood of we’ve got to spend less, I understand that, but we’ve got to be realistic… The question is: Can we (the Senate) hold the line?” History tells us — in past budget negotiations with the House — the Senate always craters. By R.G. RATCLIFFE
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