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.” Lyne admitted he himself did not understand the public school funding formulas that would come before the House the following day. “We have an education system that I flat out, I’ve looked at the funding deal, I’ve been through it at least a dozen times and I couldn’t tell anybody at home how we figure out how much money they get. And I guarantee you they can’t look and figure out how much money they get.” I’ll enlighten him. Under Senate Bill 1811 that Lyne voted for on Sunday, here’s how much state money would be lost in some of the school districts he represents in the second year of the budget: Archer City, $492 percent student; Electra, $439; Jacksboro, $607; and Wichita Falls, $148. The statewide average cut to school districts will be $313 per student in the second year of the budget, which is when the big cuts kick in. (To see your school district, click here.) When the Legislature faced a similar shortfall in 1987, the governor was tight-fisted, “Scrub the Budget” Bill Clements. He’d campaigned against taxes, but in the face of a severe economic downturn, he agreed to the largest tax increase in state history to protect public and higher education and state services to preserve the framework for Texas economic future. Perry, as a Democratic house member, voted for the tax increase back then. Clements died on Sunday. During the press conference after the bill signing on Sunday, in the Governor’s Reception Room, I asked Perry why Clements had been able to raise taxes back then to save state services, but now the emphasis was entirely on cutting. Noting that Democrats dominated the Legislature in 1987, Perry blamed party politics as the force that had dragged Clements into supporting an irresponsible tax hike. “When you get to the root of it, political parties matter. The Republican Party in the state of Texas is a political party that says we are about efficient government; we’re about government that works,” Perry said. “What you’re seeing today is a reflection of these members of the Legislature expressing what happened on the Second of November 2010. They’re voting their constituents will, which was: ‘We want you to go to Austin; balance the budget; don’t raise our taxes and stay out of the rainy day fund.’ That was a pretty simple message and it was a pretty powerful message.” But more than a few Republican House members have told me that they believe their voters misunderstood the difference between state government and federal government; or that hard-right, anti-spending groups had proven to have the vastly superior political messaging skills than anyone else. Ways and Means Chairman Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said he had favored tapping the Rainy Day Fund to mitigate public education cuts, but the spin machine had made that impossible. “There are certain groups that are leaders here in Austin who were not part of the Tea Party, but they co-opted it and became the resource that sent them information and emails. They are framing the perception of the people who are the grassroots. They decided early to unfairly … they equated using the Rainy Day Fund with raising taxes. That influenced the governor. It influenced some of the members. The rainy day fund is already collected revenue. That’s not new taxes.” Hilderbran said he hopes the economy improves so that legislators in 2013 can restore much of the funding that has been cut this year. House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler (R-The Woodlands), told the House Sunday that SB 1811 and its funding formulas were a fair cut: “Public education in Texas is not going to die because of this plan.” But Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston), told me that he believes the cuts to public education are permanent and erase much of the so-called structural deficit in the budget. “Say to school districts, we’re reducing the amount of dollars that you may have thought you were entitled to,” Patrick told me. “That is a true cut to government spending in the long term. This will save us $4 billion forever moving forward and begin to close the structural gap we have in education.” While overall public education funding has dominated the debate, there was $18 billion cut from the budget. All the cuts may not be clear for months – in part because the Legislature renamed a lot of line items so they cannot be compared. Here are a few I could spot: •The program that keeps about 27,000 pregnant teens and young mothers in school, appears to be gone. •Meat and drug safety inspections were cut by about $4 million a year. •Parks and Wildlife was cut by about $140 million. •Community mental health services was cut by about almost $52 million. (My former colleague, Alan Bernstein who is director of public information for the Harris County sheriff, told me that many of those who lose services will end up in county jails at a treatment cost of $10-$15 a day compared to $1 a day in the community.) In his 1859 inaugural speech as governor, Sam Houston urged the Texas Legislature to pass a budget that paid for transportation infrastructure and public education so education could be “disseminated throughout the whole community.” He also urged lawmakers to ignore calls for secession and distinguish “between the wild ravings of fanatics and that public sentiment which truly represents the masses of the people.” When they refused to follow his advice, Houston ended his political career in the name of doing the right thing for the good of the people. “I am ready to be ostracized,” Houston said. “Office has no charm for me, that it must be purchased at the sacrifice of my conscience and the loss of my self-respect.” Lanham Lyne told his House colleagues Saturday that they need to educate the voters about the real impact of the state budget: “Pick up this book and look at it. Talk to your neighbors.” In the meantime, he was going to vote for the budget. “It is what the people of my district sent me here to do.” By R.G. RATCLIFFE
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