They should have stamped “fragile” on the House budget package. That is how tricky it was to assemble. Chairman Pitts tried to explain to the tea party members that there was no money in SJR 1; it’s just a vessel for moving future payments into the Rainy Day Fund for water projects. That didn’t seem to mollify the tea party contingent, led by Van Taylor and Scott Sanford, that gathered at the back microphone. Some members worried that the rating services (Moodys and Standard & Poors) would be alarmed because there wasn’t enough money in SJR 1. In fact there is no money in the bill, nor was there intended to be any. The money comes later, in HB 1025, where it will be drawn down from the Rainy Day Fund. It will still be necessary for citizens to vote on whether to approive SJR 1. If they don’t approve it in November, the Legislature will be back at square one, and action on the water plan will have to wait until 2015.
The low point in the debate was achieved by Taylor — sound familiar? — when he smirked to Pitts, “Oh, so if I vote for this, the drought ends?” I think it is likely that Pitts is overseeing his last budget negotiation, the first of which occurred in 2005. Throughout he has conducted himself with patience and rectitude and a determination to write budgets that can sustain the state through the biennium. Never was his task harder than it was in 2011, when there was no money [except now we know that there was money; there just wasn’t a comptroller who could add]. As the moment to vote drew near, the weariness in Pitts’ voice was apparent. His job description was to suffer fools gladly and suffer them he did. The final vote of 130-16 was a vindication of his efforts.
One has to worry for the future; if the next freshman class is replete with tea party adherents, as this one was, the mainstream Republicans who have to carry the ball and get things done are going to have their work cut out for them. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the “cardinals,” as those in the Straus inner circle are known, decided to call it a career. Not that there aren’t cardinals-in-waiting, including Otto, who is the most likely successor to Pitts. The problem with the freshman class of 2013 is that they had no interest in the big issues that face the state. They were more interested in preserving the Rainy Day Fund than in assuring adequate water for the future. The truth of the Rainy Day Fund is this: There is so much money going into the Fund it will remain healthy through the next budget cycle (assuming that the price of oil remains relatively stable.)
* * * *
The battle is not over. Now the House must take up SB 1 and pass HB 1025, the supplemental bill that the Senate has amended, using $3.93B in money from the Rainy Day Fund. That money will be allocated as follows:
$2B for water projects
$1.75B to reverse the deferral of public school funding
$185M for wildfire suppression
$450M for oilfield road construction and repair
$175M for tuition revenue bonds for college construction
It’s not over, but given the breakthrough in both chambers yesterday, the finish line is near.