Some of the oddest personality and political dynamics that have filled the Capitol’s melting pot in years are creating simmering frustrations and anxieties that started moving toward an angry boil as the House debated a $209.8 state budget proposal today.
Budget debates always are contentious because they involve bringing home the bacon, stealing someone else’s bacon or a flat-out refusal to slaughter the hog. Budget fights also are heated because the majority of the amendments – and there are more than 350 this year – have less to do with good governance than they do with creating record votes that the opposition can use in the next election.
This debate, however, also is setting the tone for a coming blow-up, not only in the House but also in the Senate, where a near meltdown was narrowly averted last week. There are three main factions this year: frustrated tea party Republicans, conservative Republicans and frustrated Democrats.
Many House members are growing concerned by the slow pace of the session. So far, 206 bills have come out of House committees, while at this time last session there had been 284 reported out. With just two months left in the session, the House calendar is working against anything still sitting in committee, such as the “constitutional” carrying of handguns.
House Speaker Joe Straus is the only leader firmly in charge of the rabble, but even that is tenuous. House Democrats, who are instrumental in keeping Straus in the speaker’s chair, are unhappy that the budget is leaving as much as $8.4 billion on the table unspent under pay-as-you-go limits that could be used for increased funding for public education or transportation. And these Democrats are being asked to vote on this budget while awaiting school finance plans and a $4.8 billion tax cut to be named later without knowing what either will mean to their school districts or constituents. To spend the extra money, a simple vote to bust the spending cap is all that is needed, something Straus and the conservative Republicans refuse to do. (This unspent money also does not include an expected balance of $11 billion in the so-called Rainy Day Fund.)
For the tea party Republicans, the growth of the budget is too big, the tax cuts may be too small and expenditures on border security are not enough. Empower Texans whip Michael Quinn Sullivan in the past has been able to make House Republicans cower by getting his legislative allies to carry amendments that can be used against traditional Republicans in primary elections.
Sullivan’s effect on this debate may be lessened because his group and allied tea parties already have harvested the low-hanging fruit of suburban districts. Of Straus’ Republican committee chairs and vice chairs, 23 won re-election last year without a primary opponent. Of the seven who did have a primary opponent, they won with a low of 54 percent to a high of 79 percent of the primary vote. Budget chairman John Otto of Dayton fended off his tea party opponent last year with 62 percent of the GOP primary vote in his district. This is a pretty hard crowd to whip away from playing with Team Straus.
One big play today may be an amendment to deny state funding for any private school between elementary and high school, a direct stab at killing a school voucher program.
The voucher issue is one that divides both parties. Some Democrats support vouchers because they represent highly Catholic districts with constituents who want vouchers to pay for parochial school. But many rural Republicans oppose vouchers because the public schools are the heart of their community, and a large portion of those untouchable conservative Republicans come from rural oriented districts.
The strange dynamics of this session flared in the Senate last week as freshman Senator Don Huffines tried to eliminate the state franchise tax with an amendment to a bill that was meant to lower the tax’s rates as a break to business. The Senate had to take an hour-long break as Republicans figured out a way to kill Huffines’ amendment. As Christopher Hooks with the Texas Observer wrote:
Senate Republicans often talk about killing the franchise tax, and Huffines called their bluff.
Huffines’ amendment put Senate Republicans in the dangerous position of having to vote for the franchise tax—in other words, to keep it alive—or take a politically popular vote that would ruin the state’s finances in a couple of years. In effect, it poked senior Senate Republicans and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the eye. His colleagues pleaded with him to drop it, but he steadfastly refused.
In the end, Republican Senator Troy Fraser, whose Horseshoe Bay district is not subject to a lot of tea party influence, carried an amendment to gut Huffines’ amendment. Huffines’ motion to table Fraser’s measure gained only thee other tea party Republican votes: Konni Burton, Bob Hall and Van Taylor. The vote showed a division not only in the Republican caucus, but the Democratic as well as four Democrats voted in favor of the tax cuts.
The Senate Democrats also are suffering the same stick in the eye that occurred when the Republicans took over the Texas House in 2003. The Senate Republicans essentially are snubbing the Democrats with the attitude: We have the votes, we don’t need you. By cutting the Democrats out completely, the Republicans are creating an angry opposition instead of a loyal opposition. On routine bills this will not matter, but the Democrats do have enough members to shut down the Senate late in the session by breaking a quorum. Or, for absolutely opposite reasons, they could join with tea party Republicans to kill legislation.
When legislative blow-ups occur they often are unexpected and on bills that could not have been predicted as the trigger point. What can be foreseen is that the anger will continue to bubble toward boiling. A meltdown in either chamber is a real possibility and could occur well before the end of April, perhaps as early as when the Senate takes up its version of the budget.
(Photo: House budget chairman John Otto/ Austin American Statesman)