He was the point man for the good guys on the most important issue of the session. He spent his days and nights fighting the bad guys, and it almost did him in. With the Legislature facing a $9.9 billion shortfall, it fell to Teel Bivins, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to fend off the ax-wielding House and the cleaver-waving governor’s office and produce a budget that met the state’s needs without raising taxes.
Budget hearings can be monotonous affairs, with bureaucrats droning on in endless acronyms. Bivins changed the course of the debate by scheduling hearings to portray what a pared-down budget would look like and who would be hurt the most. One afternoon, as the committee listened to more testimony about proposed health care cuts, the doors to the hearing room swung open again and again to the soft hum of electric wheelchairs. Soon the aisles were jammed with paraplegics who had come to beg lawmakers not to cut state funding for home health aides. The faces of committee members registered deep empathy. Reality had sunk in.
From that point on, the Senate focused on needs, not numbers. With the help of Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, Bivins produced a bipartisan list of 23 senators who favored more spending without raising taxes (for instance, using money from the Rainy Day Fund and postponing some state payments). House members, seeing that they were about to be forced to vote for draconian cuts while the Senate was getting credit for making them unnecessary, demanded that their budget writers loosen the purse strings. The course was set toward a budget that would show as much mercy as possible.
The final budget negotiations with the House were excruciating. The level of spending was lower than Bivins wanted, but at least he had a deal. He asked himself, “Was it enough?” Late one night, when all but a few details had been worked out, he sat in his office and wondered if he could have done more for higher education, kids needing health insurance, the disabled, and the elderly. “I didn’t want to let egos get in the way,” he sighed. In a capitol brimming with lawmakers greedy for attention, he never let himself forget that writing a humane budget was a task too important for gamesmanship.