In the end, the drama in the House resulted from a complete lack of drama. Lawmakers had been gearing up for its initial fight of the session over HB 10, a $4.8 billion supplemental appropriation that would, among other things, cover a looming Medicaid shortfall in the current budget cycle. As one lawmaker commented as he moved briskly down the aisle after the House had been called to order, “Is today the first day of real work?”
Though members of both parties knew the bill would pass—if it didn’t, starting next month the state would not have been able to reimburse doctors and nursing homes—the question was how heated the debate would be. Would a breakaway group of Democrats dig in and try to insist that the bill should also address funding for public education, which several amendments had done? Would members of the tea party, including a sizable group of freshmen from the 2012 election cycle, refuse to cast their first crucial vote on a politically charged program that many believe is out of control?
Two weeks earlier, there had been testy exchanges between Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie), the author of HB 10 and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) about the scope of the bill. Democrats, furious at last session’s deep cuts to public education and emboldened by Judge John Dietz’s ruling on the school finance case, wanted to move immediately to restore funding to the schools. Pitts argued that Medicaid had to come first because of the deadline but that public education would be a priority for the rest of the session. (Pitts: “There is no one more passionate about education than me. In Appropriations, we have people who are dedicated to funding the education our children. In fact, we’re so passionate we don’t want our children to be used for political purposes.” Martinez Fischer, after complaining that no members “south of Austin” were on the public education subcommittee: “You are the leader of the committee, and you set the tone. I want to know from you what your commitment is. Is public education an emergency item, and does it need critical attention?”)
As the House conducted its routine business this morning—celebrating Aransas County Day and explaining why members had received a sprig from the La Bahia pecan tree compliments of Texas A&M University System chancellor John Sharp—power huddling became a familiar sight. On the north side of the chamber, just outside the brass rail, a group that included Pitts, Martinez Fischer, Jim Keffer (R-Granbury), and John Zerwas (R-Simonton) talked intently but cordially for more than ten minutes. When the group broke up, it appeared that progress had been made. As Martinez Fischer passed by the press table, he remarked, “It’s like War and Peace. They signal peace, but you have to be prepared for war.”
At just before noon, Pitts took to the mic to take up the measure, starting with a reminder that HB 10 was not a school finance bill, but that a bipartisan group was working on ways to address that subject later in the session. He then asked for the chamber to vote to suspend House Rule 8, Section 8, which prohibits lawmakers from voting on a bill within the first sixty days of the session. The voting board lit up green green.
With little fanfare, the potentially troublesome amendments dissolved. Martinez Fischer voluntarily removed his amendment related to public school financing because of “the very sincere comments by Chairman Pitts.” Other amendments were swept away because they violated the calendar’s rules or were also withdrawn by the author.
Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) and Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) spoke in favor of the measure, and when the vote was called, the board lit up green once again. And then, sensing a surge of momentum, members clamored to suspend the Constitution to allow for an immediate third and final reading of the bill. Again, the board went green, and cheers and applause filled the chamber. The bill passed unanimously, 148-0. Pitts thanked all of the people who had worked on it, and noted that in his entire career he could never recall such an important bill being voted on so early in a session. As he walked off the floor, he was greeted with hugs and handshakes and full-throated calls of congratulations. All told, the proceeding took approximately thirty minutes, with the Senate now ready to have its turn.
So what did the vote prove? First and foremost, this is not the House that ran wild last session with a Republican super-majority. Speaker Joe Straus clearly has control of the chamber, and Pitts proved that he could skillfully avoid an early session meltdown. But to be fair, this was a mess the Lege had created last session because it had intentionally underfunded Medicaid in short-term move to balance the budget. The leadership shouldn’t get too much credit for playing with matches and then putting out its own fire.
Still, yesterday’s proceedings were a sharp break from 2011, and lawmakers on both sides have noted a clear difference in tone. A Democrat commented that “things are as good as could be hoped for,” and a Republican noted “there is a calmness on the floor that has been absent for a long time.” It may be that after the massive budget shortfall from 2011 that led to bitter partisan warfare and deep cuts to critical programs, the members are in a position to work more constructively to solve the state’s biggest problems. That’s what happened in the late eighties. The 1987 session faced its own budget crisis because of the oil bust that befuddled the leadership of Governor Bill Clements, Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, and Speaker of the House Gib Lewis. They couldn’t solve the gloomy forecast without a special session (sound familiar?). In 1989, lawmakers faced a rosier budget outlook as the economy improved, so budget cuts and tax increases didn’t dominate the Lege. As the tone changed, lawmakers moved forward on school finance and nursing homes, issues that remain familiar today. Will a similar feeling arise in 2013? The governor has not filed any hot-button emergency items, and in the Senate, bipartisan working groups from the finance committee appear to be making progress on key programs. Just like in 1989, money changes everything, because all lawmakers understand one of the most important rules in politics: policy doesn’t drive the budget, the budget drives policy.
So to answer the lawmaker’s question from earlier: Yes, Thursday was the first day of real work. Here’s hoping that the passage of HB 10 sets the course for the remaining 84 days of the session.