The sole constitutional duty of the Texas Legislature is to pass a two-year budget. Once the House and the Senate pass their versions of a spending plan, a small group of budget negotiators from each chamber then gathers to come up with a final version to send to the governor. That task of resolving differences is one of the hardest and most important faced by lawmakers. And if the state budget is a moral document—one that tells the world what Texans, or at least the officials who represent us, believe is of value—then it’s also a task invested with great responsibility, particularly this session as lawmakers debate additional funding for public schools, teacher pay raises, and both tax relief and tax hikes.
On Wednesday, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick named five senators to the budget conference committee who will soon begin meeting with their House counterparts on the $250 billion state budget.
Patrick has never been known for his bipartisanship or inclusivity. But the five conferees are hardly representative of a diverse state, or even the not-very-diverse Senate. All are white, all are Republican and four of the five are from the greater Houston area, where Patrick lives.
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Forget that Patrick didn’t appoint a single Democrat to the critical committee—an omission that may have not occurred since Reconstruction. What is more surprising is that not a single Hispanic or African American is on the panel. This is curious given that the vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee—Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen—has served on five different conference committees in five different sessions and not only brings an ethnic diversity, but a geographic diversity as well. With the exception of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, not a single senator lives west of Interstate 35.
By contrast, House Speaker Bonnen appointed two Democrats—both Hispanic and hailing from different part of the state— to represent the House interests in conference.
Senator José Rodríguez, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, told the Dallas Morning News that he was “very disappointed” by Patrick’s appointments. “After all, we’re twelve senators representing millions of people and we don’t have any voice on the major committee at the end of session,” he said.
Representative Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, also lamented the lack of diversity. “Texas is a diverse state and our government, at all levels, including committees, should reflect that diversity,” he said in a written statement.
Patrick, on the other hand, said he had “every confidence” in his chosen representatives to reflect “strong conservative principles” and his legislative priorities.
What began as a legislative session with a veneer of unity among Patrick, Governor Greg Abbott and Bonnen, has grown highly partisan on the Senate side in the last two weeks. Last week, the Senate passed a resolution declaring an emergency on the border in support of the Trump administration—a symbolic measure that caught Democrats off-guard. Then the Senate passed SB 17, which allows Texans with professional licenses, such as lawyers and accountants, to refuse service to people based on religious beliefs. And this week, the Senate passed SB 2, aiming to address rising property taxes, following a threat by Patrick to blow up decades of Senate tradition and decorum by exercising a “nuclear option” to circumvent a three-fifths majority required to consider any legislation.
The House conferees are:
John Zerwas, R-Katy
Greg Bonnen, R-League City
Sarah Davis, R-Bellaire
Oscar Longoria, D-Penitas
Armando Walle, D-Houston
And the Senate conferees are:
Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound
Joan Huffman, R-Houston
Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham
Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood
Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville