May 5, 2011
Here was the question of the day on Wednesday at the Capitol: Are Texas Senate rules more important than passing a budget?
For generations, the Texas Senate has reverently followed what’s known as the two-thirds rule. That is: It takes 21 votes — two thirds of the 31 members — to bring a bill up for a floor vote. The tradition works to bring consensus by putting a brake on passing political passions. It made Texas senators work across party lines and, in a way, underscored the importance of the institution over the individual senator. It serves the state well.
A Senate majority abandoned that tradition Wednesday to approve a budget that Democrats were poised to block.
Legislators aren’t really obligated to do anything other than pass a budget. The state’s tattered finances and demands that legislators adopt a budget without either raising taxes or tapping into the state’s so-called rainy day fund put tradition square in the headlights of an oncoming truck. The GOP majorities in the House and Senate ignore the cost-cutting demands of conservative activists at their political peril.
Though state Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chairman of the Finance Committee, originally had proposed including $3 billion from the rainy day fund in the Senate version of the budget, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst balked at the notion.
The budget passed by the House does not include rainy day money. The Senate went along on Wednesday with no debate.
State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the Appropriations Committee chairman, has said there is no appetite in the House for tapping the fund. Gov. Rick Perry has declared he will not sign a budget that uses rainy day money.
So the rainy day fund was off-limits, and given the GOP’s will to abandon tradition and the two-thirds rule, there wasn’t much Democrats could do except watch that truck roll past. The Senate majority used rules that bypassed the two-thirds tradition to allow consideration of House bills on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The budget that could have languished in Senate jail got out on a technicality.
The budget originated in the House this session. The chambers take turns initiating the budget, so the two-thirds rule — if it still exists then — will be a bigger factor in the 2013 session.
Legislators of all stripes could make a better case for the Draconian cuts contemplated in both the House and Senate versions had they at least acknowledged the structural nature of this shortfall between income and expenditure.
They know that the state’s tax on business income isn’t performing as expected, but most chose to ignore the obvious in favor of cheap political posturing. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, repeatedly noted the emperor’s lack of attire, but remedies they offered were sidelined.
At the beginning of the session, Ogden talked about fixing the structural budget problems, but that strategy evidently didn’t have any takers.
Ignoring the underlying problem and piecing together a budget with rules parsing, accounting sleight-of-hand and hopes for a better tomorrow might get members past this session, but absent a hard look at how the state collects money, they will be scrambling to fill budget holes.
It puts experienced, smart legislators like Pitts and Ogden in choke holds and strains the capacity of state government to meet the demands of a growing population for everything from education to care for its aging.
State leaders love to tout the state’s pro-business climate when attracting industry while whittling away at public school and higher education budgets. The meat ax approach provides short-term political gain that doesn’t satisfy the needs of a growing Texas population.
Before Wednesday’s action, a clearly frustrated Ogden commented: “We were not sent down here to preserve the two-thirds rule. We were sent down here to govern. People of the state of Texas don’t give a diddly about the two-thirds rule.”
He’s right. It’s a fairly safe bet that most Texans have never even heard of the two-thirds rule. But they do care about leadership. They will most likely care even more when they start to feel the full impact of budget cuts speeding toward them.