February 17, 2007
House committee follows Senate's example

On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee followed the Senate's example and voted to exceed the spending cap by passing SCR 20, the Ogden resolution. While three of the Lege blogs covered the happenings, for reasons I can't adequately explain there was only one actual newspaper story on it. Maybe there will be more when the full House votes next week, but color me disappointed so far.

The best summary of the gamesmanship that occurred in the House chamber comes from the Quorum Report.

[Appropriations Committee Chair and flat earth enthusiast Warren] Chisum convened his committee in a formal meeting rather than in a public meeting, which precluded public testimony. He said that he called a formal meeting because the Ogden resolution was procedural in nature and related to interpretation of House rules. Internal House matters have always been debated without public input and Chisum said he saw no reason to begin treating the subject differently now.

It's a pretty nifty trick calling this a procedural matter and not something that will have a huge effect on the entire budget. You have to admire their ability to do it with a straight face.

Chisum originally called the meeting for the smallish Agricultural Museum room in the west wing of the Capitol, announcing his intent on the House floor this morning. Democratic Reps. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco) and Craig Eiland (D-Galveston) and Republican Rep. Robert Talton (R-Pasadena) challenged Chisum, leading the meeting to be moved to the larger Appropriations Committee room in the Extension.

Unlike the Agricultural Museum meeting room, the Appropriations Committee room is wired for Internet Web casts. Chisum had the discretion to broadcast the meeting, but to do so would have contravened House policy. Often times, formal meetings are held in rooms that are not wired for broadcasting and it has consistently been the practice and policy not to broadcast formal meetings, explained Chris Cutrone, a spokesman for Speaker Tom Craddick.

Afterward, Democrats complained that the measure had not received enough public scrutiny. Dunnam, the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, questioned how Republicans could back asking the general public to vote on a constitutional amendment to break the cap one week and then move a resolution through both chambers with no public testimony.

"That may be the fastest flip-flop in history," he said.

It's all of a piece. The goal is to not leave members open to the charge that they're free spenders. For once, Tom Craddick is worried about people's re-election prospects.

Committee members seemed confused at first by the speed of developments today. Chisum first laid out HB 2, which appropriates the $14 billion to make whole the property tax revenue lost by schools, and quickly moved to a vote. After several bewildered committee members said they were unsure on what they were voting, Chisum stopped proceedings so that lawmakers could get on the same page.

Rep. Rick Noriega (D-Houston) told Chisum that things were moving a little quickly for an infantryman. The chairman told Noriega that they were charging the hill and would he like to join. "I just don't know what hill we're charging," Noriega replied.

Eiland, who is not a member of House Appropriations but is allowed to take part in committee deliberations, later asked Chisum if SCR 20 was required for HB 2 to be enacted. Chisum responded that HB 2 by itself would not break the spending cap so an authorizing resolution was not needed until the companion legislation, HB 1, was passed. That said, Chisum said he preferred to press ahead on the resolution anyway.

"We could do it either way," he said. "We choose to do it this way."

To Noriega, one of the two Democratic no votes (Chuck Hopson (D-Jacksonville) was the other), the Republicans were in a hurry to put property tax cuts at the front of the line when discussing budget priorities this session.

The state has many pressing needs, he argued, such as maximizing CHIP enrollment or boosting medical reimbursement rates. And those needs are only growing, he said. For instance, lawmakers had just heard a request from DPS for more law enforcement personnel, he said.

"We should discuss other needs of the state before voting to bust the cap," he said. With the cap resolution being passed before the budget is debated, "I think all of these other important needs of the state will be fighting for the scraps."

The key point to remember here is that the new business tax falls well short of paying for the full property tax reduction - it is estimated to generate about $8 billion, while the property tax cut costs $14 billion, which is nearly double what the spending cap allows. What that means is that another $6 billion is going to have to come out of general revenue, which means that it will compete with - indeed, it will be given priority over - everything else. Bear in mind also that a lot of the much-ballyhooed budget surplus is not the result of increased tax revenue but funds that were not spent, a situation that thanks to the property tax cut black hole will not happen again this biennium. The bottom line here is that by this vote, Chisum and company are putting the budget in a straitjacket, one which they'll still be wearing in future sessions. Burka has more here and here.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 17, 2007 to Budget ballyhoo