Dewhurst flips, then flops, on using rainy day funds

First he says he’s against it.

[Lt. Gov. David] Dewhurst sounded supportive of the overall level of spending in the Senate plan, but voiced a preference for using what he calls nontax revenue items instead of the rainy day fund. Some of the supposed nontax revenue ideas that senators haven’t embraced include selling some state land and property, or trying to liquidate state tobacco settlements that are now in endowments.

“I disagreed with them,” said Dewhurst, who presides over the GOP-dominated Senate. “But again, this is a process; we want to keep it moving; we want to get it into conference (committee).”

You can see a transcript of the conversation Dewhurst had with reporters over this here. The man is good at ducking and weaving, I’ll give him that.

The rainy day fund money is a critical difference between the Senate plan and the House plan, which does not spend any rainy day dollars. The Senate version also spends more than the House’s because it would allow some accounting tricks, including a speedup of tax collections and a brief delay in payments to school districts; however, the House has appeared willing to support those measures as well.

So if Dewhurst does not support using rainy day dollars, members of the Senate — particularly Democrats — may have little incentive for bringing it up for a debate on the floor. Those dollars could disappear in a conference committee with the House, since House leaders, and Perry, have said they don’t want to spend rainy day money over the next two years.

The question of whether to bring the budget to the floor has set off considerable debate in Democratic circles. One school of thought says that if Democrats block the budget, perhaps pushing the debate into a special session, Republicans will have no incentive to work with Democrats and will pass the House’s cuts-heavy approach.

But without the rainy day fund, there may be little difference between the House and Senate approaches. And the rule requiring a two-thirds vote to bring the bill to the floor would not be in effect for a final House-Senate compromise, meaning Republicans could pass it without any Democratic support.

In a memo to Democratic colleagues obtained by the American-Statesman, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said Tuesday that he believes the use of the rainy day fund will vanish in a House-Senate conference committee.

“I truly believe it would be a mistake to take any position on the budget that assumes the final version will have significant new revenues — particularly from the Rainy Day Fund — to pay for Texans’ basic needs and priorities,” Watson said. “I’m unconvinced we can trust that those in control of this process truly intend to put significant new dollars into these priorities.”

Then he says he’s for it, more or less.

A day after telling reporters that he’d resisted and been surprised by the Senate Finance Committee’s decision to allow for the use of $3 billion more from the rainy-day fund to support its spending plan, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst issued a letter to senators saying he supports the measure and asking them to do the same.

Dewhurst leaves himself a bit of wiggle room in the letter, saying that if “Texas keeps growing the way it is now, we may not need much, if any, from the Rainy Day Fund”, and calling on Comptroller Susan Combs to certify an increase in future revenue for the Senate to use, with any remaining gap to be taken from the RDF. What Plan B is if Combs refuses to do that is unclear.

I think there’s a lot of merit to Sen. Watson’s concerns. Dewhurst’s comments changed the dynamic of the debate over the Senate budget, as Rep. Garnet Coleman and the CPPP are now urging a No vote on it. I don’t know if they still feel this way after his latest change of direction. Republican Sen. John Carona is pushing back as well. Not surprisingly, Finance Committee Chair Sen. Steve Ogden, who has been struggling to find 21 votes for the budget, called Dewhurst’s remarks not helpful. You can say that again.

Consideration of HB1 is on the Senate intent calendar, but a vote may or may not happen today as there aren’t enough Yeas to suspend the rules for it – via Texas Politics, Nate Blakeslee says at least four Republicans are No votes on it, which means it may not have even a majority, let alone two thirds support. Should be a fun day in the Senate today. The Trib has more.

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