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Dan Patrick’s budget destruction

It’s not what you think it is, but it’s still bad.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Texas state government, an arcane team of 100 or so budget nerds has led a private, if stressful, life — running financial models, ensuring state government and its private contractors aren’t spending beyond their means, and keeping lawmakers informed about each line item in the state’s 1,000-page, $250 billion two-year budget.

But these days, interviews with current and former budget agency staff indicate the emptying halls of their downtown Austin office feel more like the setting of an Agatha Christie novel.

The Texas Legislative Budget Board, created in 1949 to support full-time experts who track fiscal issues for the state’s part-time Legislature, provides the analysis on which the state bases its budget calculations — for example, how much money it costs to pay public school teachers or to fund hospital beds for people in mental health crisis.

It’s up to state lawmakers to set spending priorities, but legislators say their ability to make funding decisions is only as good as the information they receive from the experts.

“The LBB provided invaluable, unbiased information, which is critical to the development of the state budget,” former state Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.

The quality of that information may be in jeopardy; the agency is moldering as a quiet war erupts between its two masters.

State law names the lieutenant governor and House speaker as co-chairs of the 10-member board, which is supposed to jointly appoint an executive director to lead the agency. Last year, for the first time in nearly 70 years, that failed to happen; by Halloween, the agency will have been headless for a year.

Veteran employees have departed in droves with no one to replace them, leaving behind a trail of vacant offices and a dearth of institutional knowledge. Staff size has fallen 26% since 2015 — from 146 to 108 employees — and four of the agency’s five executive leadership positions will soon be unfilled. The agency’s lone remaining executive told a tearful staff last week that he, too, intends to resign.

Now, with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announcing he will not run for reelection next year amid a scandal that has shaken the entire lower chamber, the board finds itself in its most precarious position yet.

Interviews with more than a dozen budget agency staff, Capitol staff and state lawmakers — who requested anonymity to discuss private board deliberations — indicate that the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has wielded a kind of veto power over the board to keep the agency undermanned and under fire.

They contend that his motive is to remake the agency to give the Senate more direct control over the number-crunchers; the current group of nonpartisan bureaucrats has produced analyses that at times conflicted with the lieutenant governor’s political messaging.

Basically, this is an attack on expertise and data. Dan Patrick doesn’t want accurate and objective facts about revenue and fiscal notes and what have you. They don’t serve his purposes. He wants minions who will tell him what he wants to hear so he can use it as a cudgel. If he can starve the LBB to death, maybe the end result (as the story suggests) would be two separate budget agencies, one for the House and one for the Senate, which would be under the control of the Lite Governor. Patrick is on the leading edge here – Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson had similarly nice things to say about the LBB as outgoing House Appropriations Chair John Zerwas did – but where Dan Patrick goes, other Republicans tend to follow. The longer he gets to press this attack, the greater the odds he’ll eventually get what he wants. Do I need to add that this is yet another reason why we need a Democratic House and a Democratic Speaker in 2021?

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