AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republicans control both chambers of the Texas Legislature, but that hasn’t kept them from reaching an impasse over the state budget.
Lawmakers have plenty of cash to spend after years of slashing spending, but Republicans appear afraid to write the checks, lest their conservative values come into question. Democrats have been fighting to make sure their priorities, such as public schools, don’t suffer as Gov. Rick Perry pushes for $1.8 billion in tax cuts.
Republicans in the Texas Senate have chosen to shield themselves from criticism by passing a resolution allowing voters to decide on setting up special funds for water projects, road building and public schools. Senate Joint Resolution 1 would give voters the chance to take $6 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for those purposes.
State Sen. Tommy Williams, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the upper chamber wants to keep those funds out of the reach of lawmakers, and that requires a constitutional amendment. But the more pressing issue is a referendum allows Republicans to avoid a vote on busting the constitutional spending cap.
Speaker Joe Straus calls that California-style governing. He insists that if lawmakers think it’s important to fund the state water plan and build highways, then they should vote to take the money from the Rainy Day Fund themselves.
That leaves Republicans at an impasse and Democrats with just enough power to swing the vote one way or another. Perry has threatened to veto a budget that doesn’t include a tax cut, so he has a say, too.
The next two weeks will see who blinks first. If neither side compromises by May 27, then Perry will have no choice but to call lawmakers back for a special session before the budget expires on Aug. 31.
The budget and taxes also happen to be the most important issue for conservative activists, who keep scorecards on lawmakers. Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, thought he had support last week for raising vehicle registration fees to fund new roads, but soon discovered conservative groups were working against him and threatening retaliation at the ballot box.
Michael Sullivan, the director of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, used Twitter to mock Darby, saying the bill “smelled” and was an attempt to “pick the people’s pockets.”
But some Republicans stood up to support Darby, including Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen.
“At some point, this body must govern and decide, do we want to have a quality life in Texas and think about water, about roads, about transportation, about the core function of government or do we really want to never vote for any fee or tax, is that correct?” Aycock asked.
Darby answered, “We’re either going to stop searching for people to move to this state, or we’re going to lose those people because we don’t have the infrastructure to sustain them while they’re here.”
Darby summed up Straus’ argument that lawmakers must make the decisions, not put it to voters. A team of lawmakers from both chambers is trying to negotiate a compromise that most lawmakers can get behind, one that taps the Rainy Day Fund for right-leaning purposes to make busting the spending cap more palatable.
But the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation is doing its best to influence those talks, issuing a statement along with 12 other groups on Friday saying lawmakers should “neither exceed the state’s spending limit_by any amount— nor (spend money) from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund to pay for ongoing government expenses or new programs.” In order to do that, lawmakers would either have to forsake the state water plan and new road funding or cut spending for public schools.
On Thursday, Darby eventually pulled down his proposal to increase the vehicle registration fee, but he said his bill was a symbol of the larger problem ahead. And he said he feared a deal would not be reached without a special session.
“Out of recognition of forces that are working outside of this chamber, and where it puts each individual member here in this House, I move to postpone further consideration of this bill until a time certain, when I feel like we’re all going to be back here, May 28th, 2013,” he said.
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