By Peggy Fikac | My San Antonio.com
Sunday, May 15, 2011
AUSTIN — To be a Democrat on the budget negotiating team is to try to squeeze more people into lifeboats as a very large ship heads toward an iceberg.
With the choices limited to how many billions of dollars to cut from current spending in a growing state, even Republican negotiators are struggling to agree on a final plan. Some say a special session looks likely.
But Republicans can point to GOP leaders' insistence that Texas' economic health depends on keeping billions unspent in the rainy day fund and eschewing new taxes.
The two Democrats on the 10-member conference committee — who'd like to see more state resources spent in key areas — have no choice but to work within GOP parameters as they look at reconciling plans that got no Democratic support in either chamber.
“We're just trying to minimize the damage,” said Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who helped move the Senate plan out of the Finance Committee but voted against it in the full Senate after a provision allowing more rainy-day spending to help soften cuts was stripped out. “The reality is that the House has a super Republican majority that's not willing to spend the money that's available to at least keep the status quo.”
Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was “present-not-voting” when the House initially approved its more austere plan. He hopes to make a difference in areas like preserving funding for a program to help low-income people with electricity bills.
“The end product is not going to be acceptable, but I can still be helpful” in working to protect areas like the health and human services safety net, Turner said. “But I don't want people to be confused at all that this end product is going to stop teachers from being laid off by the thousands, because they will. School districts are still going to close and consolidate schools across the state. That is going to happen. And I do believe the quality of education in the state of Texas will be adversely affected.”
Some suggest Democrats should take a hands-off approach to the budget, making the clear point that Republicans own it and its consequences. Turner and Hinojosa said there's no doubt Republicans own this budget.
“I don't want to deal with symbolism and ideology. I'm more focused on making sure that my constituents are not hurt, and I'll do my best to minimize the damage to our education, health care and public safety,” Hinojosa said.
Besides being the only Democrats on the budget conference committee, Hinojosa and Turner are the only minorities — Hinojosa is Hispanic, and Turner is African-American. Because the budget affects education programs key to the success of a growing population, including pre-kindergarten and Texas Grants, it's worth mentioning some figures highlighted by my colleague, Gary Scharrer, who notes the new Texas is reflected in our children's faces.
The number of white children attending Texas public schools peaked in the 1997-98 school year, back when George W. Bush was governor. Since then, the number of Hispanic children enrolled in public schools has increased by more than 1 million, to nearly 2.5 million. During the same time, the number of white children declined by 212,152, according to the Texas Education Agency, to 1.5 million.
The trend is expected to continue, leading demographer Steve Murdock to tell lawmakers earlier this year, “It's basically over for Anglos.”
Except, of course, for things like the budget conference committee.
Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, said a measure he filed to give fired Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach permission to sue the school for monetary damages appears to be dead.
But a request for an attorney general's legal opinion that stemmed from Leach's case is still very much alive. It centers on whether lawmakers should have authority over university funds derived from private sources, such as athletic supporter contributions and athletic event gate receipts.
The request was prompted when Tech invoked sovereign immunity — which protects the state from lawsuits unless legislative permission is given — in legal action brought by Leach over his employment contract.
The opinion request from House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, and Local and Consent Calendars Chair Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, said a majority of the funds in the employment contract are derived from “purely private sources.”
Since the university asserted the state protection against lawsuits, they asked whether that private revenue be subject to state appropriation authority.
Eiland, who asked the committee chairs to request the opinion, said athletic programs are “huge revenue boosters” for universities. He said he doesn't want to take away their ability to build successful programs, but he wants clarification “to protect the integrity of our state institutions and the contracts they sign with employees, vendors, and even huge television networks like ESPN.”
“I don't want to get into appropriating the football budget or the basketball budget or coaches' salaries, but I think it's an issue we need to look at,” he said.
Tech attorney Dicky Grigg said, “Immunity arises due to the fact that the institution being sued is a state agency. Mike Leach sued Texas Tech University, which is a state agency. Immunity has nothing to do with the origin of money that might be used to pay a judgment or a settlement.” Grigg called it a “desperate attempt” to circumvent an appeals court ruling that Tech is immune from the breach-of-contract suit.
The opinion is due to be issued in late October, according to Attorney General Greg Abbott's office.