Sunday, September 29, 2013

Clash of Cardinals

Writing a $95 billion two-year state budget takes more time than the 140 days available in the Texas legislature’s regular session.

Preparation of the next budget (FY 2016 - 2017) will actually begin early in 2014 when each state agency develops a strategic plan based on instructions issued by the Governor’s office and the Legislative Budget Board (LBB).  After developing its strategic plan, an agency will then submit a Legislative Appropriation Request (LAR) in the spring of 2014.  LBB will hold hearings with each agency next summer regarding its LAR, and in the fall LBB will prepare a general appropriations bill draft.

The LBB is jointly chaired by the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker, and the Chair of  the House Committee on Appropriations, House Committee on Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committee are automatic members of the LBB.  Two other House members are appointed by the Speaker, and three other Senate members are appointed by the Lieutenant Governor.  The current legislative members of the LBB are Reps. Pitts, Hilderbran, Branch and Turner; and Sens. Williams, Duncan, Hinojosa and Zaffirini.

All four LBB Senators drew a four-year term and are eligible to continue to serve on the LBB through next session.  However, three of the four House members will not be returning for the 84th Legislature:  Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts is retiring; Ways and Means Chair Harvey Hilderbran is running for Comptroller; and Rep. Dan Branch is running for Attorney General.

Speaker Straus will appoint new committee chairs in January 2015 after the 84th Legislature convenes.  However, because of the seminal role of the House Appropriations Chair in drafting the state budget, the Speaker really needs to anoint someone by January 2014 as the next Appropriations Chair.  Otherwise, power will begin to shift to the Senate in the budget writing process because Chairman Pitts inevitably will be viewed as a lame duck by his senate colleagues and LBB staff.

There are three contenders for House Appropriations Chair:  Rep. Drew Darby (R - San Angelo); Rep. John Otto (R - Dayton); and Rep. John Zerwas (R - Fulshear).  Each is currently a powerful member of House Appropriations and chairs  a standing subcommittee.  In Washington, D.C. parlance, they would be known as “Cardinals” because of the power they possess over the budget.

Initially, it was thought that matters would fall neatly into place and that Rep. Darby would become Chair of Appropriations; Rep. Otto would become Chair of Ways and Means; and Rep. Zerwas would run for the State Senate in a special election to replace Sen. Glenn Hegar if he is elected Comptroller in November 2014.  Now, however, Rep. Otto has made it clear that he prefers to chair Appropriations, and Rep. Zerwas has expressed his desire to chair Appropriations and not run for the Senate.

An intense behind the scenes campaign is underway among the three Cardinals to receive the nod from the Speaker as the next Appropriations Chair.  The winner will likely not be announced by an official appointment, but rather will simply begin attending budget meetings with the Speaker’s imprimatur.  All appropriation eyes are now on the second floor of the west wing as we wait for the white smoke.