More than halfway through its 140-day regular biennial session, the Texas Legislature is down to crunch time to settle budget disputes between the House and Senate.
Republicans dominate both bodies -- 95 to 55 Democrats in the House, and 20 to 11 in the Senate. But there are distinct differences in their attitudes – and their leaders.
House Speaker Joe Straus is a soft-spoken business-oriented moderate-conservative from San Antonio. House members In January unanimously elected him to his fifth two-year term.
He was first elected in 2009 as an alternative to then-Speaker Tom Craddick, an autocratic leader who ran the House for three terms with an iron ideological hand.
Straus was chosen from a coalition of 11 ABC Republicans – "Anybody But Craddick" – to join with the House's Democrats to return the House to a friendlier, more member-oriented body.
Straus continued to expand his Republican base, and has been handily re-elected by a bipartisan coalition since.
The Senate's president, under the Texas Constitution, is the lieutenant governor. He's elected not by the senators – unless there's a vacancy – but by statewide voters, for a four-year term.
Presiding is the only power the constitution gives him, except to vote when the Senate sits as the Committee of the Whole, or to break tie votes. His other powers come from Senate rules, passed at each Regular session.
Those include the power to appoint committees and their chairs; refer bills to committees; recognize senators to speak on the floor; set the Senate's agenda; and choose the four senators to sit with him on the Legislative Budget Board, which drafts a preliminary budget before the upcoming session.
The current lieutenant governor is Dan Patrick, a former sportscaster and conservative talk-radio show host from Houston, who parlayed that exposure into winning a seat in the Texas Senate in 2006.
In 2014, he unseated 12-year incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the GOP primary, and easily won in November. Patrick has already announced he'll seek another four-year term in 2018.
Tea Party-supported evangelical and ideological conservative, Patrick describes himself as "a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third.”
At least some Democrats think that sounds somewhat holier-than-thou, for someone they consider stingy with funds to help those most in need.
Patrick and Straus's differences include revenue -- not just where you spend it, but where you get it from -- and whether you get it in the first place.
Patrick has endorsed the Senate's suggested appropriations bill. It slides a $2.5 billion annual sales tax transfer to highways forward by a month from the 2019 fiscal year to 2020, to buy some spending capability without dipping into the state's Rainy Day savings account.
Straus calls that "cooking the books," comparing it to the accounting that brought down Enron. He thinks it's more fiscally responsible to get that money from the $10 billion Rainy Day Fund, projected to grow to $12 billion by September of 2019.
The Senate seems less financially friendly to public and higher education than Straus and the House.
The Senate's spending plan continues having the state duck part of its funding duties for public schools, leaving it to local property taxpayers to pick up the tab, with "property-rich" districts sending payments to "property-poor" ones under the state's antiquated "Robin Hood" spending plan.
That's one reason why Straus wants to dip into the Rainy Day Fund.
Patrick is pushing spending state money on private schools, which backers call "school choice." It lets most of a state per-student payment to school districts to follow the student to a private or parochial school.
Public school advocates call the expenditures "vouchers," that rob tax dollars from schools that have to take all comers, regardless of educational capabilities. Whatever the fund diversions are called, they haven't passed the House before, and Straus doesn't expect them to in 2017.
And the Senate proposes cutting the state's share of funding higher education by 10 percent for the University of Texas at Austin, and 6 percent for most other state universities. The suggested cuts to state schools total $332.7 million, or 7.9 percent less than the current budget.
Also, to respond to rising tuition costs at state colleges and universities, there are senate proposals for the state to return to regulating tuition rates, that the Legislature de-regulated during a 2003 budget crunch.
Some higher education advocates would rather see the Legislature spend more state money on higher education, not less. That would leave universities free to raise tuition as necessary, to meet rising costs – partly due to declining state contributions.
These are among the differences for the House and Senate to resolve to produce a budget by May 29 – or face a special session.