By Peggy Fikac | May 26, 2013 | Updated: May 27, 2013 12:01pm
AUSTIN – Lawmakers moved to restore cuts made two years ago in public education and health care Sunday by sending a $197 billion, two-year state budget to Gov. Rick Perry, defending it against both those who call it too costly and those who say it shorts state needs.
“We’ve got to educate our children,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, applauding the restoration of some school funding. It was approved 118-29.
Senate Bill 1 is the centerpiece of a spending package hammered out in tough negotiations over how to appropriately fund key state programs, deliver tax relief demanded by Perry, reduce budget gimmickry and create a $2 billion infrastructure fund to address long-neglected state water needs.
Perry could veto bills in the package, and he has the power to kill particular spending items through a line-item veto. Many elements of the package were on his desk or on their way by late Sunday – although Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, briefly threatened to kill a tax break for businesses with a filibuster, in which he would talk until the deadline passed to consider it. Ellis has pushed for the Legislature to review existing breaks to gauge their value to Texas.
It is widely believed that Perry plans to call a special session on redistricting and perhaps other topics. He could put the tax-relief measure on the agenda if it dies in this regular session. Noting this – and saying the tax break could grow in a special session – Ellis relented and while still opposing the bill, didn’t kill it. The Senate approved it 27-4, and it awaited House action late Sunday night.
The bill targeted by Ellis, HB 500, would provide about $711 million in franchise tax breaks. Other bills, plus a proposal to discontinue an electricity-bill fee in areas of Texas with competitive markets, brings that total counted as tax relief by lawmakers to about $1.4 billion. Perry has said he wants $1.8 billion in tax relief for Texans, and he hasn’t said whether he would could the electricity-fee measure as part of it.
Budget wrangling was intense in a legislative session more often marked by camaraderie, the focus sharpened because spending was slashed in 2011 in the face of what turned out to be an inaccurate forecast of a massive revenue shortfall.
Lawmakers this year found themselves with billions more dollars than expected in general revenue, plus a rainy day fund balance that would reach $11.8 billion in two years if left unused.
Besides using general revenue, they moved to tap the rainy day fund for about $4 billion to undo a school payment delay used as an accounting maneuver, pay for wildfire costs, allow help for West after its fertilizer-plant explosion and put $2 billion into water.
The water funding would depend on voters approving a proposed constitutional amendment to put the money into a dedicated fund
The main budget measure, Senate Bill 1 – when combined with another, supplemental spending bill, House Bill 1025 – would put about $4 billion more into public schools, to help make up for $5.4 billion of cuts in 2011. Some had pushed for full restoration of the cuts.
“Once again, the state budget leaves the children of Texas behind,” said Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown.
Spending on mental health services would increase by $259 million, an expenditure backers called critical to help people whose mental-health issues may drive them to violence or land them in crowded jails.
Women’s health care would get a $132 million increase after family planning was cut by more than $73 million, or two-thirds, two years ago, causing an estimated 140,000 women to lose services through the program. The new money would be funneled though a primary care services program and family planning grants.
One of Perry’s pet economic development programs – initially shorted in the budget as lawmakers explored questions about their operations and effectiveness – got some additional funding in the negotiated measure.
The Emerging Technology Fund got $50 million in addition to its $7.2 million in unspent balance. The Enterprise Fund got only its unspent balance of $119.6 million.
One of the lawmakers who voted against the measure, Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said he was concerned about its level of spending as well as what wasn’t addressed.
“In all that money, we are still not providing anywhere near adequate … funding for transportation,” King said.
Pitts said the lack of an ability to find a source of transportation funding was his greatest disappointment in the bill. He said senators had come with a transportation funding proposal that could have been a good plan, but “it was just too late.”
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, took the relatively rare step of voting for the budget measures, SB1 and HB1025, and announcing he was doing so. A day earlier, he said it had been “very thoughtfully developed.”
“In any session that I’ve been associated with, not everyone is 100 percent happy, but you have to get the votes to pass a budget, and that means input by all the members and both bodies,” Straus said.