by AMAN BATHEJA
Senate Bill 1 spends $94.1 billion in general revenue — the part of the budget lawmakers have the most control over — a 7.7 percent increase over the 2011 budget. Spending would increase in most areas, including education and health care, but still drew criticism from those who argued that more spending is needed in light of the size of last session’s budget cuts and the amount of money now available.
“We did what we had to do last session, but we can be proud of what’s included in this budget,” said the chamber’s chief budget writer, state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.
Even those who supported the bill said it remains a work in progress. The budget leaves untouched nearly $12 billion available in the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Members in both the Senate and the House are eyeing the fund for proposed water infrastructure and transportation projects.
The House Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on its version of the budget Thursday, with that version likely to reach the House floor in early April. Both chambers will then appoint conference committees to formally meet and resolve differences between the two proposals.
Williams said after the vote that he expected there would be more agreement than differences between the House and Senate budgets.
Davis offered the sharpest criticism of the proposal, accusing Republican senators of using an ongoing school finance lawsuit as an excuse to avoid properly funding public schools this session. Senate Bill 1 adds about $1.5 billion in funding to public education. Lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from education last session. Various lawmakers have predicted that the lawsuit will prompt a special session on school finance in 2014.
“We are expected to fix the finance problem, and I believe that we can start to do that work today,” Davis said.
Williams disputed Davis’ assessment that last session’s education cuts amounted to a funding loss of more than $1,000 per student on average.
“I think what happened was not good for public education, but I think you’ve vastly overstated the extent of the problem,” he said.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said that the Houston Independent School District lost $594 per student last session. The Senate budget would put back $20 per student, he said. He said he was voting for the budget “reluctantly” and “out of a sense of tradition.”
“I’m going to vote for your budget with the hope, my friend, that it will get better,” Ellis told Williams.
Davis said budget writers should have tapped the Rainy Day Fund earlier this session instead of using general revenue to address large leftover bills in the current budget, including a $4.5 billion Medicaid IOU. Such payments would have freed up that much money in the current budget, she said.
“As a consequence, in my opinion, the budget product was artificially constrained from the start,” Davis said. She said the work budget writers did given those constraints was “commendable.”
“I appreciate your faint praise for our work on the budget,” Williams told her.
Davis offered the only amendment of the day, one that would have required any money the state raises over and above the comptroller’s official forecast to automatically go toward public schools. She spoke in favor of her amendment and then withdrew it, an implicit acknowledgement that the votes weren’t there for it to pass. Davis said she didn’t want to force senators to take a vote that could be later used to paint them as pro- or anti-education.
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, oversaw health care issues on the budget. She touted an 8.1 percent increase in that part of the budget, including $240 million more for mental health services.
“This budget ensures we are protecting the most vulnerable among us,” Nelson said.
The budget includes an across-the-board 3 percent pay raise for state employees and targeted pay hikes that are higher for employees in jobs with high-turnover — such as psychiatric nurses and correctional officers. State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, who oversaw compensation issues for the Finance Committee, said the raises were deserved and noted that a state audit report showed that most state workers are paid “below market value.”
The majority of senators took time out of Wednesday’s nearly four-hour discussion to praise Williams’ work leading the Senate Finance Committee.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, noted that she voted against the budget last session but chose to support the bill this session, in part because of how Williams led the process in a fair and inclusive manner. She added that she still wants to see the budget bill improved.
“It is a significantly better bill than the bill we passed in 2011,” Zaffirini said.
Williams thanked Zaffirini for her praise of his work and then drew laughter and a few gasps when he added, “We’ve come a long way, baby, since the last session.”
AMAN BATHEJA reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.Email | Print