AUSTIN — The politically forbidden piggybank of the Texas Legislature may soon be cracked wide open. And surprisingly, Republicans are holding the hammer.
Abandoning resistance to seek financial solace in the state Rainy Day Fund, Senate Republicans unveiled a plan Thursday to spend $6 billion for water and road projects, which have taken on new urgency during this 140-day session that is nearing a final sprint.
The unexpected GOP proposal would use roughly half of a projected $12 billion socked away in the growing reserve fund, which Gov. Rick Perry and other top Republicans have fiercely safeguarded in recent years, even as the balance soared and state budgets were slashed.
Before the Legislature adjourns
in May, Republican budget-writers in the Senate said they could dig even deeper into the fund to help cushion school districts waylaid by historic cuts in 2011.
“The answer is yes, I’d be willing to consider that,” said Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and author of the proposal that unanimously cleared a committee vote Thursday.
One Republican on the panel said he wouldn’t ultimately support the bill because of debt concerns. Perry did not comment publicly Thursday, but an aide reiterated Perry’s stance that the fund remains well-stocked.
Under Williams’ proposal, Texas residents would vote in November on two constitutional amendments: One would take $2.5 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for water projects, and the other would take $3.5 billion to repair and expand crumbling and congested highways.
The proposed $6 billion is by far the most money the Legislature has suggested taking from the fund, which is where excess oil and gas tax receipts go. A resurgent Texas economy driven by a booming energy industry has left the fund particularly flush.
Perry and fiscally conservative Republicans have argued that the fund was created for one-time expenses and natural disasters, and not recurring costs such as school funding. Calls to restore money to school districts by tapping the fund have persisted this session, and continued after Williams laid out his bill for the first time.
Democratic Sen. Royce West came ready with an amendment to take $2.4 billion from the fund for schools. Others expressed optimism that the Rainy Day Fund could now be tapped for education, too.
“Long overdue is that we quit getting in these either-or situations,” Democratic Sen. John Whitmire said. “It shouldn’t put the need for water and highways against public education. We’re not a poor state by any means.”