• December 19, 2014

Senate OKs $100B Texas budget on final weekend

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Posted: Sunday, May 26, 2013 4:30 am

AUSTIN — Starting the final weekend of a legislative session that may be the last under Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Senate passed a roughly $100 billion state budget Saturday that mostly reverses historic spending cuts to public schools and squeezes most of the revenue spoils of a resurgent Texas economy.

The House delayed a vote on the budget until today. That’s the last chance for the Legislature to pass bills before the session adjourns Monday — though lawmakers may not be going home.

Perry is widely expected to keep lawmakers working into June, when conservative issues such as gun control and abortion could resurface after faltering during the regular 140-day session.

But a new two-year budget — the only bill the Legislature is constitutionally required to pass — finally appears settled after a rocky two weeks of negotiations with the House. The Senate passed the budget 27-4, and Republicans behind the spending plan took candid shots at conservative pundits and fiscal hawks who panned their decision-making.

“We need to take them back to school and teach them how to count,” said Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, the Senate budget chief.

Williams, who described being mocked as a “socialist” and “big spending liberal,” did not identify his critics. But among those displeased with the budget’s price tag is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group favored by Perry and influential among GOP lawmakers.

Perry, a Republican who said he won’t announce whether he’ll run for re-election in 2014 until the session is over, has largely kept quiet on a complex budget deal between the House and Senate. He broke his silence Friday, however, when aides spoke out against plans to take $1.75 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to settle a debt owed to public schools.

Despite Perry’s objections, budget writers are not planning to make changes.

Williams defended the budget as a responsible spending plan that leaves more than $500 million on the table. It increases spending by 8.3 percent from two years ago, when the Republican-controlled Legislature slashed the budget to the bone to close a massive shortfall borne by the Great Recession.

An energy boom and roaring Texas economy, however, handed lawmakers a historic pot of available revenue to spend when they gathered in January. That allowed lawmakers to restore most of the $5.4 billion cuts from public schools in 2011 and embark on an aggressive new state water plan that environmental groups say is among the most ambitious from any U.S. statehouse this year.

The new water fund would be jump-started with $2 billion in rainy day dollars. Both the House and Senate were to vote on the plan today.

The 2014-15 budget gives state employees a 3 percent raise and throws an additional $298 million toward mental health and substance abuse. Public schools would recoup $4 billion, financially shaky state parks remain open and more than $97 million is projected to be saved from closing two privately operated prisons.

“I think it’s been very thoughtfully developed. In every session I’ve been here no one is 100 percent happy, but you have to get the votes to pass it,” House Speaker Joe Straus said Saturday. “And that means the support of members from all parties and in both chambers.”

Republican state Sen. Donna Campbell, a tea-party favorite, cast one of the Senate votes against the budget. The others were Sens. Dan Patrick, Brian Birdwell and Ken Paxton, all Republicans.

“I’d like to have seen more restrain in overall spending, and that any government growth supported by the budget is at the expense, I feel, of key infrastructure investment,” Campbell said. “I’d like to have seen a sustainable funding for transportation.”

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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