AUSTIN — The Texas Legislature churned through its final day of passing bills Sunday, sending Gov. Rick Perry a new state budget that uses a surging state economy to restore large portions of historic spending cuts of two years ago, while a major proposed overhaul of public education testing and curriculum went down to the wire.
The session officially adjourns today, but the final day is typically reserved for making minor corrections to bills and the pomp of send-off ceremonies. That left lawmakers scrambling to put most of the finishing touches on their work over the previous 139 days.
“It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy,” said Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts, the House budget chief, after a 2014-15 budget was finally delivered to Perry.
The hard times likely aren’t over yet. Many lawmakers expect Gov. Rick Perry to call them back into a 30-day special session to tackle issues left unaddressed, which could keep them at the Capitol well into the summer.
Agenda items for the special session are expected to include settling voting maps that were disputed in federal courts since and strengthening the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, the insurer of last resort for coastal area property owners.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and some Republicans in both chambers want Perry to revive failed conservative efforts such as tighter abortion restrictions, looser gun laws and a harder cap on state spending.
But while those partisan fights may yet come, the budget compromise affirmed a surprising atmosphere of bipartisan harmony over the past five months.
The House overwhelming approved a budget that spends roughly $100 billion in state dollars for 2014-15. The plan restores $4 billion slashed from public schools in 2011 and gives state employees a 3 percent raise.
Nearly $260 million additional taxpayer dollars are going to mental health. Few states spend less on mental health than Texas, but like other GOP-controlled statehouses, leaders in the Capitol threw more money at the issue instead of tightening gun laws following the December elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Republican State Rep. John Zerwas made a broad reference to “horrific” recent events that drove new urgency about mental health. It was a victory for Zerwas, a doctor, who failed this session to convince the House to consider some form of Medicaid expansion, which Perry fiercely opposes.
Laying out part of the budget late Sunday, Zerwas reassured his colleagues about what the budget didn’t contain. “I want to repeat that — it does not contain any Medicaid expansion language,” Zerwas said.
Education had been one of the dominant themes of the session, but with court challenges to the school finance system still pending, lawmakers kept their focus on what happens in the classroom.
The House and Senate were scheduled to vote late Sunday on a bill to cut the number of standardized test for high school students to graduate from 15 to five, leaving only exams in algebra, biology and English. Students, parents and administrators complained of over-testing, but business groups worry that cutting back will leave Texas students unprepared for the workforce.
Other bills passed Sunday include:
- A study of the Travis County district attorney’s public integrity unit, which has handled prominent criminal cases against state officials including former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Republicans have long complained that Democratic district attorneys in Austin have been selective in prosecuting Republican officeholders.
- Gun bills that allow concealed handgun license holders to carry either revolvers or semi-automatic pistols, regardless which type they used in training, and to let them keep guns in their cars on college campuses.
All bills passed, including the budget, are sent to Perry to veto or be signed into law. Perry also has line-item veto power over the budget and he has been used that authority over his five previous regular sessions to slash billions in spending. Perry will have until June 16 to veto a bill before it automatically becomes law with or without his signature.