Texas Senate approves $195.5 billion state budget

Posted Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN - State senators voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve a $195.5 billion two-year state budget as Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis cast one of only two dissenting votes to protest what she called the budget's failure to sufficiently fund public schools.

"I believe this budget fails Texas children because it does not sufficiently address the state's constitutional obligation to adequately fund public ed," said Davis, who staged a filibuster at the end of the 2011 Legislature over $5.4 billion in education cuts. "I honestly believe that it is foolish of us to put off fixing a broken education system when we have the opportunity to address that problem today."

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat who cast the other opposing ballot in the 29-2 vote, said she was also concerned about the level of education spending. Garcia, the Senate's newest member, was chosen in a special election in February after the death of Houston Sen. Mario Gallegos.

The 2014-15 budget, which will fund state government over the next two fiscal years, calls for a $5.5 billion increase over current spending. It includes a state employee pay raise and partly rolls back many of the cuts made by lawmakers two years ago, but not to the level Davis and other Democrats were seeking.

The spending blueprint also projects a $93.7 million savings with the closure of two minimum security prisons in Mineral Wells and Dallas. Mineral Wells officials have sought to reverse the proposed closure of the pre-parole transfer facility to avoid what they say would be a devastating economic backlash to the North Texas community.

Education funding has emerged as one of the mostly closed watched elements of the Legislature's budget deliberations after the 2011 session cut $5.4 billion in education assistance, prompting a continuing legal challenge by hundreds of school districts, including the Fort Worth system. An Austin district judge, in ruling on the suits, held that the state's school finance system is unconstitutional but the case is expected to ultimately be decided by the Texas Supreme Court.

"There is no question that public education in Texas is sorely underfunded today," Davis said. "And I don't know why we need to wait for a court to tell us that what we already know is the case."

Davis announced her opposition to the budget toward the end of the debate as she offered an amendment that she later withdrew. While saying she did "not take her decision lightly," she told colleagues that she "regrettably cannot support the budget at this time."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams said that, while lawmakers did not fully restore the $5.4 billion, budget-writers added $1.4 billion above enrollment growth and were able to increase core per-student funding in 400 of the state's school districts above their allotments in 2011. He described Davis' criticism of the budget as "faint praise."

Total funding for public education would increase by 5.4 percent in the budget, from $52.3 billion to 55.2 billion.

Overall, the budget reflects the state's continuing economic upswing, a sharp contrast from the $15 billion in reductions that lawmakers imposed in 2011 in the aftermath of the national recession. But Williams said the state nevertheless faces immense challenges as it seeks to meet increased demands for services from a burgeoning population.

"You can't ignore the fact that our state has grown very fast," said Williams, R-The Woodlands.

Medicaid funding

Williams said health care is the state's biggest budget driver, pointing out that Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program constitute 30 percent of the proposed budget, totaling $59.3 billion. The average monthly caseload for Medicaid clients has increased by 75 percent from 2002-2012, a pace that Williams said is crowding out funding for education and other needs.

Republican leaders are exploring a "Texas solution" that would revamp Medicaid delivery in Texas as an alternative to an outright expansion called for by the federal Affordable Care Act. Williams said the state has a responsibility to care for indigent recipients of the program but warned that Texas will not be able to absorb the cost "if we don't reform how these programs work."

Sen. Jane Nelson, a member of Williams' committee and chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services committee, played a key role in shaping the budget, overseeing at least $465 million in Medicaid cost-containment initiatives aimed at controlling fraud and improving efficiency.

Nelson, R-Flower Mound, also touted the budget's recommended increases in behavioral health services, community primary care, child protective services and other programs.

"This budget ensures that we're protecting the most vulnerable among us," she said.

Other spending

The budget also makes a down payment on restoring cuts from public universities, calling for $15.9 billion in higher education, a 5.5 percent increase. It increases funding for student aid under the TEXAS grants program, which underwent substantial cuts in 2011. Community colleges, which have asked lawmakers for more money after a series of budget cuts in past sessions, would receive a 3.3 percent increase. Community college funding under the budget would total $1.7 billion.

Lawmakers will craft a final version of the state budget from House and Senate proposals in a joint conference committee before the 2013 Legislature adjourns on May 27. The budget, which is funded by federal dollars and state general revenue, is typically approved in the final days of the Legislature.

The budget also boosts funding to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to avoid the closure of any state parks. Parks and Wildlife officials warned in advance of the session that they could be forced to close as many as 20 state parks unless lawmakers provided an adequate boost in funding.

Environmentalists applauded the increase but lamented the exclusion of a $15.5 million request to restore local park grants that were eliminated in a previous session.

Many state employees would receive a pay raise of at least 3 percent while others who work with vulnerable citizens or in areas of high turnover would receive higher targeted pay raises.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief, 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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