Texas House nearing passage of massive state budget

Posted Thursday, Apr. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN -- House members on Thursday rejected assaults on programs tied to Gov. Rick Perry's office today as they began debating a $193.8 billion state budget that partly restores cuts imposed by the 2011 Legislature.

In what appeared to be a test vote in a budget-cutting strategy mapped by freshman Republicans, the House overwhelmingly defeated an amendment by Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, to cut funds for the Governor's Commission on Women to transfer the money to a health insurance program for retired teachers.

Lawmakers also turned back renewed efforts to cut the Texas Enterprise Fund, a jobs incentives program that Perry has credited for helping boost the Texas economy. The fund, which offers incentives for business and industry to set up shop in Texas, operates through the governor's office.

The proposed budget, which is comprised of state and federal dollars, calls for a 2.1 percent increase in overall spending, from $183.7 billion to $193.8, including $93.5 billion in state revenue.

The Senate-passed budget calls for $195.5 billion in total spending, a 2.9 percent increase from the current 2012-2013 biennium.

Writing a two-year budget to fund state services is the Legislature's fundamental obligation. The final budget for the 2014-15 biennium will be crafted by a House and Senate conference committee, subject to approval by both chambers, before lawmakers go home on May 27.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts , R-Waxahachie, outlining the budget at the outset of debate, told colleagues that the proposed budget reverses course from the $15 billion in cuts made by the 2011 Legislature, when lawmakers entered their session facing a $27 billion budget shortfall.

"Because of the state's financial health and robust economic growth, we have been able to restore significant portions of last session's cuts," Pitts said.

Pitts and other budget writers said a chief priority was to at least partially restore more than $5 billion in public school cuts that resulted in a legal challenge to the state's school finance system. The budget increases public school funding by $2.9 billion above enrollment growth, and, when coupled with a $500 million allotment in a supplemental budget bill, would restore almost $3.5 billion to public education, Pitts said.

But Rep. Lon Burnam, D- Fort Worth, who has made restoration of the cuts one of his top legislative priorities, challenged Pitts.

"We are not restoring the $5 billion that we took from the children," Burnam said. "Many of us feel like the bill we passed last session deserved an F."

House members and their staffs prepared for a long day, possibly extending past midnight, as they worked through 267 amendments. Architects of the budget appeared firmly in control as they beat back significant changes and resisted any amendments that they deemed unacceptable.

Klick's proposal, defeated by a vote of 110-32, was the first in a series in amendments by nearly a dozen freshmen House members to reduce funding for programs and agencies and shift those dollars to the Teacher Retirement System to help fund retiree health insurance. Klick and the four other first-term Republicans from Tarrant County were playing a lead role in the strategy.

Klick, former chairwoman for the Tarrant County Republican Party, proposed transferring about $437,100 over the next two years from the commission on women to the retiree health insurance for the Teachers Retirement Fund. But she confronted opposition from members who said the commission serves a useful purpose and contended that her proposed transfer would make little difference in strengthening the retirees' fund.

"This is a group of women that have made a difference," said Rep. Geanie W. Morrison, R-Victoria, a former member of the commission.

Klick said she and her staff moved forward with the proposal after "a number of teachers came to us and were concerned about what going to be done to their pension and their benefits."

Tracking Abbott suits

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, sought to include a requirement that the attorney general detail the costs of lawsuits against the federal government. Since 2003, Turner said, Attorney General Greg Abbott has filed at least 27 lawsuits at a cost of $3 million.

"There's a lot of money, there's a lot of time suing the federal government, and I think the Texas taxpayers have the right to know simply how much those lawsuits are costing," Turner said. But the amendment was defeated by a vote of 103-38 after the budget's sponsors opposed its inclusion in the document.

Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, pushed the amendment to zero out the enterprise fund, a perennial target of budget-cutters and critics of the governor. Opponents of the amendment said the enterprise fund has helped boost Texas job growth but Walle countered that the fund is often used to benefit Perry's political boosters.

"I'm very cognizant of the fact that we need to have incentives but when these incentives to campaign contributors to the governor, I have a problem with that," Walle said.

The budget fully funds projected caseload growth in Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, and foster care, Pitts said. Another top priority, Pitts said, was to bolster mental health programs administered by various state agencies through an overall $264 million increase in state general revenue.

Higher education also got a boost through an increase in state assistance to public-funded universities as well $724 million for the popular TEXAS grants program that goes to college and university students. Rep. John C. Otto, R-Dayton, said the appropriation was the largest-ever for the program and would cover 87 percent of all eligible students who apply for the grant.

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

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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