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Prospect of special session rises as hopes for a budget deal grow dim

Posted Thursday, May. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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So much for a soft landing on a Texas budget deal.

A week that began with House and Senate negotiators predicting a smooth compromise showed signs of unraveling Thursday with abruptly canceled meetings, House Democrats fuming at Republicans and Gov. Rick Perry denying allegations that he derailed a spending deal behind the scenes.

Only a little more than a week remains in the 140-day session, but fraying talks over a new state budget renewed the prospect that lawmakers will have to stay at the bargaining table into June. If that happens, Democrats say GOP leaders are threatening to revive contentious abortion bills as punishment for holding up passage of a budget bill.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, emerging from a caucus of House Democrats, said the fault was on Republicans for reneging on a deal that had called for putting an extra $3.9 billion back into public schools, which absorbed historic spending cuts two years ago.

“For anyone to represent that Democrats have changed their position or asked for more is absolutely not true,” Turner said. He went on to accuse Perry of swooping in late and telling Republicans not to vote for an agreed-upon plan because too much was being spent on reversing public school cuts.

Perry wants $1.8 billion in tax cuts and a new $2 billion water fund, but money is running tight and time running out. One $500 million bump the House already approved for classrooms, Turner said, was now being targeted to pay for highway projects instead.

Perry responded by saying he was “not going to participate” with those he described as trying to create conflict in the waning days of what has been – until now – a largely and unexpectedly harmonious session. Aides to Perry also denied that he told GOP members not to vote on an earlier budget proposal.

“I’m sure that there are folks that would like to blow up the session just to see the pieces of the machinery blow up through the air,” Perry said.

Meanwhile, the top House and Senate negotiators involved in the bargaining stayed out of sight Thursday. They raised murmurs of a deal by scheduling an afternoon public meeting, only to postpone it by an hour while a crowded room waited.

When that hour passed, it was announced that the meeting had been postponed indefinitely. No reason was given.

Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, the Senate budget chief, had predicted this week that the two sides would “land” a new two-year spending plan with ease. His counterpart in the House, Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts, said with confidence Wednesday that a deal would be struck by midnight.

Compromise, however, remained elusive as that hour came and went. Pitts said Thursday morning that issues were still being hashed out but would not elaborate.

“But I’m hopeful,” he said.

Democrats have 55 votes in the 150-person chamber. Without their support, the House cannot reach the two-thirds threshold necessary to draw $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund in order to jump-start an aggressive, bipartisan plan for new water projects across the state.

Turner said Republicans have begun threatening to revive attempts at new, tighter restrictions on abortion unless Democrats cooperate. Republicans easily control both the House and the Senate, and their power becomes even larger in a condensed special session, where parliamentary rules change.

A balanced state budget is the only bill the Legislature is constitutionally required to pass every two years.

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