Budget stalemate ends in Austin

Posted Thursday, May. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Breaking a budget impasse with days left in the 2013 session, House and Senate members approved key elements Wednesday of a two-year spending plan that boosts education funding and addresses a looming water shortage.

House members voted 130-16 on a proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 1, that would create a state revolving bank to fund billions of dollars in local and regional water projects over the next half-century. The House vote went well beyond the two-thirds majority needed to pass the measure.

Across the Capitol, the Senate voted 28-3 to give final approval to a companion supplemental budget, House Bill 1025, that includes a $2 billion drawdown from the state’s rainy-day fund for the proposed water bank.

The Senate-passed measure also includes $200 million of the overall $3.9 billion in increased public school money proposed in the overall agreement negotiated by House and Senate budget writers last week.

The budget compact, which is spread over several documents, has been bogged down for nearly a week over infighting and distrust between the two chambers. House members were forced to suspend rules to defer consideration of SJR1 until Wednesday after coming perilously close to a Tuesday night deadline that would have killed the measure.

The budget package also includes $1 billion in tax and fee reductions. The proposal falls short of Gov. Rick Perry’s demand for $1.8 billion in tax relief, and the governor has not indicated whether the level in the budget would meet his threshold.

Perry, the state’s longest-serving governor, has threatened to call a special session if lawmakers don’t address his priorities of water, transportation and tax relief. Budget issues, gun legislation and redistricting have also been cited as potential topics for a 30-day special session.

Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, the Senate’s senior Republican, said she is heartened by signs of progress on the budget and holds out hope that lawmakers could avoid staying in Austin after Monday’s regular-session adjournment.

“We may actually have some summertime outside the Capitol building,” she said. “I think things are actually loosening up. I think things will work out for the best.”

Under the proposed constitutional amendment in SJR1, voters would decide in the Nov. 5 election whether to approve the proposed revolving fund, which would enable local and regional entities to finance projects under the state’s long-range water plan.

The money to start the bank comes from the rainy-day fund drawdown in HB1025. House members beat back an amendment that would have placed a $2 billion cap in the constitutional amendment to be decided by voters.

Preliminary Senate passage of HB1025 came just before the House took up the water fund initiative. A final vote was planned after the House acted.

This is “a good, conservative budget,” said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who heads the Senate Finance Committee and helped craft the measure. “It is something we can all be proud of.

“Nobody can say we are spending every dime we can get our hands on.”

Spending highlights

Among the spending in the bill: $2 billion for the state’s water plan, $185 million for wildfire suppression, $1.75 billion to reverse the already planned delay of school payments in August, $30 million for veterans’ college tuition subsidies, $10 million for the Student Success Initiative, $175 million in bonds for campus construction, $450 million for roads in successful oil field areas, $5 million for repairs and renovations in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and $5 million for repairs at state parks for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The allocations in this measure include drawing nearly $4 billion from the rainy-day fund in addition to about $2 billion in spending from dedicated tax money and general-purpose revenue.

Though work at times lagged while House members waited for the big-ticket water and budget bills, the two chambers cleared scores of measures before a midnight deadline. Many were obscure and noncontroversial, but others provoked opposition.

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, spoke against legislation that would speed up the transport of out-of-state low-level radioactive material to a West Texas waste site near Andrews. The site is operated by Waste Control Specialists, owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, a major political contributor to Perry and many lawmakers.

Burnam said the bill threatens to turn Texas “into the nuclear dumping ground of the nation.”

But Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, said the site is economically “very important to Texas” and is subject to stringent federal regulations.

House members voted 130-15 to send the measure back to the Senate to accept or reject House amendments.

The Senate approved legislation creating a joint interim committee to study human trafficking in Texas, the fastest-growing illegal activity and second only to drug dealing in profitability, according to the bill.

Staff writer Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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