AUSTIN -- School administrators, city officials, healthcare advocates and other groups urged lawmakers on Wednesday to reconsider proposed deep cuts to an array of state services as state House members prepared for a marathon budget debate that could spill into the weekend.
Today, the House will be asked to approve a $3.1 billion drawdown from the state's rainy-day fund -- the first since 2005 -- to help clear a deficit for the current fiscal biennium.
Then on Friday, the 150-member House, which Republicans control by a two-thirds majority, will begin debate on an austere $164.5 billion budget for fiscal 2012-13.
The proposed budget, House Bill 1, calls for a $23 billion reduction -- or 12.3 percent -- in current spending and slashes funding for schools, healthcare for the poor and other services.
Because at least 375 amendments await consideration, House leaders expect the debate to stretch into Saturday, subjecting lawmakers to the first weekend session of the 82nd Legislature.
The back-to-back debates are the first full-blown budget discussions in either chamber.
Protests against cuts
Several hundred school administrators gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday to protest the proposed $7.8 billion reduction in funding for the state's schools.
"We know that pink slips do not get issued from the Capitol, but for everyone that gets issued, there's a face that goes with it," Faye Beaulieu, a trustee for the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, told the crowd.
The rally was sponsored by the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators.
Healthcare advocates also rallied to protest cuts in Medicaid and the Children Health's Insurance Program. Medicaid is the state-federal program that provides medical coverage for indigent Texans. CHIP provides coverage for children who don't qualify for Medicaid.
"We're asking them to balance their approach to balancing the budget so they will not have to make cuts that will affect Medicaid and CHIP," said the Rev. Mary Spradlin of the St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Arlington.
About 177,000 residents in Tarrant County receive Medicaid or CHIP assistance, said Spradlin, a member of the Tarrant County CHIP coalition.
County and municipal leaders also seek to head off cuts in state assistance and tax revenue that support programs such as libraries and parks.
On Tuesday, the Arlington City Council approved two resolutions asking lawmakers not to slash budgets for the Arlington school district and the University of Texas at Arlington. UTA's annual revenue has already been cut by $10.5 million, and the university faces a loss of $37 million under HB1, Mayor Robert Cluck said. The school district could lose $18 million to $45 million under the same bill, he said.
"These are absolutely the worst reductions that could occur in any city," Cluck said. "They are occurring in every city in Texas."
The proposed withdrawal from the rainy-day fund would help erase a $4 billion deficit in the current biennium and let the state to pay its bills before the fiscal year ends on Aug. 31. Lawmakers will also be asked to approve a supplemental appropriations bill that includes additional cost-cutting measures beyond those made by state agencies since early 2010.
The rainy-day fund, which is financed by oil and gas revenue, is expected to contain about $9.4 billion at the end of 2013. After initial resistance, Gov. Rick Perry agreed to use $3.1 billion from the fund to help meet the current deficit. But he has vigorously opposed any further withdrawals, saying the rest of the money should be left intact for emergencies.
Some Republican conservatives say they plan to offer amendments to make deeper spending cuts to reduce the amount taken from the fund.
"The debate is about how little we will use, not whether we will use it," said Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington. Zedler plans to offer an amendment that will prevent lawmakers from using the rainy-day fund until the supplemental appropriations bill, HB4, has been passed by the House and Senate and signed by Perry.
State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, co-chairman of the Texas Conservative Coalition, said that conservative groups and Tea Party activists told him during the past week that they expect lawmakers to "scrub the budget and cut as much as we can before we touch the rainy-day fund." Outnumbered Democrats will rally behind amendments to expand the fund withdrawal and to roll back cuts in services.
"The concern to Democrats is how devastating the cuts are to an economy that has been recovering," said Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, leader of the 49 House Democrats.
Withdrawing money from the rainy-day fund to repair the deficit requires 90 votes, but House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the chief budget writer in the House, said he believes that lawmakers will meet that threshold.
Staff writer Susan Schrock contributed to this report.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294