AUSTIN -- The Republican-controlled House, by a vote of 142-2, gave preliminary approval Thursday to withdrawing $3.1 billion from the state's rainy-day fund to help the state pay its bills for the current fiscal year.
The withdrawal -- the largest ever from the 24-year-old fund -- would help the state eradicate a $4 billion deficit for fiscal 2011, which ends Aug. 31.
Lawmakers also gave preliminary approval to a supplemental spending package for the current fiscal year that incorporates spending cuts made by state agencies over the past 15 months and includes additional reductions totaling $853 million.
The net effect of Thursday's actions, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, will enable the state to balance the books and meet financial obligations for the rest of the year.
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A bigger budget showdown awaits House members today, when they begin debate on a $164.5 billion spending plan for the next two years.
The 2012-13 budget cuts $23 billion -- or 12.3 percent -- in state services and includes deep cuts in education and healthcare.
Pitts, the chamber's chief budget writer, suggested that amendments are in the works that may soften the impact of cuts on Medicaid, public school funding and nursing homes. "We will continue to look for solutions for those problems I think we all share," Pitts told House members.
Republicans, who outnumber Democrats by 101-49, were clearly in control Thursday as they beat back efforts by Democrats to increase the drawdown from the rainy-day fund and spend more on healthcare, public education and universities.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry has resisted tapping the $9.4 billion fund, saying the state needs to hold onto the money to meet unanticipated emergencies. But he agreed to withdraw $3.1 billion as a one-time-only measure to deal with this year's deficit while vowing to oppose further withdrawals.
House members needed 90 votes -- three-fifths of the chamber -- to pull money from the fund for use against the deficit. A two-thirds majority -- 100 votes -- was needed for House members to withdraw money from the fund for more general purposes.
The fund, officially named the Economic Stabilization Fund, was created in 1987 and is funded with oil and gas tax revenue. It has been tapped in four previous legislative sessions in amounts ranging from $29 million to $1.9 billion, according to the House Research Organization.
The two dissenting votes were cast by Reps. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, and Barbara Mallory Caraway, D-Dallas. House members could give final approval to the withdrawal and supplemental budget as early as today.
House members approved an amendment by Reps. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, and Phil King, R-Weatherford, that would keep the rainy-day drawdown from taking effect until the supplemental spending package passes the Legislature and is signed into law.
King also won approval of another amendment that would prevent agency heads from filling vacancies unless they determine that the position is essential to prevent an emergency. The hiring freeze would apply only to the current fiscal year.
About 242,000 employees are in the state work force, although more than 9,000 positions may be cut under budget proposals being considered by the House and Senate. King said the work force has a 14 percent attrition rate.
Defeated amendments included one by Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, that would have reduced the tax-funded rent for Perry's residence to bolster funding for the Tarrant County College system for the remaining five months of the current fiscal year.
"My community college should be more adequately funded at the expense of a lavish lifestyle," Burnam said, telling fellow lawmakers that his amendment was "about setting priorities for the state of Texas."
"If we are going to ask our teachers, students, state agencies and public employees to make sacrifices due to the budget crisis," Burnam said, "our state leaders need to sacrifice as well."
Perry has been living in a rental residence while the official Governor's Mansion is being restored after a fire. According to an Associated Press report, rental, utilities and upkeep for the five-bedroom, seven-bath mansion cost more than $10,000 a month.
Burnam's amendment would have reduced the rent by $7,000 a month to raise a total of $35,000 for Tarrant County's community colleges.
Burnam also offered an unsuccessful symbolic amendment to use the $35,000 reduction from Perry's rent to pay the salary of a single Texas schoolteacher.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.