March 20, 2013

Texas Senate approves $195.5 billion state budget

Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis casts one of the two “no” votes.

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AUSTIN -- State senators voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve a $195.5 billion two-year state budget as Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis cast one of only two dissenting votes to protest what she called a failure to sufficiently fund public schools.

"I believe this budget fails Texas children because it does not sufficiently address the state's constitutional obligation to adequately fund public ed," said Davis, who staged a filibuster at the end of the 2011 Legislature over $5.4 billion in education cuts.

"I honestly believe that it is foolish of us to put off fixing a broken education system when we have the opportunity to address that problem today."

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, the other "no" in the 29-2 vote, said she was also concerned about the level of education spending.

Garcia, the Senate's newest member, was chosen in a special election in February after the death of Sen. Mario Gallegos.

The 2014-15 budget calls for a $5.5 billion increase in spending. It has a state employee pay raise and would partly roll back cuts made by lawmakers two years ago, but not to the extent sought by Davis and other Democrats.

The spending blueprint also projects a $93.7 million savings from the closure of two minimum-security prisons in Mineral Wells and Dallas.

Mineral Wells officials have sought to reverse the proposed closing of the pre-parole transfer facility to avoid what they say would be a devastating economic hit to the North Texas community.

Education funding has emerged as one of the most closely watched elements of the Legislature's budget deliberations. The 2011 session cut $5.4 billion in education assistance, prompting a legal challenge by hundreds of school districts, including Fort Worth.

An Austin district judge, in ruling on the lawsuits, held that the state's school finance system is unconstitutional, but the Texas Supreme Court is expected to ultimately decide the case.

"There is no question that public education in Texas is sorely underfunded today," Davis said. "And I don't know why we need to wait for a court to tell us what we already know is the case."

Davis announced her opposition to the budget toward the end of the debate as she offered an amendment that she later withdrew.

While saying she does "not take her decision lightly," she told colleagues that she "regrettably cannot support the budget at this time."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said that while lawmakers did not fully restore the $5.4 billion, the budget writers added $1.4 billion above enrollment growth and increased core per student funding above the 2011 allotments in 400 of the state's school districts.

Total funding for public education would increase by 5.5 percent, from $52.3 billion to 55.2 billion.

Overall, the budget reflects the state's continuing economic upswing, a sharp contrast from the $15 billion in reductions that lawmakers imposed in 2011 after the national recession.

But Williams said the state nevertheless faces immense challenges as it seeks to meet increased demands for services from a burgeoning population.

"You can't ignore the fact that our state has grown very fast," he said.

Medicaid funding

Williams said healthcare is the state's biggest budget driver, pointing out that Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program constitute 30 percent of the proposed budget, totaling $59.3 billion.

The average monthly caseload of Medicaid clients has increased by 75 percent from 2002 to 2012, a pace that Williams said is crowding out funding for education and other needs.

Republican leaders are exploring a "Texas solution" that would revamp Medicaid delivery as an alternative to an outright expansion called for by the federal Affordable Care Act.

Williams said the state has a responsibility to care for the indigent but warned that Texas cannot absorb the cost "if we don't reform how these programs work."

Sen. Jane Nelson, a member of Williams' committee and chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, played a key role in shaping the budget, overseeing at least $465 million in Medicaid cost containment initiatives aimed at controlling fraud and improving efficiency.

Nelson, R-Flower Mound, also touted the budget's recommended increases in behavioral health services, community primary care, child protection and other programs.

"This budget ensures that we're protecting the most vulnerable among us," she said.

Other spending

The budget would also make a down payment on restoring money cut from public universities, calling for $15.9 billion for higher education, a 5.5 percent increase.

It would increase funding for student aid under the TEXAS grants program, which underwent substantial cuts in 2011.

Community colleges, which have asked for more money after a series of budget cuts in past sessions, would receive a 3.3 percent increase.

Community college funding would total $1.7 billion.

Lawmakers will craft a final budget from House and Senate proposals in a joint conference committee before the Legislature adjourns May 27.

The budget, funded by federal dollars and state general revenue, is typically approved in the final days of the Legislature.

The plan would also boost funding for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to avoid park closings.

Department officials warned before the session that they might have to close up to 20 parks without an adequate boost in funding.

Environmentalists applauded the increase but lamented the exclusion of a $15.5 million request to restore local park grants that were eliminated in a previous session.

Many state employees would receive a pay raise of at least 3 percent while others who work with vulnerable citizens or in areas of high turnover would receive more.

Dave Montgomery is the

Star-Telegram's Austin

bureau chief.


Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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