The Texas Senate approved a two-year, $211 billion budget Tuesday that would increase spending by billions of dollars while cutting property and franchise taxes.
The bill will now go to a conference committee, where it will be reconciled over the next few weeks with the House version passed this month. Budget writers say the 2016-17 spending plan helps public schools, boosts border security and enhances employee retirement funds. A growing state economy makes those expenditures possible, senators said.
“This is a budget that will keep our state strong, prosperous and compassionate,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairwoman of the Finance Committee.
Under the plan, spending would increase 4.6 percent from the 2014-15 budget. That includes almost $4.5 billion that will go toward tax cuts. Without those dollars, the budget would grow by 3.5 percent.
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The discussion over the bill was shorter and less contentious than the debate around the House version. In the House, the budget drew more than 300 amendments, stretching the debate to nearly 18 hours. Under Senate tradition, senators rarely amend the budget at this stage in the session.
In the end, the Senate vote was 30-1 in favor of the bill.
But there was criticism, especially among Democrats.
Several Democratic senators criticized how school funding is handled in the budget. The bill includes more than $1.2 billion beyond what is needed to pay for enrollment growth. But some critics argued that the state still ranks near the bottom in per-student spending and that schools are still reeling from cuts in 2011.
Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, meanwhile urged lawmakers to consider adding more dollars for pre-kindergarten. The Senate version of the budget included $118 million for that purpose, senators said. That comes nowhere near enough to pay for universal pre-K, said Garcia, who was the lone dissenting vote on the bill.
“This wouldn’t fund pre-K for all Texans in all our schools,” she said. “This is going to be a little, teeny tiny step.”
Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who chaired a workgroup on education spending, said universal pre-K would have been too expensive. And he said he thinks the pain from 2011 cuts has been addressed in this budget, along with the 2013 spending increases.
“I think we are generally above where we were in 2011 before the cuts,” he said.
The bill also includes $811 million for border security, which is more than the House budget. That drew criticism from Democrats, who said the state was focusing too much on the border while ignoring other needs across the state.
“I think people are going to look back and say, ‘In a fiscally conservative state, how did this happen?’” said Sen. José Rodriguez, D-El Paso.
Nelson defended that expenditure by saying the federal government wasn’t doing its job of protecting the border.
“I wish the federal government was assuming its responsibility so we could take that money and spend it on education, health and human service and other needs,”she said.
Now, attention will turn to reconciling differences between the House and Senate bills on taxes, border security and the Texas Racing Commission.
The Senate budget calls for more than $2 billion to cover the costs of a local property tax cut, as well as cutting the franchise tax by 15 percent and exempting businesses altogether from the franchise tax if they make less than $4 million annually.
The House wants to cut the state sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 5.95 percent. And the lower chamber has also proposed more than $2 billion in cuts in the franchise tax.
The Senate sets aside no money for the Texas Racing Commission, which some senators have called a “rogue” agency. The House budget would increase funding for the commission by $1.3 million.
Tuesday’s vote was the first time the Senate passed a budget under its new leadership. This is the first session with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick presiding over the Senate and Nelson leading the Finance Committee.
When the bill passed, members swarmed Nelson with hugs and congratulations.