Texas budget proposals call for thousands of job cuts

AUSTIN -- Budget recommendations being prepared for Texas lawmakers are expected to call for eliminating at least 8,000 state jobs, officials said Thursday.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters that a Senate version of a base budget for the next two years would eliminate 8,000 positions. A House budget bill expected to be released Tuesday also recommends reducing the state work force, House budget chief Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

The base budgets, House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1, will serve as the starting point for shaping spending for fiscal 2012-13 in the face of a multibillion-dollar shortfall. Although Pitts didn't reveal a number, an official for an association that represents state employees said he has been told that proposed job reductions in the House bill could exceed 9,000.

"We're obviously concerned about anything that leads to layoffs," said Andy Homer, director of government relations for the Texas Public Employees Association. "It's going to be such a difficult process for us."

Pitts, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, also raised the possibility of furloughs -- unpaid leave -- for state workers as lawmakers look to slash spending.

"There will be less state employees when we're completed with this budget process because we are going to have a whole lot less money to spend," Pitts said in the Texas Tribune interview.

Gov. Rick Perry, responding to Pitts' remarks after an address to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, pointed out that the legislative session is just days old and cautioned against overreaction until lawmakers complete budget work.

"I would tell everyone to continue on with what they're doing and not be negatively impacted by stories of doom and gloom that those of you in the media are going to write," Perry told reporters.

About 150,000 people are employed in general state government, and at least 100,000 are employed by higher education. Big agencies such as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the state prison system, are bracing for the loss of thousands of employees. About 10,000 state positions were eliminated in 2003 when lawmakers confronted another severe shortfall.

State Comptroller Susan Combs said Monday -- the day before the start of the 82nd Legislature -- that lawmakers will have $72.2 billion in available revenue for the coming biennium. State agencies say they will need $99 billion to maintain services at current levels, but the Republican leadership and many lawmakers are calling for targeted reductions and possible consolidations of some services to balance the budget without new or increased taxes.

The House, showing it's not immune to cost-cutting, voted Thursday to reduce its own office accounts by 10 percent. Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said it's vital for House members to lead by example.

"We've asked the agencies to cut theirs," he said. "We need to be responsible and cut ours." The new office budgets have been reduced to just under $12,000 a month, including staff salaries.

The goal facing lawmakers is to make state government "as efficient and lean as possible" without endangering vital services, including education and public safety, Dewhurst told reporters at a media luncheon to spell out his legislative priorities. Dewhurst is the Senate's presiding officer and a central figure in budgeting.

The Senate bill is expected to be released later than the House bill, possibly late next week or early the following week.

This report includes material from the Austin American-Statesman and The Texas Tribune.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294