Senate budget plan would preserve four community colleges

AUSTIN -- Less than a week after the House unveiled a preliminary state budget, the Senate unveiled its version Monday of a spending plan that also makes deep cuts in services but spares four community colleges targeted for closure in the House plan.

Another notable difference is a proposed reduction in the state work force. The Senate proposes cutting 8,167 state employees, compared with 9,610 recommended for termination in the House plan.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate's presiding officer, echoed House leaders in stressing that the proposed budgets are merely a starting point for lawmakers as they craft a new two-year budget in the face of a multibillion-dollar shortfall.

Many of the recommendations will inevitably undergo substantial revision before the 82nd Legislature approves a final budget bill.

The Senate bill proposes spending $158.7 billion in state and federal funds for the 2012-13 biennium, a $28.8 billion, or 15.4 percent, reduction over current spending.

The House plan is calling for $156.4 billion, a $31.1 billion, or 16.6 percent, decrease from the 2010-11 biennium.

State general revenue funds would total $79.7 billion for the 2012-13 biennium, a decrease of $8.8 billion, or 9.9 percent, from the current biennium.

Lawmakers are under pressure to balance the budget after a precipitous decline in state sales revenue created a shortfall that experts have said could range from $12 billion to $27 billion.

Like the House plan, the Senate version would balance the state budget through program reductions and does not propose new or increased taxes. Neither bill would tap into the state's rainy day fund, which is projected to contain $9.4 billion in the 2013 fiscal year

Absent from the Senate plan is the proposed elimination of four community colleges, including Ranger College in Eastland County. Ranger College President Bill Campion has said the proposed closure would touch off an economic downturn in the area if the college work force is eliminated.

"That is really good news, and I am thrilled to know that," Campion said Monday when told of the Senate's recommendation. "That strengthens our case."

Other community colleges that would lose funding in the House bill are Odessa College, Brazosport College and Frank Phillips College in Borger.

Although both budgets propose deep cuts in nearly all categories of government, Dewhurst said there are "some small differences," particularly in education and public safety. The Senate bill proposes an 8.7 percent cut in education, compared with an 11.5 percent reduction in the House.

The Senate bill also proposes an 11 percent cut in funding for public safety and criminal justice, compared with 12.7 percent in the House budget.

The Senate bill proposes a $9.3 billion reduction in public school funding, compared with $9.8 billion in the House plan. Both bills call for a 10 percent drop in rates paid to providers of Medicaid, the state-federal insurance program for indigent children, elderly and disabled people.

The bill also calls for a $238.8 million reduction in formula funding for institutions of higher learning at a time when state-supported schools are undergoing a surge in enrollment.

Leaders at three North Texas universities -- the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of North Texas at Denton and the University of Texas at Dallas -- have expressed fears that a curtailment of state funds could undercut their efforts to become top-tier universities under legislation passed in 2009.

Dave Montgomery is chief of the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau.