Texas Politics

Texas lawmakers break impasse, approve $217 billion budget

The Texas Capitol
The Texas Capitol atinsley@star-telegram

With time running out in the 85th legislative session, Texas lawmakers late Saturday voted to approve the one “must-pass” bill of the session — the $217 billion, two-year state budget.

The budget, crafted in tight economic times as the state faces funding shortages due to slumping oil and gas revenues, is $352 million more than the current budget and includes long-sought-after money to help the state’s child welfare agency and maintain current funding levels for border security.

“This is a responsible budget that keeps Texas moving in the right direction,” state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, dean of the Tarrant County delegation and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a written statement. “It prioritizes education, addresses transportation, secures our border and strengthens protections for abused and neglected children.”

A key sticking point in the budget was part of the funding mechanism and whether the state would dip into the so-called Rainy Day Fund — or use accounting maneuvers to balance the budget. In the end, lawmakers did both.

“The budget today is a product of what is a true compromise” between the House and Senate, noted state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who led the budget effort in the House.

But it didn’t do enough, said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who said some improvements were made but funding shortages remained.

“I think this budget is a mixed bag,” said Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, who was one of the few lawmakers to vote against the budget.

The House approved the bill 135-14; the Senate approved the bill 30-1.

As key votes were taken on the budget, readying it to go to the governor’s desk for consideration, talk of a special session grew stronger as other high-profile measures including the so-called bathroom bill and an updated Voter ID proposal have yet to finally pass out of the Legislature.

At one point Saturday, state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, asked House leaders about the protocol of a special session.

Amid “rumors of a special session,” Simmons — the House author of the controversial bathroom bill — wanted clarification that only the governor could call a special session. And he asked when bills could be filed for that special session.

He quickly was told only Gov. Greg Abbott chooses whether and when to call a special session and then he asked what other issues could arise.

“You can file any bill you want,” he repeated what House leaders told him. “But it doesn’t mean it will be brought up.”

Here’s a look at the state budget and some issues lingering in the Legislature.

Budget

This budget, known as Senate Bill 1, includes nearly $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund and nearly $2 billion from transportation funding accounting adjustments.

Included in the final budget is $2.6 billion for highway construction; $88 million in new funding for more Child Protective Services case workers; $800 million for border security; $236 million for pre-kindergarten education; $86 million for the state’s Texas Enterprise Fund, which helps draw companies to relocate in this state; and $22 million for the state’s film incentives program.

The budget includes one-time grants such as $110 million for disasters, $19.2 million for courthouse preservation and $5.1 million for historical museums. Also included are $300 million for repairs to state hospitals and $40 million for deferred maintenance at Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities.

Several colleges, including the University of Texas at Arlington, will receive fewer dollars through this budget than they did in the current budget, said Turner, the only member of the Tarrant County delegation to vote against the budget. The school is getting $5.4 million less in the next budget cycle, Turner said.

There were funding casualties, including the arts, which lost 4 percent of its funding as well as a previous $5 million added in 2015 for a competitive grant program to boost economic development in fine arts and cultural districts in 2016 and 2017, which benefited Fort Worth museums. The state lottery also lost $10 million from its advertising budget, causing officials to fear they’ll be able to produce fewer of the popular scratch-off tickets.

“Everybody wants a little bit more,” said state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills. “But I think we have a budget that meets the needs of the taxpayers.”

Voter ID

Voter ID, also known as Senate Bill 5, was a last-minute addition to the Legislature’s list of emergency items.

On Saturday, a conference committee announced a compromise on the measure geared to somewhat ease what many called the nation’s toughest voter ID requirements.

The measure still requires Texas voters to show photo ID when voting. It still allows voters without IDs to fill out forms stating if and why they couldn’t obtain the ID, but anyone caught lying on the forms would face a state jail felony.

Election officers won’t be able to refuse to accept an ID just because the address on it doesn’t match a person’s address in the list of registered voters. And voters with expired IDs will still be able to use them to vote, as long as they aren’t more than four years expired.

School finance

A school finance bill previously declared all but dead — HB 21 — possibly found new life Saturday when some members were named to a conference committee tasked with finding a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The news prompted applause in the House. But several members said this only gives the measure a slim chance of survival.

Bathroom bill

The issue that has dominated much of this legislative session — the bathroom bill — continued to linger over lawmakers Saturday when a group of LGBT advocates delivered petitions signed by more than 33,000 people to the governor’s office, asking him to not call a special session over the bathroom bill.

That followed Friday night, when top leaders in the House and Senate appeared to reach a stalemate over the measure.

House Speaker Joe Straus said the lower chamber would go no further than the compromise it already passed, which would require Texas schools to provide alternate restrooms and locker rooms for youth who don’t want to use facilities that match their “biological sex.” But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said that wasn’t enough.

Patrick wants the House to approve the measure passed in the upper chamber earlier in the session that essentially requires people using restrooms in all publicly owned buildings, not just schools, to be required to go to the one that matches their “biological sex.” This measure would overrule any local ordinances across Texas that already are in place.

After Straus said the House would not appoint members to the conference committee on this issue, Patrick — who has maintained that the bathroom measure is one of the “must-pass” bills of the session — threatened to ask Abbott to call for a special session to address the issue there.

Property taxes

Patrick has also said a “must-pass” bill is one addressing property taxes.

Both chambers have differed on this measure as well and appear to have not reached a resolution.

The Senate proposal includes a measure allowing rollback elections if proposed property tax rates for cities and counties go above 5 percent.

The House measure doesn’t include that, but it does require local governments to start with a “no-new-revenue” tax rate every year. Taxpayers could get copies of that and be able to look at it side-by-side with the actual rate proposed.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

  Comments