The Texas Senate overwhelmingly voted on Monday to spend nearly $4 billion from the state's Rainy Day Fund to close gaps in the current state budget.
Spending money from the state's savings account has been one of the most divisive issues of the session, with fiscal conservatives -- backed by Gov. Rick Perry -- reluctant to withdraw any of the money, while Democrats have urged budget writers to spend more to help fund public education and health care needs, both of which took huge hits in initial budget proposals.
The chamber's chief budget writer said the 30-1 vote makes a strong statement at a point when lawmakers are running out of time and are still divided on how to hash out a state budget that sends shock waves through all sectors of government.
"The Senate spoke today with almost total unanimity," said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.
It hasn't always worked that way. The Senate version of the budget was stalled for about a week before it was brought to the floor for debate because Ogden couldn't muster the votes he needed. Democrats opposed a budget that didn't spend more of the Rainy Day Fund while making devastating cuts to schools and health and human services programs.
The Senate moved to add the extra Rainy Day Fund money late last week. The idea behind spending the extra $800 million is to free up that amount of money in the spending plan lawmakers are writing for the next two years. An earlier deal struck between lawmakers and Perry would spend about $3.2 billion for the current budget.
Democrats are still fighting for the Senate to spend even more of the fund as the end of the session draws near and the realities of what some estimate to be a $27 billion state deficit become more real. Those efforts were rejected by the Senate's Republican majority who, while more cooperative than the GOP supermajority in the House, still want the majority of the Rainy Day Fund left untouched.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, proposed an amendment to draw an additional $1.1 billion from the savings account to increase public school allocations. But Ogden rebuffed his amendment, saying proposals like that would be better suited for another budget bill that deals with supplemental appropriations.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, also wanted to spend more money -- about $3 billion -- to avoid such drastic cuts. It was also rejected, largely on a party line vote.
House and Senate negotiators have begun working to find a compromise between the chambers' budgets, but it's been a slow process. If major spending disagreements aren't smoothed over soon, it could force a special session during the summer -- a possibility Ogden describes as more of a certainty. Lawmakers on the budget conference committee have enough agreement to pass every article of the budget except the article dealing with education, he said.
The Senate budget underfunds public schools by about $4 billion while the House underfunds by nearly $8 billion.
Ogden said he can't foresee a breakthrough for education funding coming before May 30, the last day of the legislative session. He wants lawmakers to pass what they can agree on and work out differences in education funding in the special session.
"Both the House and Senate are attempting in good faith to pass a good budget," Ogden said.
Associated Press Writer Jim Vertuno contributed to this report.