Texas House OKs Tapping $3.1B From Rainy Day Fund

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Texas State Preservation Board
    The Texas Legislature, required to meet for only five months every two years, is known for its last-minute drama.

    The Texas House tentatively agreed to use more than $3.1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund Thursday as part of a package of legislation intended to help pay the state's bills for the remaining five months of the 2011 budget.

    Both Democrats and Republicans agreed to tap the fund in the 142-2 vote, though Democrats made repeated pleas to use more.

    Democrats did not support a bill that was approved earlier in the day, which made spending cuts to help balance the 2011 budget. They urged using more of the reserve fund to pay for education, nursing homes and other programs that are expected to get slashed.

    "What we are using from the Rainy Day Fund right now will not keep the nursing homes open. They will close," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, estimating five out of six nursing homes in Harris County will close because of cuts to state funding. "More than 50,000 elderly and disabled people will either return home or go someplace else.

    "Teachers will be laid off. There will not be new textbooks," he said.

    But Republicans used their supermajority to hold firm, not allowing any more of the rainy-day money to be tapped.

    The fund, made up of revenue from oil and gas taxes, is expected to have a balance of at least $9.4 billion.

    The next budget, which covers state spending for 2012-113, is set to come up for debate Friday.

    The package approved Thursday makes about $1.5 billion in agency cuts, including those requested last year by state leaders. They include a reduction in a needy families program and a $463 million decrease for universities and community colleges.

    "I don't believe there is a greater investment than to invest in our students," Turner said, arguing for an amendment that would have taken money away from the governor's discretionary accounts to fund the B-On-Time student financial aid program. "This choice is between criminal justice grants in the governor's trustee program versus financial aid grants to students who are trying to go to university."

    The amendment was rejected on a 97-48 party line vote, illustrating the supermajority strength Republicans now wield in the 101-49 GOP-led chamber.

    "I understand these are painful cuts," said Killeen Republican Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, arguing against the amendment.

    Numerous other amendments, including efforts to spend more on various colleges and take money away from Perry's housing funds, also were rejected on party-line votes. One amendment, by Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, would have taken $35,000 from the governor's office and moved the money -- enough to pay one teacher's salary for a year -- to the Texas Education Agency.

    Tapping the Rainy Day Fund has run into resistance from fiscal conservatives in the chamber. But an agreement between House leaders and Perry cleared the way to use about a third of the reserves to help balance the budget that ends Aug. 31.

    The legislation requires three-fifths approval, or 90 votes, to pass.

    The supplemental budget and Rainy Day Fund measures "are paying our current obligation," said Rep. Jim Pitts, the lead House budget writer.