The swirling force of Texas politics

Texas Senate Approves Two-Year Budget

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    The Texas Senate tentatively approved the $176.5 billion two-year state budget Wednesday, bypassing the long-held Senate tradition that requires a two-thirds agreement for the chamber to consider any legislation.

    Senate leaders used a special rule for House bills that allowed them to bring up the spending plan -- a House bill -- without Democratic support.

    In less than five minutes and with no debate, Sen. Steve Ogden offered an amendment that stripped a contentious provision that would tap money from the Rainy Day Fund. The move helped him garner support from conservative Republican senators.

    They then quickly approved the budget on a 19-12 party-line vote. The budget faces one more vote before it can be sent back to the House for negotiations.

    Senate Democrats had hoped to use the two-thirds rule to win compromise in the bill.

    Senators have hailed the two-thirds tradition as a mechanism that nurtures compromise and bipartisanship in the Senate. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said a day earlier that he hoped he didn't have to use the loophole in the rules to pass the budget.

    But after closed-door discussions all morning, he clearly couldn't achieve the supermajority support he sought.

    Democratic leader Sen. Leticia Van de Putte said Democrats were concerned about the parliamentary precedent set by the maneuver.

    "No longer will any minority party in the Senate have a say in the budget bill," Van de Putte said.

    The GOP has a 19-12 majority in the chamber, but criticism over the budget mounted from both sides of the aisle. Republicans argued that $9.4 billion in the reserve fund should be left untouched, so it would be available to deal with future state emergencies. Democrats countered that proposed cuts to schools and other programs are inhumane when the reserve fund is sitting idly by.

    Ogden's GOP-condoned compromise replaces about $3 billion in rainy-day money by underfunding Medicaid, pushing those payments to the end of the budget period. Absent increased revenue from an improving economy --which he expects -- the budget would then force across-the-board cuts to state agencies other than basic public school operations.

    The compromise called him to lose support of key Democrats.

    In all funds, the Ogden's plan would still make about $11 billion in cuts, compared to the current budget. But the cuts are much less severe than those in the bare-bones House version.

    It also would cut reimbursement rates to Medicaid providers by 6 percent, compared to more than 10 percent proposed in the House. Nursing home advocates warned that cuts in the House plan would force the closure of hundreds of nursing homes that cater to elderly and disabled residents who depend on Medicaid.

    Even as the Senate grappled with internal division, House leaders warned that additional use of the Rainy Day Fund would be rejected by the conservative House, setting up even more tense negotiations.

    Use of the Rainy Day Fund, which is made up of oil and gas tax money, has been opposed by House conservatives and Gov. Rick Perry, who has stopped short of veto threats.

    The state is facing a revenue shortfall of at least $15 billion. The hole is partially because of the economic downturn, but a structural deficit in the state's taxing system also has contributed to the gap.

    Associated Press Writer Chris Tomlinson contributed to this report.