First Stabs at a Texas Budget Highlight How House, Senate Have Very Different Agendas

AUSTIN -- The Texas Legislature's two chambers, both Republican-controlled but very different in outlook, began this session's budget tussle on Tuesday by issuing conflicting signals.While both initial budget drafts covered the $2.7 billion cost of surging enrollment in Texas public schools, the Senate GOP leadership's version left $1.3 billion of available funds unspent and cut non-school spending by 1.5 percent across the board.House Republican chiefs' version, meanwhile, spent $4 billion more general-purpose state revenue than Comptroller Glenn Hegar last week said would be available.That allowed them to add $1.5 billion for schools, contingent on passage of school finance fixes, and $162 million more on mental health programs. Both are top priorities of House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.The Senate proposed continuing to spend $800 million in state funds on enhanced law enforcement at the Texas-Mexico border. The House would cut that to $663.2 million in 2018-2019.While Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw asked for $300 million more, the ascension of President-elect Donald Trump, who vowed to build a border wall and get tough on federal immigration enforcement, appears to have given Texas GOP leaders cover to ignore McCraw's requested boost in funding. But at least for now, they don't feel comfortable redirecting the $800 million, even in a tight budget session.In higher education, the House proposed spending $14.9 billion in general-purpose revenue, compared with the Senate's $14 billion.Medicaid, the main safety net health care program, would receive nearly $2 billion less in state money from the Senate than from the House.Both chambers' first stabs at a two-year budget proposed continuing the new hires and pay raises approved last month for Texas' beleaguered Child Protective Services agency.However, neither added any of the additional hundreds of millions CPS and its parent department requested to make other improvements, including to foster care, which a federal judge has severely criticized in a case the state is losing.Straus and Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who is the Senate's top budget writer, issued written statements calling their respective chambers' base budgets a good starting point but subject to change."We keep overall spending low while making investments in children and our future," Straus said. He touted the House version's higher spending on mental health, CPS and public schools.He predicted a final budget that "will put more dollars in the classroom, protect children and keep this state on sound fiscal footing."Nelson spoke of a "need to prioritize." She noted the Senate's base budget incorporates 4-percent cuts offered by agencies to GOP leaders last year, as well as the 1.5-percent trim. (The latter exempts the Foundation School Program, the main way that the state funds public schools.)"We have difficult decisions to make this session, and we will work tirelessly to address the needs of the state in a responsible manner," said Nelson, who is expected to helm the budget-writing Senate Finance panel for a second session.The House's proposal to set proposed spending slightly above Hegar's initial revenue forecast is a challenge to fiscal hawks who've advocated tighter and tighter restrictions on state spending.Last week, Hegar said he expects $104.9 billion of general revenue in the next cycle, which begins Sept. 1.If history is any guide, the Republican comptroller very well may up his estimate and put a little more cash on the table before the session ends May 29.That alone might bring the House's base budget under his revenue projection, as the Texas Constitution requires.If not, House leaders have said they're confident they can cut or find other ways to get under the mark.In 2003 and 2011, the Legislature used various accounting gimmicks to soften cuts. By a two-thirds vote of each chamber, lawmakers could grab some of the rainy day fund's more than $10 billion for the next cycle.For fiscal hawks, that's never popular. But after months of examining austerity options, it could be less unpalatable than it is in January.  Continue reading...

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