Lege Passes $209.4 billion Budget

On Friday, the Legislature finally passed a nearly $210 billion budget for 2016-2017, promising both $3.8 billion in tax cuts and a three percent budget increase over 2015. Conservatives were pleased that the budget also managed to stay well under the spending cap and not touch the so-called Rainy Day Fund, projected to be just over $11 billion by the end of 2017.

So what gives? Mainly public education and public health spending. The latter is an almost entirely self-created problem as Texas has opted out of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, leaving billions of federal dollars on the table.
The House’s budget version, at least, had provided nearly half a billion in Medicaid reimbursements for physicians to keep them from running away from the program in droves, but that was not included in the Senate version, nor the hybrid bill that ultimately passed both legislative bodies this week. Notably, the budget also leaves some organizations providing breast and cervical cancer screenings to women out in the cold, solely because those organizations provide abortion services.

The House had also provided for $2.2 billion in public education funding to go to students’ basic allotment in addition to a $2.7 billion increase that covers enrollment growth. The reconciled bill went with a much lower $1.5 billion toward the basic allotment, about $100 per student. Depending on which side of the aisle you were on, this meant either that 70 percent of schools would be funded above 2011 levels, or a third of schools would barely meet 2011 budget numbers, the last year before $5 billion was slashed from state public education funding. However, even the Senate budget’s chief author and chair of the finance committee, state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) admitted that a looming Texas Supreme Court decision on the state’s school finance system will lead to “more focus on public education spending.”

And still, there’s about $6.4 billion in untapped general revenue funds, plus the fact that this budget is about $2.9 billion under the Texas constitutional spending limit. Meanwhile, the proposed property tax relief has already been criticized, by fiscal conservatives no less, as not really doing much for the average Texan homeowner.

Yet the tone of the Senate was fairly jubilant. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proclaimed “I think it’s the best budget the Senate’s ever produced,” and Nelson basked in kudos most of the morning, despite some fire from fellow GOP member Kevin Eltife, who was concerned about increasing debt and a continuing shortfall in funding the state’s Employee Retirement System. Even Eltife joined the majority to vote 30-1 in favor of the reconciled budget. Not so Houston’s Sylvia Garcia, who cast the lone ‘nay’ vote in protest of the relatively little amount being spent on public education and healthcare, while border security measures saw their budget double.

Garcia’s concerns were echoed by many more members of the House, who also debated the reconciled budget bill Friday morning. From the start, the tone was less celebratory, as many House members clearly preferred the bill they had passed to the Senate-updated one they now considered.

State Rep. Donna Howard said, “it appears now that tax cuts are trumping the obligations we currently have.” Later, the Vice Chair of the Finance Committee, Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), said that while as a committee member he had been well aware that tax cuts and border security would be amply provided for, he’d be voting against the reconciled version, based on “woefully inadequate” public education spending. Noting the recent flooding in Houston and other parts of the state, Turner also questioned the amount dedicated to state infrastructure spending, warning “If we do not invest in our infrastructure in a very real way, all of us will suffer.”

Most of the debate over the bill, however, focused on the increased border security funding, which would provide some $800 million to the Texas Department of Public Safety and other state law enforcement agencies to combat drug and human trafficking in the region. The House bill’s number had increased DPS’ budget for border security substantially, but fell well short of doubling its 2014-2015 levels. The House had also previously passed a border security bill mandating an 11-person investigative committee to which DPS would report on its border operations. In an investigation earlier this month, the Austin American-Statesman found that DPS actions contributed to less than 10 percent of recent border drug seizures, despite a $100 million bump in funding for last June’s Operation Strong Safety. But the Senate first removed the oversight committee, then added a much less potent version as an amendment to the bill that ultimately passed.

Many Democrat lawmakers from the border railed about the increase in funding and lack of oversight for the enhanced DPS presence in their community. State Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) compared the border surge to the George W. Bush administration’s search for “weapons of mass destruction” and noted that Texas border communities experienced lower crime rates than other parts of the state. He also worried that “when we expand government, it never contracts.”

In all 115 House members voted for the revised budget, a product of what House Finance Chair John Otto called “a very long and arduous time.” Democrats and some Tea Party Republicans comprised the 33 votes against the bill. The budget now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, where he may use line-item veto power, but is generally expected to sign the bill.

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Callie Enlow