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Senate Committee Passes – Adequate’ Budget

House and governor remain obstacles to Senate budget plan
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For the past several weeks, the big question at the Capitol has been whether the Texas Senate could come up with a budget that avoids the catastrophic cuts the House passed last month.

Quickly and with hardly any discussion between members, the Senate Finance committee approved a $176.4 billion budget this morning. It spends nearly $12 billion more than the House plan, especially on public education and health and human services. The bill passed on an 11-4 vote. Three Senate Democrats—Eddie Lucio, John Whitmire and Judith Zaffirini—and Republican Dan Patrick voted against the measure.

While the Senate budget looks downright generous compared to the House proposal, it’s still 5.9 percent below current spending levels. Also, based on what state agencies requested for the 2012-13 biennium, the Center for Public Policy Priorities estimates the Senate budget is still 14 percent below what the state needs to fund growth and inflation.

“I think this bill keeps Texas government functioning and essential services available to Texans,” Finance Chair Steve Ogden said after the vote. “It doesn’t generously meet the essential needs, but I think it’s adequate. And in these circumstances, adequate is a pretty big deal.”

The Senate’s extra $12 billion in spending comes from a few sources, most notably the proposal to use $3.1 from the Rainy Day Fund to help balance the 2012-13 budget should revenue estimates stay the same. That $12 billion also includes state Sen. Robert Duncan’s list of non-tax revenue passed this week, which totals to about $4.2 billion.

The Senate budget softens rate cuts to nursing home providers and restores $4 billion to public-education funding. But it still underfunds Medicaid by $3 billion. State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said the committee had three priorities in mind when writing its budget—healthcare, public education and public safety—and the Senate budget does restore some funding to all three areas, but still imposes deep cuts.

“While this causes pain, it’s pain that’s bearable, compared to House Bill 1, which is unbearable,” Hinojosa said. “While we don’t fund growth, in the situation we find ourselves in with the governor and the House, this is the best we can do.”

The Senate may have restored some sanity to the budget process, but the governor and House remain major obstacles.  The Senate plan would use the Rainy Day Fund, and Gov. Rick Perry has opposed all session a budget bill that uses the Rainy Day Fund for the next biennium. The House also refused to tap the fund for the 2012-13 budget, and House members seem disinclined to change their minds.  House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, has said repeatedly he doesn’t have the 100 votes needed in the House to use the Rainy Day Fund. It will be hard to get the House to come up from its barebones $164.5 billion budget.

Ogden’s next step is to debate the budget on the Senate floor next week, and he seems confident he has enough Senate votes to get it passed. That will set up a major confrontation over spending levels, with the Senate on one side and the House and governor on the other. Ogden says he’ll fight for what was passed out of committee today.

“My question for them is, ‘if you don’t use the Rainy Day Fund, what do you propose to cut?’” he said. “I’m not sure there’s going to be an answer, and I doubt there’s going to be an answer satisfactory to the Senate.”

It’s a standoff that may lead to a special session this summer.

Forrest Wilder contributed to this report.