The State of Things in Budget Limbo

Budget compromises seem to be chugging along—assuming they can pass some mighty controversial fiscal matters measures.
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It’s looking more and more likely that the Legislature may yet reach an agreement on the budget—in the regular session. Most of this week, House and Senate lawmakers have struggled to see if they could come to a compromise on education funding, the most contentious fiscal battleground. By Thursday night, R.G. Ratcliffe and others reported the biggest sticking point is now almost a million dollars in funding for higher education. The Senate appears to have prevailed on public education, where there will likely be a $4 billion cut to funding, rather than the House’s proposal of a $7.8 billion cut. 

Meanwhile, credit-taking is already beginning. Speaker of the House Joe Straus sent out a press release last night arguing that the House had done its share of negotiating already by allowing the use of an extra of $3 billion in the budget, thanks to “additional revenue from the Comptroller and the improving economy.” He was referring to the extra $500 million that the Comptroller added to her tax revenue projections and the $2.5 billion coming from savings and accounting tricks in the “fiscal matters” bills. The new money “allowed House budget negotiators to find an additional $2 billion to fund public schools,” he said. It’s quite a statement, given that the lionshare of the “fiscal matters” bills come from deferring $2 billion in payments to public schools. 

And there’s no guarantee that the key “fiscal matters” bill is going to pass—without which all of the compromising is for naught. The fiscal matters bills implement accounting tricks, like deferred payments, to provide extra money for budget writers to use. And there’s no guarantee that the key measure, Senate Bill 1811, is going to get through easily.

Last night, after the House passed one of fiscal matters bills dealing with Medicaid savings, members braced themselves for a long debate on Senate Bill 1581, another necessary fiscal matters bill primarily about education funding. But Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, wasted no time marching up to the podium and calling a point of order on the bill.

His issue, he said, was with a last minute Senate amendment from Sen. Jeff Wentworth that would have allowed concealed handguns on college campuses. “The vast majority of students and their parents oppose guns on campus,” he said. “So do our chancellors and presidents of universities.” Plus, he said, it wasn’t germane to a bill about money and funding. The speaker sustained the point of order, and sent the bill back to the Senate to strip out the measure. 

But while tweets soon broke out accusing Villarreal of effectively killing the budget and prompting a special session this summer, Villarreal says there’s no reason to panic. If the Senate cannot turn the bill around fast enough for the House to pass it by Tuesday’s deadline, the key components of the bill he killed can simply be added onto the other fiscal matters bill, SB 1811.

That leaves a whole lot riding on one measure. The House is scheduled to debate the SB 1811 Friday at 2 p.m. If they can’t pass it, it’s hard to see how they’ll pass the budget. 

For his part, Villarreal is hoping for a special session, although he maintains the Democrats have no impact on the matter.  “I don’t think it can get any worse if we go into special session,” he says. “The Senate budget is harmful to the quality of our kids’ education. The House budget is a disaster.”