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Texas Senate beefs up spending plan

By Victoria Advocate
March 14, 2013 at 12:02 a.m.
Updated March 13, 2013 at 10:14 p.m.


AUSTIN (AP) - Public schools and mental health services in Texas would recover more of the funding gutted two years ago with the help of $5.2 billion in general purpose spending added Wednesday to a state budget plan that now heads to the Senate.

The extra dollars beef up a lean first draft of the 2014-15 budget that Republicans proudly unveiled in January and Democrats at the time blasted as needlessly tight-fisted given a roaring Texas economy that is projected to flush state coffers with historic revenues.

The revised budget unanimously approved by the Senate Finance Committee uses $94.1 billion in general revenue, which would be a 7.7 percent increase over what the state is currently spending.

General revenue is the slice of the proposed $195.5 billion two-year budget that lawmakers most influence. Combined with federal dollars, the budget passed by the committee Wednesday is $8.6 billion more than the base Senate budget released in January.

"Any of us didn't get everything we wanted, but I think we came up with a good work product, given the budget situation that we're in," said Republican Sen. Tommy Williams, the committee chairman.

Williams expects the full Senate to vote on the bill next week.

It includes an additional $1.4 billion more for public schools in Texas, which lost nearly four times that amount in 2011 when lawmakers made deep across-the-board cuts to close a massive shortfall. Mental health programs and resources would receive an extra $240 million, though advocates say Texas would still rank near the bottom when it comes to mental health spending nationwide.

Democrats vowed to push for more funding for schools and social services in the remainder of the 140-day session that ends in May.

Yet they also praised the lack of acrimony during budget negations this time around. Those talks routinely evolved into tense exchanges two years ago, when lawmakers scrambled to fill a $27 billion budget hole and divisive proposals over immigration and women's health stifled bipartisanship.

"It was a different tone this session altogether," Democratic Sen. Royce West said.

Unspent money remains on the table, although Williams said there is fewer than $1 billion left under the spending cap. Lawmakers can vote to exceed the cap, but that's unlikely in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Senate budget bill notably doesn't include two of the Legislature's marquee spending priorities: water and transportation. Proposals to take $3.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to build roads and new water projects have wide support, and Williams said both the Senate and House are brainstorming ways to tap the state's emergency piggybank without going over the spending limit.

Included in the bill is a rider instructing state health officials to seek legislative approval before making changes to Medicaid. Gov. Rick Perry has rejected expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and other Republican leaders say they will try to come up with their own solution to provide more poor Texas residents with health care.

Other additions in the Senate committee bill include $746 million for higher education and $40 million for a prekindergarten grant program eliminated in 2011. Not included is new money for the state's embattled $3 billion cancer-fighting agency that remains under criminal investigations, but that could change as proposed reforms snake through the Legislature.

House budget writers expect to have their version finished as early as this week.

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