With more money and less enmity than two years ago, the Texas Senate eased through a $195.5 billion state budget bill on Wednesday.
Approved on a 29-2 vote, Senate Bill 1 replenishes some of the money cut from public schools, colleges and health care programs in 2011. It also gives state employees a pay raise, bolsters mental health services and continues funding for a women’s health program.
In 2011, lawmakers whacked $11 billion from schools, hospitals, prisons and other basic state operations. Over the next two years, general state spending would grow by $6.7 billion to $94.1 billion, a 7.7 percent increase.
Overall spending, including federal dollars, would rise 2.9 percent.
Spending levels will remain below the state’s growth rate, and the budget has actually decreased over the past decade when adjusted for population and inflation, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, emphasized.
“You can’t ignore the fact that our state has grown very fast, and we’ve had a huge challenge,” Williams said.
Democratic Sens. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and Sylvia Garcia of Houston voted against the bill.
The Senate budget chips away at some of the $5.4 billion in cuts absorbed by public schools over the past two years, and it pays for the 85,000 new students expected to enroll each year.
The 6 percent increase for public education includes a $1.4 billion boost to basic per-student school aid, which amounts to an average $83 per-student bump in the first year and $135 in the second. The 2011 cuts amounted to an average of $500 per student each year.
The Senate budget does not use any money from the state’s rainy day fund, which is projected to have $12 billion available to spend for 2014-15. Davis said leaving that fund off-limits has “artificially constrained” the budget.
“I believe this budget fails Texas children because it does not sufficiently address the state’s constitutional obligation to adequately fund public (education),” Davis said. “We have an opportunity to right some of the wrongs from the last session in a greater way than this budget is achieving.”
Davis and several other Democrats are backing a proposed constitutional amendment, filed Wednesday, asking voters to pull $4 billion from the rainy day fund for education, just as other members have done for water and transportation infrastructure.
State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, countered that more money for schools is not the answer.
“I don’t think anybody here wants to sacrifice education, but I do think … that we would make a mistake if we thought that throwing money after a broken system would remedy the problem,” Campbell said.
In the Senate’s budget, funding for health and human services increased by 8.1 percent for a total of $49 billion in state and federal dollars, with funding aimed at improving mental health services, reducing Child Protective Services caseloads and bumping up pay for caseworkers.
Budget writers also found $71 million to continue funding for the Women’s Health Program, which provides contraceptives and preventive care to low-income women. The program became enmeshed in a legal and political struggle after the federal government cut off funding because Texas banned Planned Parenthood from serving those women.
Advocates for nursing homes are unhappy with the Senate budget, saying it shortchanges nursing home facilities by $327 million in state funds, meaning the loss of more than $600 million in federal matching funds. A recent survey found that 18 percent of Texas nursing homes might be forced to close, while one-third might have to lay off staff, said Tim Graves, president of the Texas Health Care Association.
Legislators arrived in January to the news they would have $101.4 billion in general revenue to spend in the 2014-15 budget, a 12.4 percent increase over the current two-year budget.
They first set out to clean up many of the accounting tricks used to balance the budget two years ago, such as a $4.5 billion Medicaid IOU and the deferral of a $1.7 billion payment to school districts to the next budget.
About $409 million in available revenue remains unspent after the adoption of Senate Bill 1.
The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled Thursday to vote out its budget bill, which will be on the floor in early April. Then, members from the House and Senate meet to hammer out the differences before the bill returns for final approval at the end of the legislative session.
Senate budget by the numbers
$195.5 billion (all funds) — 2.9% increase over current budget
$94.1 billion (state funds only) — 7.7 % increase
$1.4 billion increase in per-student aid for public schools
8.1% increase in health, human services spending
Leaves intact $12 billion in rainy day fund
Leaves $409 million in tax revenues unspent