- By Sean Collins Walsh American-Statesman Staff
Both houses of the Texas Legislature approved a $216.8 billion state budget for 2018 and 2019 on Saturday that does little to improve the state’s widely criticized school finance system, boosts funding for scandal-plagued child protection agencies and maintains the state’s $800 million commitment to border security.
The House voted 135-14 to approve the budget, with all “no” votes coming from Democrats. Soon after, the Senate approved it in a 30-1 vote, sending the two-year spending plan to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, voted “no,” saying the budget didn’t represent the values of her district.
The compromise spending plan crafted by House and Senate negotiators spends slightly more than the current two-year budget. But after factoring in inflation and population growth, it translates to a 7.6 percent cut compared to current spending levels, according to the Legislative Budget Board.
Due to sluggishness in the oil and gas sector cutting into tax revenue and past fiscal decisions tying their hands — especially a $2.6 billion tax cut for businesses and a $4.7 billion set-aside for transportation projects adopted in 2015 — lawmakers initially had less money to spend this year than they did for the current budget.
The House and the Senate each found different ways for the state to come up with an extra $2.5 billion to lessen the severity of expected cuts: The House tapped the state’s $11.9 billion rainy day fund, and the Senate proposed delaying a payment to the State Highway Fund until the following budget cycle.
Following a dispute between House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, the conference committee that negotiated the compromise budget ended up using elements of both plans by taking $990 million from the rainy day fund and saving $1.8 billion through the transportation funding maneuver.
Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, the Senate’s top budget-writer, said negotiations with the House were “tough.”
“It became clear right away we had very similar goals on what to fund but very different ideas about how we would pay for that,” Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said. “This was not an easy budget to balance. We are a growing state with growing needs.”
House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican and the House’s top budget writer, called the budget “a true compromise.”
The relatively harmonious adoption of the budget is an outlier in a session marked by the stark divide between Patrick and Straus, the two Republican leaders of the Legislature who hail from different ends of the GOP spectrum.
At the beginning of the session, many Capitol observers worried disagreements over the budget, the only bill the Legislature is constitutionally required to pass, would force a special session. But with two days left before lawmakers adjourn their regular session, it now appears the biggest threat to lawmakers wrapping up business on time is Patrick’s insistence that they approve a so-called bathroom bill restricting transgender Texans’ access to the restrooms of their choice.
The budget boosts funding to Child Protective Services by $500 million to give caseworkers raises and hire 500 new ones in an attempt to slow the alarmingly high turnover at the beleaguered agency.
It pays for the cost of enrollment growth in public schools but does nothing to fix the K-12 funding formula following the Senate’s rejection of a House plan to boost funding for schools and reduce the state’s reliance on the so-called Robin Hood system, in which property-rich school districts send the state money.
Although spending on schools increases slightly, the state’s share of education funding will continue to decrease — from 41 percent this year to less than 38 percent in 2019 — as lawmakers take advantage of a part of the funding formula that allows them to pay less as districts pay more due to rising property values.
The spending plan also directs school districts to spend $236 million on high-quality pre-K programs, a priority of Abbott’s.
Funding for Texas’ public colleges and universities, which the Senate had initially targeted for major cuts, roughly maintains its current funding levels — for now. The budget also requires lawmakers to find alternative ways to fund higher education programs called “special items,” which do not get their money from the regular funding formula and which the Senate’s initial budget had eliminated entirely.
The budget allocates $57 million in state and federal money to restore 25 percent of the amount of money that lawmakers in 2015 cut from a Medicaid therapy program for poor children with disabilities.
In a win for the Senate, the budget maintains an $800 million spending level for Texas’ one-of-a-kind state-level border security program, allowing the Texas Department of Public Safety to add 250 new troopers. Democrats and some Republicans had hoped to reduce or eliminate the border campaign in light of the Trump administration’s promised build up of U.S. Border Patrol spending.