Texas House and Senate in a Budget Showdown


Gov. Greg Abbott shakes hands with Speaker Joe Straus while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick looks on.

Facing criticism from Texas House Republican leadership and despite the concerns of one key GOP senator about certain tax cuts, the Texas Senate this past week passed its version of the state’s two-year spending plan on a vote of 30 to 1.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, cast the lone “no” vote.

The $211 billion budget, which differs from the approach of the House in a variety of ways, funds $2.1 billion in “property tax relief” in the form of an increase in the homestead exemption as well as a $2.3 billion business tax cut. The House plan focuses on a sales tax cut coupled with a 25 percent across the board margins tax cut.

Amid the tension over how to cut taxes, Gov. Greg Abbott slated a news conference where he stressed slashing business taxes. At that press conference, Abbott absolutely refused to say whether he had a preference for the House tax cut plan or the Senate’s. GOP lawmakers meantime were privately grumbling that Abbott has been woefully disengaged in the process, greatly frustrating their efforts to create consensus at the Texas Capitol.  

“This comprehensive budget addresses the priorities and needs of Texans,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick following final passage of the Senate’s version. “It includes business and property tax relief, strong border security, quality public education, prioritized transportation funding and more.”

As she laid out the budget, Finance Committee Chair Sen. Jane Nelson’s office noted the upper chamber’s plan would spend nearly $1 billion on border security, end highway diversions, inject nearly $3 billion across state government for mental health programs, add $50 million for women’s health, and add $60 million to ensure residency slots for all graduates of medical schools in Texas.

Nelson and Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, stressed that the budget also fully funds Medicaid caseload and cost growth.

“When adjusted to remove tax relief, the budget grows by 3.5% from the 2014-2015 budget,” Nelson’s office said. “This was not my budget but it was our budget,” Nelson said on the floor while thanking senators who toiled in working groups so that the Finance Committee could pass this document unanimously.

Sen. Nelson got visibly choked up and appeared to wipe away a tear as she moved final passage of the first Texas Senate budget in history to be ushered through Finance with a woman as the powerful committee’s chair.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, repeated his concerns about the Senate’s rush to cut property taxes prior to addressing the state’s needs, specifically transportation and the Employee Retirement System.

In an exchange with Eltife, Sen. Nelson acknowledged that the Senate budget would leave the state about $3 billion short annually in meeting the needs identified by the Texas Department for Transportation. That’s just the cost of maintaining current congestion on roads, Eltife pointed out.

Eltife also said the liability for ERS will grow by next session to about $8.5 billion if lawmakers don’t act this session. Both the House and Senate are working toward putting some kind of down payment on that, Eltife said, which just makes common sense. “The only question is how much it’ll be,” he said, referring to what will come out of negotiations between the two chambers.

“I have agreed with you that we need to stop the bleeding,” Nelson replied to Eltife’s concerns about ERS. “We didn’t get here overnight, we’re not gonna fix it overnight,” she said and thanked Eltife for his “persistence” on these issues.

$811 million is set aside in this budget for border security, a larger amount than was committed by the House. While the House has already approved a bipartisan $565 million border security package, the Senate has moved much more slowly, even drawing the ire of conservative websites like Breitbart Texas.

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, led one of the working groups and fielded questions on the floor about whether the border security money being directed to the Department of Public Safety is really going to be used for border security and whether other parts of the state will see an increase in DPS trooper presence. There has been a noticeable decrease in DPS patrols around other parts of Texas as troopers have been moved to the border. The Senate’s budget will help to fix that, Huffman said.

“I’m confident (DPS) will be diligently training those troopers and preparing them to work on the border,” Huffman said. The funding for National Guardsmen remains in the budget to pick up the slack, she said. “We are bringing in the local law enforcement and have grants for local law enforcement,” Huffman added.

The Senate has $118 million to bolster quality Pre-K programs, a priority of Gov. Abbott, in Article XI of its budget, which of course amounts to a budget wish list unless there is other enabling legislation. The House has passed a version of that bill authorizing up to $300 million for Pre-K. Public Education Committee Chairman Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said Pre-K is certainly “a conference-able item.”

After voting no on the budget, Sen. Garcia said the document was a failure on multiple fronts. “We were elected to wisely invest Texans’ hard-earned money and grow the Texas dream, but this budget does neither. When the state underfunds schools and roads, it penalizes the hardworking taxpayers that rely on the state to meet these fundamental needs,” Garcia said.

Passage of the Senate budget came as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, earlier in the day laid out his tax cutting package. In opening that hearing, Chairman Bonnen was critical of the Senate’s plan, noting that senators have not voted to “cut property taxes,” but instead are increasing the homestead exemption. There’s a huge difference, he contended.

Note: The original version of this story originally appeared in The Quorum Report. Join us there for daily coverage of Texas politics and government. Copyright April 14, 2015, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reservedReprinted with permission. 

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