Texas Senate Debates "Non-Tax Revenue"

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Sen. Carlos Uresti, Sen. Robert Duncan and Sen. Dan Patrick review amendments to Senate Bill 16, the abortion sonogram bill.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Sen. Carlos Uresti, Sen. Robert Duncan and Sen. Dan Patrick review amendments to Senate Bill 16, the abortion sonogram bill.

The Texas Senate, digging publicly for money while it battles quietly over a proposed budget, approved a "non-tax revenue" bill that would make $4.3 billion available for spending over the next two years. The vote was 21-10, with all of the no votes coming from Republicans.

Senators walked around taxes, wary of a constitutional provision that requires revenue-raising measures to start in the Texas House. They talked about taxes on small cigars, on full-time residents of hotels and motels, and on ending exemptions to producers of high-cost natural gas. Other ideas, like sweeping the balances in the governor's economic development funds, were presented and then pulled down before they came to a vote.

The Senate Finance Committee voted out a budget a week ago that depends on the money in SB 1811, and also contains a provision for tapping into the state's Rainy Day Fund for up to $3 billion. That provision, combined with the fact that the budget cuts 5.9 percent from current spending, has senators struggling to assemble the 21 votes it would take to call up the budget for debate.

While working privately on that, they went ahead with the revenue bill. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, spent part of the afternoon on defense, fending off efforts to change or delete some of its provisions. For instance, the legislation would raise some $800 million by accelerating collection of the state's business margins tax. Sens. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Dan Patrick, R-Houston, tried to undo that. They argued that the state is trying to solve its own cash-flow problem by creating one for businesses that would have to pay the tax months earlier than under current law. That effort fell short.

The session came apart for a while after two amendments — one, which would increase spending on indigent defense by $32 million, and the other, a package of budget reforms — were debated. The first won approval and the second did, too, after senators paused and left the room to meet in private.

A proposal from Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville — with an assist from Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano — would have frozen hiring of state employees for two years. Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, pointed out that with the state's 10 percent annual attrition rate and its approximately 240,000 employees, that would mean losing about 45,000 workers over the next two years. Nelson said it would save up to $496 million. The Senate voted down the idea.

State employees get longevity pay — $20 per month for every two years of service — and ending that for two years would save $323 million, according to Nelson. The trade for losing that "stickin'-around bonus", she said, is that employees would get to keep their jobs. That was voted down.

Nelson tried again with a 10 percent pay cut for all employees making more than $200,000 annually. And Patrick unsuccessfully to win approval for a 5 percent cut in pay for those making $100,000 or more.

At the end, they circled back to legal aid, reconsidering their vote to add the indigent defense proposal from Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. It passed 17-14 the first time; when it came back up, it prevailed once again by the same margin.

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