Leaders Find Agreement on Budget's Finer Points

State Rep. Jim Pitts and state Sen. Tommy Williams.
State Rep. Jim Pitts and state Sen. Tommy Williams.

The 10 state lawmakers in charge of hashing out a budget compromise between the House and Senate remain at odds over the two largest parts of state spending — education and health care — but confirmed Monday that they have found common ground on nearly everything else in the budget.

The budget conferees adopted compromise solutions on about one-sixth of the state budget on Monday morning, including public safety, natural resources and the state court system.

Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said there are still “outstanding issues” on articles 2 and 3 of the budget, the portions focused on health and human services and education, respectively. The two articles make up more than 80 percent of the state budget.

“We’re trying to hone in on some public education funding levels between the two chambers,” Williams said.

Funding for schools as well as tax relief remain key sticking points between the House and Senate. Two other expensive issues, water infrastructure and road construction, also remain unresolved. Last week, House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts temporarily cut off budget talks with Williams after he felt both sides were at an impasse. Budget leaders insist that both sides are closer now than they have been at this point in previous sessions.

The decisions the conferees made Monday include fully funding the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas if a bill reforming the agency’s funding practices becomes law.

“I believe that the Legislature still supports the mission of CPRIT and with Senate Bill 149 in place, I believe the confidence is there to roll forward with the mission of CPRIT and I am so happy,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

The conferees opted to punt the question of whether to close the Dawson State Jail in Dallas and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said conferees adopted a budget rider that would require the department to find $97 million in savings in its spending on privately-run state jails, an amount that could be achieved by closing the two facilities.

“At the end of the day, it may end up being those two,” Turner said.

The Senate had originally approved closing both prisons due to a sharp drop in the jail population in recent years. In the House, where lawmakers had argued that the two prisons were vital to their local economies, lawmakers voted to keep them open.

Turner said the conferees had also approved a 12 percent pay raise for all judges, including state district judges, which would increase lawmakers’ pensions by the same amount. Under state law, state lawmakers’ pensions are tied to the salaries set for state district judges. Lawmakers had been considering raising district judges’ salaries by as much as 21 percent.

On funding for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, a longstanding program in the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that provides financial incentives to encourage businesses and residents to reduce vehicle emissions, lawmakers agreed to split the difference between the two proposals. Conferees approved around $155 million for the program for the next two years, about $23 million less than what the Senate wanted and $23 million more than what the House wanted.

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