Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has appointed state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, to chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee, setting the stage for Nelson to be one of the lead budget writers in 2015.
Nelson replaces Tommy Williams, who resigned from the Senate in 2013 to become a vice chancellor of federal and state relations at Texas A&M University. She is the first woman to head the committee in the state’s history. Dewhurst is likely to appoint a new chair to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which Nelson has led since 1999.
"As one of the Senate's most principled conservative leaders, Senator Nelson has a sterling track record of creating smart, effective legislation for the people of Texas," Dewhurst said Thursday in a statement announcing the appointment.
The news was first reported Wednesday by the The Dallas Morning News.
In making the move, Dewhurst is putting the person that his possible successor, state Sen. Dan Patrick, had publicly announced last year was his preferred choice for the position. Patrick defeated Dewhurst in May's Republican primary runoff for lieutenant governor. Patrick will face state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, in the general election.
“Personally, I can think of no one better-suited to fill the position than my friend and colleague Senator Jane Nelson,” Patrick said in October. “In addition to being one of the key leaders in the Texas Senate, Senator Nelson has developed significant expertise as Chairman of Health and Human Services Committee. Her command of the issue – the single biggest budget driver – makes her perfectly suited to undertake this role and lead the Texas Senate through the budget process.”
Nelson joined the state Senate in 1993, after two terms at the State Board of Education, where she gained a reputation as a conservative firebrand. She has said that she originally expected to focus on criminal justice and education issues until Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock appointed her to the Health and Human Services Committee. As chairwoman of the committee, she has overseen several major health care initiatives including an overhaul of Child Protective Services and the establishment of the state’s Cancer Prevention and Research Institute. In recent years, Nelson has positioned herself as a pivotal vote on any health care legislation.
“I truly believe that people are alive today because of some of the legislation I passed,” Nelson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2011.
During Nelson's tenure as health committee chairwoman, funding for family planning has seen some dramatic swings. Money for family planning services was cut by two-thirds during the 2011 legislative session, from $111.2 million in the 2010-11 budget to $36.4 million in the 2012-13 budget. In the 2013 session, legislators increased the funding for the state's family planning program by roughly $7 million for the 2014-15 budget. That budget also includes a $100 million expansion of a primary care program, billed as covering treatment for "more comprehensive health problems" for an additional 170,000 women.
Nelson has the fifth-highest seniority in the Senate and the most of any Republican. She also served on the Senate Finance Committee for more than a decade.
If she retains her new position during the legislative session starting in January, Nelson will lead the writing of the state's next two-year budget alongside the chair of the House Appropriations Committee. The current House Appropriations Committee chairman, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chose not to run for re-election.
"I am absolutely up for the challenge and eager to get to work on a budget that will make Texas proud,” Nelson said in a statement Thursday. “I hope to develop a conservative, transparent budget that meets our growing needs and continues our successful economic formula. We will keep the Texas miracle moving full steam ahead.”