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The Brief: Jan. 31, 2011

It's billions of dollars for the taking — and this session, it's lawmakers' forbidden fruit.

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THE BIG CONVERSATION:

It's billions of dollars for the taking — and this session, it's lawmakers' forbidden fruit.

That'd be the Rainy Day Fund, the estimated $9.4 billion in state reserves that legislators, staring down a gaping multibillion-dollar budget hole, have been instructed not to use. Gov. Rick Perry has, in fact, made it one of his budgetary vows, along with a promise not to raise taxes.

But as the Senate Finance Committee gears up to hold its first budget meeting of the session today, some lawmakers are wondering when it would ever be okay to tap the fund, if not now. "We saved these monies to be used on a 'rainy day.' Most of us would agree this is one of those rainy days," state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, tells the San Antonio Express-News.

But as the Tribune reported last week, some claim that tapping the fund could hurt the state's bond rating. More importantly, it would leave no money for the state if the economy continued to falter.

State Sen. Steve Ogden, the Bryan Republican who on Friday was reappointed to chair the Senate Finance Committee, echoed that concern, saying the state should wait to tap the fund. "You start by cutting the budget in the current biennium, and if that still is not enough, then you have to consider using the Rainy Day Fund rather than reducing spending in '12 and '13," he told the Express-News.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, meanwhile, has said he'd approve partial use of the fund, as long as the state has enough money to balance its budget when the Legislature meets two years from now.

CULLED:

  • There exists one state financial woe that has little to do with the state budget shortfall: highway funding, which some state lawmakers are now saying is in a state of crisis as revenue, supplied by the state tax on gasoline, declines. Last month, the Tribune's Kate Galbraith looked at what the state was doing to get around the gas-tax problem.
  • Florence Shapiro, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, wants the state to be able to consider unpaid furloughs and pay cuts for school teachers before signing off on the thousands of layoffs proposed in state budget drafts.

"We’ll just have to see which one passes." — State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler — who has filed a bill that would punish, possibly with jail time, state officials who try to implement any portion of federal health care reform — on legislation proposed by one of his fellow conservative House Republicans, John Zerwas, to create a state health insurance exchange. The Trib's Emily Ramshaw has the whole story here.

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