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The Brief: Top Texas News for March 15, 2011

The scuffle over tapping the Rainy Day Fund took an awkward turn on Monday.

Jim Pitts talks Texas with Evan Smith at TribLive on January 13, 2011.

The Big Conversation:

The scuffle over tapping the Rainy Day Fund took an awkward turn on Monday.

At an impromptu House Appropriations hearing on Monday, the committee's chairman, Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, expected to get the OK from Gov. Rick Perry's office to drain part of the Rainy Day Fund, the state's $9.4 billion savings account, to help offset some of the current budget deficit.

Perry has publicly opposed tapping the fund, but his aides have reportedly said in private that he might support drawing down the fund to cut into the current deficit.

But neither the governor nor any of his representatives showed. And, as the Tribune's Thanh Tan reports, it wasn't for lack of trying on Pitts' part: "We've called every budget person in the governor's office — and no one is answering their phone," he told lawmakers.

Pitts, who said he thought he'd worked out a deal with the governor, said he wanted the committee to be clear about where Perry stood on the issue. "Our understanding is they were coming," Pitts said.

The moment of tension came after the comptroller earlier in the day raised the state revenue estimate by $300 million in light of improved sales tax collections — a significant, but far from game-changing, budget development.

Meanwhile, the governor on Monday took part in a "town hall" conference call organized by conservative group Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. Perry called use of the Rainy Day Fund for the next budget cycle a "nonstarter" but — similar to other public statements he's made recently — hinted that he'd be open to using the fund for the current shortfall.

"If there are some dollars in the Rainy Day Fund required to balance the [2010-2011] budget, at the end of the day then we’re going to have a balanced budget," Perry said.

Culled:

  • An expansion of the South Texas Project, a nuclear power plant near Bay City, was thrown into doubt Monday as officials announced that Tokyo Electric Power Co. — operator of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, which now faces a nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl proportions — appeared unlikely to proceed with its planned investment in the project.
  • Legislation banning so-called sanctuary cities, in which local officers aren't allowed to enforce federal immigration policy, cleared a House committee on Monday in a party-line vote.
  • A Senate finance subcommittee originally formed to find $9.9 billion in Medicaid savings must now look for $16.1 billion worth of cuts for the entire state health and human services budget, subcommittee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, announced Monday. And it has less than a week to complete the task. 

"I think that is a wild and out-of-even-close-to-proportion number." — Gov. Rick Perry, in the same conference call in which he addressed tapping the Rainy Day Fund, challenging claims that proposed cuts could force up to 100,000 teacher layoffs throughout the state

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