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House, Senate Budget Goals Could Lead to Battle

As the House prepares for a vote on its budget bill, Senate lawmakers are hinting that they're looking to spend more than their counterparts on public education — setting the stage for a budget battle.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, lays out House Bill 1.

Wednesday proved a pivotal day for lawmakers in the budget-writing process. As the House Appropriations Committee voted along party lines to move the 2012-13 budget bill to the floor for a vote, Senate lawmakers hinted they are looking to spend more than their counterparts on public education — setting the stage for a budget battle. 

HB 1, the House version of the general appropriations bill, proposes a $164.5 billion budget for the 2012-13 biennium, a 12.3 percent decrease from the current biennium. State general revenue would drop by 5.4 percent, from $82 billion to $77.6 billion. 

After the 18-7 vote in House Appropriations, Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, confirmed to reporters that the bill includes a 10 percent cut to Medicaid provider rates and a 34 percent cut in nursing home funding. 

Pitts said he knows it is an austere budget, and said it may be subject to many changes between now and the end of the session. “It’s a budget that reflects the money we have. We need to get something over to the Senate,” he said. “We’ll go to conference, and hopefully we can make it better.

Last week’s political circus between House budget writers and Gov. Rick Perry led to an agreement to withdraw $3.1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to balance the current 2011 budget. While that action replaced $2 billion in expected education funding cuts, it still leaves the state about $8 billion short of its financial obligations to schools. 

State Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who serves on Appropriations and voted against the bill, says he opposes it because it cuts funding for college scholarships, textbooks, instructional materials and nursing homes. Democrats also contend 80,000 teachers and other education workers risk losing their jobs. 

“We’re instead sitting with a huge amount of money in the bank while we’re laying off teachers,” Hochberg told The Texas Tribune, referring to the majority party’s decision to leave about $6 billion in the Rainy Day Fund for the next two years. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Pitts acknowledged HB 1 could cut at least 8,000 state jobs, but said it reflects the will of the House, especially newly elected members. 

“They feel they were elected to make cuts and they just accurately reflect what their constituents want,” he said. 

Another member of the budget committee, Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said he has no doubt “this is going to be the budget that passes” the House, but that he also does not think the magnitude of the proposed cuts has hit lawmakers or their constituents. 

“Not a single Republican ran on the platform of cutting public education. Not a single colleague of mine ran on the idea of kicking seniors out of nursing homes,” he said. Looking forward, “the Senate Democrats have a real role to play. They have the numbers to slow the budget bill down and get the Senate to bring to the House a much better version of House Bill 1.”

House Republicans outnumber Democrats 101 to 49 — so getting a majority is no hard task there. In the Senate, Democrats hold 12 of 31 seats. 

Late Wednesday morning, a group of Senate Republicans held a press conference to call on districts to spare teachers’ jobs and classroom spending, even as they face inevitable cuts. Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said a subcommittee she heads has identified $6 billion that can be added to the baseline budget for public schools. She said they arrived at that figure by planning for a variety of scenarios, including “across-the-board” cuts to districts that may range from 3 percent to 8 percent. 

“District officials are making hard decisions,” she said. “We urge districts not to be short-sighted.” 

Shapiro, joined by GOP state Sens. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound; Dan Patrick, R-Sugar Land; Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay; Joan Huffman, R-Houston; Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; and Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, told reporters that nonteaching jobs outside the classroom cost the state about $9 billion a biennium. 

“If we just cut 10 percent, that gives the state $2 billion. That’s real savings,” said Shapiro, who is scheduled to outline the group’s funding recommendations before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

It's unclear just how far apart the House and Senate budget bills will end up. The Senate has yet to formally outline its ideas for other areas of the budget, including health services and public safety. Senate budget writers have also not taken up the issue of whether to dip into the Rainy Day Fund. 

Pitts says Wednesday’s vote to send HB 1 to the floor was needed to move the process forward, but that the conference committee charged with finding a compromise between the two chambers may have a hard time appeasing a conservative House. 

As he peered down at the several hundred pages that make up HB 1, Pitts warned, “I think there’s a lot of members of the House who’ll say, ‘This is as far as we can go.’”

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