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The Brief: May 17, 2011

The House and Senate made big progress on budget negotiations Monday, but maybe not enough to avoid a special session.

State Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, during debate on the state budget on May 4, 2011.

The Big Conversation:

The House and Senate made big progress on budget negotiations Monday, but maybe not enough to avoid a special session.

The committee tasked with reconciling the House and Senate versions of the budget came to an agreement yesterday on everything in the budget except for public and higher education funding, the Tribune's Ross Ramsey reports.

Lawmakers compromised on a number of pieces of the budget, including health and human services funding. The deal, for instance, would spare nursing homes from the huge cuts included in the House budget proposal.

But head budget writers, working against the clock, said they'd need to act fast on education to avoid a special session. Sen. Steve Ogden, the Bryan Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said that with less than two weeks left in the session, summer overtime might be unavoidable at this point.

"My personal opinion is that we need to agree on what we agree on, and then go to special session to work on our disagreements," Ogden said, according to the San Antonio Express-News. "I don't think we're going to agree on a funding level for education before a special session."

But Ogden's House counterpart, Rep. Jim Pitts, the Waxahachie Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, wouldn't cede that ground just yet. "It's my opinion we either do all of it or none of it," Pitts said of delaying debate on education.

The House, though, still must approve several fiscal-matters bills — which include accounting tricks and the like — before the conference committee can finalize an agreement. The House is scheduled to take those bills up Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, the Senate approved a $3.97 billion withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund — $856 million more than the amount approved by the House — to match the 2010-11 deficit. With some fiscal maneuvering, that difference could then be put toward the 2012-13 budget.

Culled:

  • The formation of a Senate subcommittee on casino gambling last week has several Republican senators, as the Austin American-Statesman reports, worried that gambling proponents may try to force the issue into Senate budget debates. Three senators, who asked not to be named, even said they might vote against the state budget in protest. "I'm afraid that this gambling issue is being raised and it could hold the schoolchildren of Texas hostage so the gambling interests can get their issue passed," said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. "I am fully prepared to talk about this issue for a long time. It would really be wrong to use gambling money to finance public education in this state."
  • After Democrats spent Monday lodging last-minute objections over "secret meetings" and the cost of issuing IDs, the House voted to send voter ID legislation to the governor's desk. The final version of the bill included an exemption for victims of natural disasters and increased the penalty for voting illegally.
  • The House will hear a bill today that, as the Trib's Kate Galbraith and Jay Root report, could give Waste Control Specialists — owned by Harold Simmons, the major Republican donor and Dallas billionaire — the right to accept low-level radioactive waste from several states.

"It's a stretch. But it's absolutely certain it won't happen if we don't try." — Rep. John Zerwas, R-Houston, on health and human services budget figures in the House-Senate compromise

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