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Budget Update: House Passes Key Fiscal Matters Bill

After days of debate, the House finally passed a key fiscal matters bill — Senate Bill 1811 — that raises necessary funds to balance the proposed budget.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, holds his bill book while listening to evening debate on SB1811 in the Texas House on May 20, 2011.

11:55 a.m. Saturday update:

After days of debate, the House finally passed a key fiscal matters bill — Senate Bill 1811 by state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock — that raises necessary funds to balance the proposed budget. The final vote in the House was 100-44.

This is a crucial step to getting the budget wrapped up. Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, has even said that the budget plan will not work without passage of SB 1811. It will now head back to the Senate to see if the upper chamber concurs with the many amendments added by House members.

5:50 p.m. Friday update:

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus say they've got a budget deal. Here's their release:

Today, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) announced a budget agreement from the Senate and House conferees of $80.6 billion in General Revenue on House Bill 1:
"I'm pleased that the House and Senate have come to an agreement that will help balance the budget and protect Texas taxpayers while making a historic $15-billion cut in government spending," said Lt. Governor Dewhurst.  "We are hard at work passing a number of related bills, including school finance reform, which also must pass in order to balance the budget."
“I want to thank the House and Senate budget writers for their tireless work in bringing forward a budget that is disciplined, fiscally conservative and that lives within our means,” said Speaker Straus.  "The agreement that we reached with the Senate today funds nursing homes, our public schools and universities, and provides financial aid for college students while keeping substantial revenue in reserves and avoiding any new taxes.”


5:07 p.m. Friday update:

The Senate is adding a school finance measure — SB 22 — to a fiscal bill, turning that into a multi-part school finance bill that can then be sent to the House for approval. They're using SB 1581, which was shot down in the House Thursday because it carried a provision allowing concealed handguns on college campuses.

So, to catch you up: The budget talks are paused while legislators work on fiscal bills in the House and Senate, and everything appears, for the moment, to be on track. Budget writers will return later to try to close differences on higher education spending.


4:30 p.m. Friday update:

House Speaker Joe Straus was smiling this afternoon as he emerged from a meeting with the chairmen of House committees, who were hinting that the two chambers had come to a deal on the two-year state budget. 

State Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said he was more optimistic now about a budget deal than he was earlier today. "We're in better shape than we were a few hours ago," he said, after emerging from a meeting with House budget leaders. He said tonight the House will take up SB 1811, the fiscal matters bill that is needed to raise enough money to pay for the budget.

While the House goes through the "multi-hour ordeal" of debating SB 1811 — it has become a magnet for hundreds of amendments — negotiations will continue, Ogden said, over how much each chamber wants to spend on higher education and how much of the Rainy Day Fund ought to be used. Ogden said SB1811 must pass in order for the budget deal to work. 

After Ogden emerged from his meeting with House budget writers, a flurry of activity exploded in both chambers, indicating that a deal was in the making that could avert a special legislative session. House chairman gathered in a meeting with Straus, and House Republicans congregated for a caucus meeting of their own. Meanwhile on the floor of the upper chamber, Senators began discussions, about bringing up and passing school finance legislation that is critical to avoid a special session.


Original story follows:

The Senate Higher Education Committee approved a higher education funding bill this morning that Gov. Rick Perry has reportedly said is critical to his approval of the state's two-year budget. But the Senate's lead budget writer said that hasn't made much difference in advancing budget negotiations.

State Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said this morning that House and and Senate budget negotiators are still stuck on talks over the Rainy Day Fund and how much the state should spend on higher education over the next two years. "No movement since last night," Ogden said as he briskly walked by reporters and onto the Senate floor.

House Speaker Joe Straus confirmed late Thursday that House negotiators have agreed to a higher level of public education spending, which means the House will go with a $4 billion cut to schools, as proposed by the Senate, not a reduction of almost $8 billion as the House originally contemplated.

Officials say the main sticking points remain in higher education and how much to use out of the Rainy Day Fund. House negotiators want to use a lower amount from the fund, about $3.1 billion, instead of roughly $3.9 billion that the Senate wanted. Republicans in the House, elected on a platform of fiscal austerity, are keen on spending as little as possible out of the reserve account. Last night, on the House floor, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a member of budget conference committee, vowed to hold the line at $3.1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund. His declaration was greeted with cheers from many of his fellow representatives.  

The difference on higher education started at $1 billion and has since been whittled to $300 million.

In the House, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, said there were "intense meetings" under way, "some including the governor" about how to bridge that $300 million divide. 

One of the fiscal matters bills critical to the budget got thrown back to the Senate for carrying a concealed weapon; it had been amended there to include legalization of concealed handguns on college campuses. State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, said when that measure gets stripped off in the Senate, as is expected, that could be the end of his third attempt to pass legislation allowing concealed handgun license owners to carry weapons on university campuses. "It's looking pretty bleak," he said Friday morning. Wentworth said he was upset with his fellow San Antonio Republican, House Speaker Joe Straus, for upholding a point of order that effectively shot down chances for the bill to pass this year. "I'm not happy with him at this point," he said.

Budget chiefs would like to reach a deal by 2 p.m. today, when the House is scheduled to take up, SB 1811, its primary fiscal matters legislation. For now the measure has more than 700 pages of pre-filed amendments. In the hope of moving the legislation along more quickly, Zerwas said his colleagues were examining the stack of measures to see if they could instead add them to other bills.

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