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Senate Sends $6.6 Billion Budget Bill Back to House

The Texas Senate on Tuesday sent a $6.6 billion supplemental bill back to the House after Democrats in the upper chamber were assured that efforts to restore some funding to schools will be considered later.

State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, speaks to an aide after the Senate session on May 16, 2011.

Texas is one step closer to paying a pressing $4.5 billion Medicaid IOU after senators unanimously passed a supplemental budget bill Tuesday.

The Senate's version of House Bill 10 would spend $6.6 billion in state general revenue, about two-thirds of that to cover shortfalls in Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program in the current two-year budget, which ends in August.

In addition to the $4.8 billion in spending the House approved last month, the Senate version would spend another $1.75 billion to pay funds to school districts that were intentionally delayed last session so that lawmakers could balance the budget without raising revenue or further cutting spending. Wichita Falls Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts, chief budget writer in the House, had originally planned to address the delayed school payments in a separate bill. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said after the Senate vote Tuesday that he didn’t anticipate any problems with the House agreeing to the upper chamber’s changes quickly and sending the bill to Gov. Rick Perry.

Before the Senate approved the bill, senators had a school finance debate similar to one that preceded last month’s  vote on HB 10 in the House. Like state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, before her, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, proposed an amendment aimed at prompting a debate on school finance. Davis wanted to allocate $400 million more to schools in the current budget. Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, echoed his House counterpart, Pitts, in promising Davis that lawmakers will have a chance to discuss school funding later in the session.

“I can assure you that you’re going to have that opportunity and having that conversation, which we have not had, is the key thing that needs to happen,” Williams said. “It needs to be vetted in the Senate Finance Committee.”

Davis withdrew her amendment rather than forcing a vote on it, just as Martinez Fisher did last month. Davis made clear she expects senators to seriously discuss restoring money to schools in the current budget.

“People in Texas in the educational arena are hurting because of the cuts that we made,” Davis said. “If our priorities were in the right place, in my opinion, we could accommodate restoring at least half of those cuts”

Davis argued that an extra $400 million for schools is available in the state’s coffers, but Williams said that the exact size of the next budget and certain unpaid bills remain influx. He argued that lawmakers will have a better sense of the revenue available when they consider a second supplemental budget bill later in the session.

“I think it’s important that we give ourselves some maneuvering room,” Williams said.

Lawmakers have made addressing the Medicaid shortfall an early priority of the session, because health care workers around the state won’t be paid for services they provide if the matter isn’t addressed soon. Pitts has said Perry needs to sign the bill by early March.

A second supplemental bill is set to include $155 million in extra funding to the Texas A&M Forest Service for battling recent wildfires and $39 million to the Department of Criminal Justice for increased inmate health care costs. Budget writers in both chambers have said that school finance, among other items, is likely to be seriously considered as that bill moves forward.

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