$209.8 Billion Budget Plan Headed to House Floor

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday backed a $209.8 billion two-year budget that would leave $8.4 billion on the table, along with billions more in the state’s savings account. The budget plan now goes to the full House.

State Rep. John Otto (right) proposes a constitutional amendment to use Rainy Day Fund money to pay off state debt during a news conference on Jan. 15, 2015. At left is state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a clarification from state Rep. Donna Howard to a statement she made on state funding.

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday endorsed a $209.8 billion budget that would spend $7.7 billion more than the current two-year budget and would leave $8.4 billion on the table, along with billions more in the state’s savings account.

The committee voted 24-0 to move House Bill 1 forward after more than a month of hearings. The budget will be debated and voted on by the full 150-member House next Tuesday, March 31, according to House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton.

“This is a good budget, but it is not yet complete,” Otto said. “Over the next two months, we will continue to work on this budget, first on the floor and then in cooperation with the Senate in conference.”

As the Appropriations Committee voted out its main budget bills Tuesday morning, the Senate Finance Committee was working next door on its own version of the budget, Senate Bill 2. That committee is expected to put the finishing touches on the bill later this week.

HB 1 includes $104.6 billion in general revenue spending, the closely watched portion of the budget that lawmakers have the most control over. That’s up $9.4 billion, or nearly 10 percent from the current budget, which spends $95.2 billion in general revenue.

State Comptroller Glenn Hegar told lawmakers in January that they had $113 billion in general revenue to work with, as well as a Rainy Day Fund that’s projected to grow to $11.1 billion by the end of the next biennium if left untouched.

“Based on my math, we are looking at approximately $19.4 billion in unspent dollars in the state of Texas,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, the vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “I think we need to seriously consider whether or not we fund adequately our major priorities, transportation being one.”

Otto noted that, not counting the Rainy Day Fund, about half of that $8.4 billion in unspent money is from dedicated funds that can only be spent on specific purposes. That limits what lawmakers could do with the funds. He also stressed that the budget being sent to the House floor is far from complete. Also, HB 1 leaves just $2 billion available under the constitutional spending cap. While spending past the cap requires a simple majority vote in both chambers, Republican leaders including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus said they have no plans in breaking the cap this session.

“Obviously, I think everyone is aware that there will be tax reductions this session,” Otto said. “It would be imprudent before we get to conference to put ourselves in a bind.”

The part of the budget that see the biggest increase in spending is Health and Human Services, which is rising $4.6 billion or 6.2 percent. Business and Economic Development also sees a big spike, $1.7 billion or 6.1 percent, largely because of $1.5 billion in extra funding for the Texas Department of Transportation.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said lawmakers should look at putting more in public education. She said that HB 1’s spending on education leaves 40 percent of school districts receiving less funding than they did before 2011, when the Legislature implemented large budget cuts.

After the meeting, Howard said on Twitter that she "misspoke" and clarified that under current law, 33 percent of districts are receiving less funding than before the 2011 budget cuts.

Despite concerns from some Democrats about unspent funds, the Appropriations Committee praised Otto for how he handled the budget-writing process, his first session in the position. Along with HB 1, the committee also voted 24-0 to send out HB 2, a supplemental budget bill that will address unexpected costs and IOUs from the current budget.