Budget Writers Settle School Funding, Border Security

The House and Senate stepped closer to a final deal on a two-year budget Wednesday evening, settling dozens of differences between the two chambers including funding for public education and border security.

State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, are shown at a joint budget hearing on May 20, 2015.

The House and Senate stepped closer to a final deal on a two-year state budget Wednesday evening, settling dozens of differences between the two chambers over issues including funding for public education and border security. 

The chambers’ lead negotiators — House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, and Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound — both expressed hope that remaining unresolved questions, including the size of property tax relief and the source of funds for a boost to the Texas Department of Transportation's budget, would be settled by Thursday evening.

“These have been some long days and nights, but we have made great progress,” Otto said.

Nelson and Otto have been working until nearly midnight in recent days with Legislative Budget Board staff to settle differences between the two budgets. The final budget is expected to be around $210 billion.

“The finish line is in sight,” Nelson said.

The budget conference committee — made up of five senators and five House members — approved a $1.5 billion boost to public education beyond enrollment growth, according to the LBB. The figure matches what the Senate had requested. The House had pushed for a $2.2 billion increase, and had briefly considered an additional $800 million on top of that tied to reforms in the state’s convoluted school finance system.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was the lone “no” vote on the committee’s decisions to set the level of public education funding, in large part because he felt the amount was too little compared to how much the state was putting toward tax cuts and border security, he said.

“Conservatives spend money like they’re printing money,” Turner said, except on education.

Budget writers approved about $800 million for border security operations though the next biennium, a slight dip from the $811 million originally proposed by the Senate.

That’s compared to the House’s $565 million pitch, which sought to spend significantly less for Texas Department of Public Safety overtime and equipment. The largest expense results from the state’s desire to bolster the DPS ranks on the border and keep the Texas National Guard on the job while those units are trained. For that, lawmakers went with the Senate’s $325 million proposal. The monies will go toward hiring and training 250 additional troopers and 110 support staff. 

The final budget version includes about $143 million for a 10-hour DPS workday statewide, and an additional $83.4 million to extend the state’s current border surge operation in the Rio Grande Valley.

About $7.5 million will go toward a new Pilatus aircraft for DPS, and $8.8 million for a new Texas Ranger unit on the border that will require 27 full-time employees. There is also about $2.4 million for a new Texas Transnational Intelligence Center, which will likely be built in Hidalgo County.

On health care, the chambers opted not to follow a House proposal to boost pay for primary care doctors seeing patients on Medicaid, the joint federal-state insurer of last resort for the poor and disabled. Turner also voted against that decision, arguing that it would only continue a decline in the number of primary care doctors seeing new Medicaid patients.

Other budget decisions made Wednesday include:

  • Thousands of correctional officers will get an 8 percent pay increase at a cost to the state of $188 million over two years. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice had requested a 10 percent bump to address retention issues. The House had fully funded the request, while the Senate had proposed a 2.5 percent increase.
  • The Texas Racing Commission will get $16.7 million in funding for the next two years. The Senate had threated to defund the commission over its decision last summer to approve a new form of gambling technology at Texas racetracks that critics argued was akin to slot machines. Even though the commission doesn’t receive any taxpayer dollars — its entire budget comes from licensing and fees paid by the racetracks — that money still flows through the Legislature.
  • The film incentives program will get $32 million to draw film and television projects to the state, more than the $10 million the Senate had proposed but well under the $73.7 million suggested by the House. Gov. Greg Abbott’s office had said the program should get at least $70 million, but ideally $95 million, to keep the Texas film industry thriving.

Budget negotiators opted against moving $3 million from HIV and STD prevention programs to pay for abstinence education. The House had approved such a shift of funds during a tense debate on the House floor earlier in the session.

Some high-profile issues remain unresolved, including whether the Legislature should pay for property tax relief administered through a $10,000 increase in the homestead exemption for both years of the biennium or just the second year. The difference is about $650 million. The Senate is jockeying to implement the tax cut for both years. House leaders have argued for waiting, citing concerns from local officials about the cost and the mechanics of implementing the change in property tax policy so quickly.

Edgar Walters and Julián Aguilar contributed to this report.