Top House and Senate negotiators sealed up the final unresolved issues on a two-year budget deal on Thursday evening, including removing controversial language that would have killed a proposed Dallas-Houston bullet train.
“We began this process with two very different bills, and there were many who thought an agreement was not possible,” House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, said. “Tonight proves them wrong.”
The 10-member budget conference committee, led by Otto and Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, voted on the bulk of their budget decisions Wednesday evening. The remaining sticking points took hours longer than expected to resolve Thursday. The committee’s meeting was originally scheduled for 3 p.m. but was repeatedly delayed. The committee finally convened just before 8:30 p.m.
Nelson said she was pleased that Senate budget writers had reached all of their original goals, including putting funds toward education, transportation, border security and tax relief.
“I think this budget is responsible," Nelson told Otto. "It is compassionate and I truly believe, Mr. Chairman, that it will bring Texas to even greater heights."
The size of the final budget was still being tallied late Thursday but was expected to be somewhere around $210 billion. The House and Senate will both need to approve the final version before it reaches Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.
Some House Democrats expressed frustration with the compromise budget’s handling of public education, which ended up matching the Senate’s proposal: $1.5 billion beyond funds for enrollment growth. The House had proposed boosting school funding by at least $2.2 billion.
Lingering issues that budget negotiators tackled Thursday included a budget rider designed to kill a proposed bullet train project connecting Dallas and Houston and a shortfall of more than $500 million in the Texas Tomorrow Fund, which locks in year-over-year tuition rates for students who pay up front.
The budget rider, which was in the Senate’s budget proposal, barred the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any state funds toward “subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail.” Texas Central Railway has vowed not to take public operating subsidies for its $12 billion project. Nonetheless, company officials said the rider would kill the train because TxDOT, as the state agency in charge of transportation, would need to play a role in the project’s construction.
The budget conference committee voted 6-4 to remove the rider from the final version of the budget. The no votes were from four Republicans: Otto, state Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, and Sens. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown.
Schwertner and Kolkhorst both said they have reservations about the bullet train.
“This project is being sold to the people of Texas that it will never need state backing or subsidization or bailing out, and unfortunately, I think that’s a complete fallacy,” Schwertner said.
Otto said budget writers weren’t able to find money to address the Texas Tomorrow Fund. But he and Nelson have discussed amending one of his bills related to surplus funds earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund. As originally proposed, House Joint Resolution 8 would direct some future surplus tax revenue toward paying off debt. Otto said Nelson may amend the bill in the coming days to first put any excess funds toward the Texas Tomorrow Fund until it is solvent.
Budget writers did manage to find $30 million to fill a request from Abbott for the Texas Military Preparedness Grant Program, which invests in the state’s military bases to help them stave off federal closures.