On Most Visible Budget Disputes, Senate Fared Better Than House

The $209.4 billion budget sent to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk includes hundreds of concessions made by the House and Senate. Yet on most of the high-profile disputes, the Senate won out.

Sen. Jane Nelson, the Senate finance chairwoman, and Rep. John Otto, the House appropriations chairman.
Sen. Jane Nelson, the Senate finance chairwoman, and Rep. John Otto, the House appropriations chairman.  Erika Rich / Bob Daemmrich

Seven weeks ago, the contours of the biggest turf war of the legislative session came into focus. The Senate Finance Committee voted to send a $211.4 billion budget to the full Senate.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House had already voted out a budget that tallied $209.8 billion.

After months of jostling for the upper hand, the distance between the chambers’ spending plans was finally clear: The Senate budget was less than 1 percent larger than the House budget.

“You look at the bottom line, we’re very close in the amount of money each have allocated,” Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said last month. “I just really don’t see any explosive huge differences in philosophy.”

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Yet those differences still amounted to billions of dollars in spending decisions — and the way they were decided will touch the lives of 27 million Texans in powerful ways.

“We weren’t that far apart, but on the big issues, we were hugely apart,” state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst said at a Texas Tribune event on Thursday.

On most of the high-profile disputes, the Senate won out. The $209.4 billion budget that both chambers approved Friday includes property tax relief over sales tax cuts, as the Senate wanted. It does not include the House’s request for higher payments to primary care doctors who treat patients on Medicaid, the joint federal-state insurer of last resort for the poor and disabled. It does include funding to keep the Texas Army National Guard on the border until the Department of Public Safety is considered fully staffed in the region, which the Senate had sought.

House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, disputed the notion that the House had lost in negotiations with the Senate. He pointed to areas where the House prevailed, including the resulting approach to shoring up the Employees Retirement System, and boosts to research funding for higher education institutions. Pay increases for thousands of correctional officers ended up closer to what the House had proposed. The tax cut deal also included the House’s 25 percent across-the-board cut to the franchise tax rate paid by businesses. The Senate had wanted to combine a smaller cut in rates and a provision freeing a large number of businesses from paying any tax at all.

“I feel very good about what the House came out with in this budget,” Otto said. “It’s not a contest to see who gets what. It’s trying to get the money distributed in the budget the best way possible.”

In the view of critics, particularly House Democrats who uniformly preferred the House budget, the chamber’s leadership should have fought harder for their version of the budget.

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“I feel like actually that the House was pretty successful on a lot of the so-called smaller things,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said. “But on the big items, I do feel like we got rolled over in the Senate.”

Howard echoed other Democrats in citing funding for public education as a particularly frustrating outcome of the budget negotiations. The House budget had boosted school funding $2.2 billion beyond increases to cover enrollment growth, and left open the possibility of tying another $800 million to reforms of the school finance system. The final version of the budget hewed closely to the Senate proposal, with $1.5 billion above enrollment growth.

“We still have about 31 percent of our school districts not receiving as much funding as they were receiving prior to the 2011 cuts,” Howard said, referencing that legislative session's hefty budget cuts. “That makes no sense. We came in with a surplus. We talk about how important investing in public education is and yet we can’t get back to the 2011 funding levels.”

That sentiment was apparent among Democrats on the House floor on Friday. Of the 33 House members who voted against the budget, 32 were Democrats, with several arguing they wished the final budget looked more like the version that originally passed the House. State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who served as vice chairman on the Appropriations Committee, explained in a passionate speech to the House that he couldn’t support the budget because of low spending on education and health care — and too much spending in border security.

“Let me just say that the budget that came out of the House a few months go, I thought was a good product,” Turner said. “It was certainly one for us to build on, and I proudly supported it.”

After both chambers approved the budget, its leaders praised the final outcome.

“This is a responsible plan focused on some very critical priorities,” House Speaker Joe Straus said. “This balanced budget puts more resources in our classrooms, strengthens our transportation infrastructure and makes needed investments in mental health and trauma care.”

Patrick’s statement included a more pointed assessment.

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"I began this session with a long list of budget priorities, based in large part on the priorities expressed by the people of Texas,” Patrick said in a statement Friday. “Each one passed as a part of the budget."