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Texas House's chief budget writer: State shouldn't cut border security funding

The Texas’ House’s chief budget writer said that President Trump’s emergence in Washington shouldn’t give state lawmakers license to slice hefty appropriations for border security — at least not yet.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, answers questions regarding a lean Texas budget with an appearance at a Texas Tribune event on Feb. 23, 2017.

While state lawmakers look for ways to resolve a funding shortfall while avoiding steep spending cuts, the Texas House’s chief budget writer said Thursday that President Trump’s emergence in Washington shouldn’t give state lawmakers license to slice spending for border security — at least not yet. 

House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, told Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at a Tribune event that he was “hopeful” that Trump would deliver on his lofty campaign promises to secure the border, but “hope is a really lousy strategy” for writing a budget.

Zerwas suggested Texas had no clear reason to change its border efforts, which has included a large ramp-up in funding. Lawmakers approved a record $800 million in border security funds two years ago. This year, the Senate’s two-year base budget would keep that number, while the House’s plan would appropriate $663 million, most of it going to the Department of Public Safety.

In one of his first interviews since being named chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Zerwas also offered his thinking on how much the state should spend on public education, transportation funding and the state’s collapsed child welfare system in an unusually tightfisted budget cycle due largely to a mixture of sluggish economic growth and tax cuts in 2015.

Asked by Smith “How screwed are we?” Zerwas responded: "We're challenged, but we're not screwed."

The two legislative chambers started out billions apart in the base budgets rolled out last month. The House’s budget was roughly $4 billion above the revenue estimate Comptroller Glenn Hegar offered ahead of the session, and the Senate’s was more than $1 billion below that threshold.

Zerwas said Thursday that his colleagues were considering tapping the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a savings account set aside for lean times which has more than $10 billion.

“This is one of those times when I think our economy is in need of some form of stabilization,” Zerwas said, adding that lawmakers should use the fund sparingly and for one-time items.

Here’s what Zerwas said about other issues:  

Public education

Zerwas echoed widespread criticism of Texas’ arbitrary and inequitable system of funding education, saying “we seriously need to look at how we finance” public schools. He expressed doubts, however, that the Legislature could fix the system during the current session, which ends on May 29. "I really think we need a period of time when we're undistracted."

Zerwas said he would vote against school choice efforts, which are gaining momentum in the Senate. That’s the idea of tapping public funds to pay private school tuition for thousands of Texas schoolchildren. "I don't support school vouchers as a replacement for our public school system,” he said.

Bathroom bill

Citing opposition from the business community, Zerwas said he “would be a no vote on the floor” for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s “bathroom bill," the push to require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on “biological sex.”

Transportation funding

Some lawmakers are mulling ways to free up to $2.3 billion in sales taxes currently guaranteed to construction and maintenance of roads and bridges after Texas voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 7 in 2015.

Asked about that strategy, Zerwas said he “hasn’t ruled it out,” but it’s not high on his list of plans. Freeing up the money would require a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

Child welfare

Zerwas called saving abused or neglected children one of the most critical functions of government, and said “we can’t get lost in the statistics on this.”

The Texas Department of Child and Family Services has asked for more than $1 billion in additional funds to make basic improvements to the child welfare system, including more staff to investigate child abuse. Lawmakers in both chambers have proposed allotting $325 million of that — less than one-third of what the agency says it needs.

Zerwas said his colleagues should scrutinize the agency’s request to make sure all that additional funding is needed.

Texas leaders have largely remained quiet about whether they’ll provide more resources to that system, even among widespread reports of its failures

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