WEEK IN REVIEW
BUDGET NEARS COMPLETION
(AUSTIN) — Legislators negotiating the state budget have reached agreement and are ready to present a final budget to each chamber according to the Senate's lead budget writer. Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson announced that all ten conferees have signed off on a plan to spend $107.8 billion in state funds through 2019. "This is a responsible budget that keeps Texas moving in the right direction,” Nelson said in a statement released Thursday. “It prioritizes education, addresses transportation, secures our border and strengthens protections for abused and neglected children.” She said she intends to present the budget to the full Senate for a final vote on Saturday.
One of the sticky issues facing negotiators is how to pay for about $2.5 billion in additional spending needed to cover critical needs. The Senate version would've deferred payment of $2.5 billion in highway funding approved by voters last November into the next fiscal year. The House preferred to tap the state's Rainy Day Fund for the money. In the end the chambers split the difference; the budget plan proposes to use $990 million in RDF money for one-time expenses like repairs to state facilities and new construction and the transportation fund deferral was cut down to $1.7 billion.
Some spending highlights include funding for border security at $800 million, the same amount that was appropriated in 2015. The bill would fully fund public education growth, and still includes money for special items for colleges and universities. The Senate zeroed out this funding in their version and put the funds into the college funding formula. The compromise with the House will keep about half of this funding and will create a special commission to look at the issue over the interim.
This week was the last week to pass bills in both chambers, and the very last bill the Senate took up was one that would tweak the forthcoming school accountability system. Passed in 2015, the new system would rate individual campuses on an A through F grade system. Changes approved by the Senate early Thursday morning would move certain metrics around, and would compare campuses to similar schools rather than every other school in the state. It would also require the Commissioner to work with parents, teachers, administrators and other key stakeholders before making changes to the way the state gauges school success.
Also this week, the Senate approved a plan to fix the City of Dallas' ailing police and fire pension program. Facing severe shortfalls following years of poor management, the new plan, agreed to by state, local and union officials, would give the city a majority on the governing board while requiring a supermajority of the 11 board seats in order to change benefits or contributions. Led by Dallas Senators Royce West and Don Huffines in the Senate, lawmakers believe this new plan will keep the fund solvent for the forseeable future. "Now we provide the City of Dallas the ability to nurture and further develop this pension fund into what we want it to be, a model for not only for the Great State of Texas but also the United States," said West. Representative Dan Flynn of Van, who carried the bill in the House, moved to concur with Senate changes to the bill, sending the measure to the Governor's desk for final approval.
Though it's too late for new bills to work through the system, there's still plenty of work left for lawmakers in the waning days of the session. Lawmakers from both chambers will work through the weekend to hammer out differences between House and Senate versions of bills and present them to their respective bodies for approval. Any measures not worked out by Monday will have to wait two years for another chance to become law.
The Senate will reconvene Saturday, May 27 at 10 am.