WEEK IN REVIEW
SENATE BUDGET PLAN RECEIVES UNANIMOUS SUPPORT
(AUSTIN) — The Texas Senate approved without objection a budget that preserves the educator pay raises and increased public school funding that were the centerpiece of the 2019 session. This was part of the $250.7 billion the body appropriated for spending over the next two years. That number includes $117.9 billion in state general revenue and represents a slight increase over the last biennial budget. That there weren't cuts in the face of a full year of pandemic restrictions on Texas businesses is a testament to the state's past fiscal policy, said Finance Committee chair and Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson. "Throughout last year, things were looking pretty bleak," she said. "But never underestimate Texas. We have proven our resiliency time after time and because of our commitment to smart fiscal policy, we are able to bring forward a budget that will keep Texas strong, safe, healthy, and prosperous."
As part of Tuesday's floor discussion, Senate Education Committee chair Senator Larry Taylor of Friendswood laid out the successes of last session's HB 3. That bill put more than $4.5 billion into the classroom and increased the average pay of teachers with five or more years of experience by $5,200. It increased the basic allotment, the base variable which determines how much funding each district gets per student, by more than $1,000 and created special allotments for students with dyslexia and college readiness. The law also directed increased funding to the poorest districts. It was the marquee bill of what Lt. Governor Dan Patrick called the "Super Bowl of legislative sessions" in May of 2019.
Taylor said that during the summer, when the state revenue forecast looked grim, it wasn't certain that the state could continue the level of funding established in HB 3. "There were times during this past year…when it didn't look so easy to do," he said. "It was going to be a very difficult task, fortunately our economy has improved along the way." This session's budget actually increases education funding by $3 billion, to keep up with student population growth through 2023.
Another key issue faced by Senate budget writers this session is how to spend the billions in federal aid headed to the state. That decision will probably have to wait, as it is looking increasingly unlikely that the latest round of federal aid would get to the state before the session ends on May 31st. Lawmakers don't want to leave Austin for 18 months with no say in how the more than $30 billion in local, state, and public school federal aid gets spent. Nelson said she's working on a few ideas, one of which is a bill to create an interim legislative panel with authority to accept or reject federal aid funds.
Nelson told members that the state needs to be aware of the strings attached to any federal aid funds that might commit the state to future spending increases. "We also need to be very, very cautious about committing and obligating funds when we don't know all the details because we cannot have that money clawed back and be on the hook for expenditures," she said. Nelson added that the Finance Committee staff are working with federal officials to determine exactly how and where incoming federal aid dollars can be spent.
The next step for the budget is the reconciliation process. After the House passes its budget proposal, five members of each chamber will meet in conference committee to resolve any differences between the two versions of the budget. Conferees will have until the end of May to present a final budget bill to each chamber.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 12 at 2 p.m.