March 21, 2005
Senate will spend more

The first cut of a Senate budget is out.

Senate budget writers today approved a $139 billion two-year budget that restores some cuts made to health and human services programs two years ago, increases salaries for state workers and state troopers and gives more money to higher education.

The Senate Finance Committee also boosted funding for the troubled Child Protective Services agency and approved more money for probation and alternatives to incarceration to slow prison population growth.

The spending plan for 2006-2007 is a 10 percent increase over the current two-year budget cycle and includes $66.2 billion in state funds. The rest comes from federal funds.

Budget writers did not face as tight of a money pinch this year as they did two years ago when they drafted the 2004-2005 budget while facing a nearly $10 billion shortfall.

"This is a good budget," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden. "It's well thought out. There is bipartisan support."

Finance Committee member Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, was the only lawmaker to voice some opposition when he voted present not voting on the plan.


On education, state lawmakers allocated $1.5 billion to fund enrollment growth, but school funding likely does not end with this budget proposal. Aside from the budget, lawmakers are working to put together a new funding plan to pay for Texas schools, and they have pledged that schools will get additional money.

Funding for higher education would grow by 8 percent, or about $800 million, under the Senate plan. A provision in the budget takes away some state funds from colleges that raise their tuition too high. Lawmakers last legislative session gave universities the authority to set their own tuition rates and since then, tuition has increased about 16 percent.

Also included in the budget are pay raises for state employees of about 9 percent over the next two years. And Department of Public Safety troopers' salaries would increase to the state average for police officers in large Texas cities.

It's not clear to me where they plan on getting the money for all this, though I suppose we'll find out when they present their own verion of HB3. They've already pooh-poohed the House's payroll tax, and I can't say it would shock me if they revive the concept of a broader sales tax on services. Whether this will engender more opposition in the House or will be seen as a welcome relief is also not clear to me.

A wildcard in all this is the various proposals for expanded gambling, all of which continue to lurk in the background like stalkers. The bulk of the pro-gambling bills have been filed by Democrats, which Hotshot Casey thinks is a tactical error.

One perceptive Democratic operative summed it up well:
"A Democrat-backed gambling initiative will allow Perry, Craddick and (Lt. Gov. David) Dewhurst to take credit for balancing the budget, funding schools and not raising taxes.

Democrats will continue to be demonized as morally bankrupt, for carrying water for gaming interests and would take the blame for all the ills that gambling is likely to bring to the state."

His solution is for a coalition of Democratic leaders to take the lead in opposing gambling and force Republican leaders to make the difficult choice: "Take gambling off the table and find another source of revenue to fund schools or provide Republican support for gambling and split their base."

Will the Democratic leadership, if there is such a thing, do something so smart?

If I were a betting man, I don't think I'd put my money on the donkey.

Unfortunately, I fear he's right. I can understand why Rep. Kino Flores is pushing a bill, since his South Texas district would be a direct beneficiary. Rep. Sylvester Turner says he had a change of heart, and I guess I can accept that. God only knows what Sen. Ken Armbrister's angle is. Maybe none of these bills stand a chance, and maybe the Senate will deal honestly with the budget issues and drag the House along with them. Maybe. I think the Republicans have painted themselves into a corner here, and I don't see any reason to throw them a dropcloth.

(Casey column also noted by Stace.)

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 21, 2005 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack

State politics is much more topsey-turvey than national. What a clever move it would be for the Dems to oppose gambling in this fashion. I'm glad you pointed out this article from the Chron!

Posted by: B. K. Oxley (binkley) on March 21, 2005 5:05 PM