Of that amount, $1.9 billion is earmarked for education and tax reform. The rest of it is "free money" that lawmakers can use as they see fit, Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton said.
State programs that were not fully funded in the current state budget are hoping for their share of the budget surplus. A pharmacy school that has been built but has no operating funds and nursing homes top a list of priorities issued by Gov. Rick Perry.
Of the surplus, $473 million can be spent anytime by the Legislative Budget Board. Other expenditures must be approved by lawmakers during a legislative session.
"We've had an uptick in the economy," Strayhorn said, noting 28 consecutive months of increased sales tax revenues.
Quite a difference from three years ago, when several consecutive months of declining sales tax revenue turned a $5 billion projected deficit into a $10 billion one. Keep that in mind as you read this:
Some conservatives are calling for the Legislature to use the surplus for property tax relief.
"They should give it back to the people from whom they took it," said Michael Quinn Sullivan, vice president of the Austin think-tank Texas Public Policy Foundation. The surplus would be enough to reduce property taxes by about 17 percent.
The surplus "reaffirms to us the need for the Legislature to use that surplus to buy down property taxes, an easy solution to the situation that we find ourselves in with the June 1 deadline looming," Sullivan said. "There's no need to do economically dangerous things."
Meanwhile, you can't have a story like this without some posturing. That's Governor Perry's cue:
Taking a swipe at Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn over more than $2 billion in uncollected taxes, Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday that he will oppose any legislative effort this spring to significantly boost education spending with new taxes.
Perry said it won't be necessary to raise taxes to increase education spending if lawmakers adopt a broad-based business tax because it will raise more money for education as the economy grows.
"Second," he added, "we just need the comptroller to collect the nearly $3 billion that is out there and owed her office today by deadbeats and tax cheats. Do the job!"
The governor's office later said Perry's comments were based on a 2-month-old news report on KHOU-TV in Houston.
Strayhorn, running against fellow Republican Perry as an independent, adamantly defended her tax collection efforts and said the governor was trying to mislead Texans with a "partisan political attack."
"The governor of the state of Texas has a responsibility to know the facts and to tell the people of Texas the truth," she said.
Strayhorn said the uncollected taxes total $2.6 billion, stretching over as long as 10 years, and already have been turned over to the attorney general's office for possible legal action after the comptroller's office had exhausted all collection alternatives.
Some of the taxes, she said, are tied up in bankruptcy, and others are owed by "fly-by-night" operators no longer in business.
Perry also confirmed earlier reports that he wants the Legislature to focus on cutting property taxes in a special session and, if necessary, leave any additional educational changes until next year.
Legislative leaders have said they want to consider other educational changes this spring, including merit pay for teachers, which Perry supports. But the governor said it would be better to wait.
"I'm for reform. ... But I understand what the Supreme Court told us," he told reporters after his speech.
"Do we have to eat this (education) pie at one sitting? And I think the answer is 'no.' We can eat it one slice at a time and enjoy it and actually keep it down," he added, apparently recalling the rancor that plagued two unsuccessful education sessions last summer.
Perry said only one in 16 businesses now pays the franchise tax, which he criticized as a "very unreliable source of revenue for our schools."
"I think it makes more sense to have a broader tax that captures more of the economy at a very low rate," he said.