As you know, the Lege has one task they absolutely must do every biennium, and that's pass a budget. The Senate Finance Committee has taken its first step towards doing that.
A two-year state budget that accepts federal stimulus money and increases spending by 7.3 percent, but hoards cash reserves, was approved by Senate budget writers today.
Counting federal funds, the Senate Finance Committee's budget would spend $182.2 billion, up $12.5 billion over the current two year cycle.
"It's a fairly significant increase in the overall budget," said Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. "The committee worked hard to try and address many, many legitimate needs in state government, and we wouldn't have been able to do it without the federal stimulus money."
The panel approved the budget, 14-0. The full Senate is expected to act on it later this week.
A key goal of Senate budget writers was to protect the state's "rainy day fund," so that 2 1/2 -year old school property tax cuts won't vanish after 2011. The committee left untouched some $9.1 billion expected in the rainy day fund by September 2011.
The reserve is expected to be used next session, when lawmakers will confront a yawning gap between the 2006 property tax cuts and offsetting new revenues from a revamped business tax and higher taxes on cigarettes and private transfers of used cars.
A 24-percent increase in federal funds helped the Senate panel balance the budget for 2010-2011.
In a brief discussion by the Finance Committee, Sens. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said they were voting for the budget with reservations.
Zaffirini said the panel should have heard testimony from experts before adopting a last-minute provision that would bar using any funds in the budget for embryonic stem cell research.
Proponents of using embryos, who say they are obtained from fertility clinics and would be discarded anyway, said Texas stands to lose billions from a burgeoning biotech industry if it continues to create a hostile legal and regulatory climate.
A recent study by University of North Texas economists Bernard Weinstein and Terry Clower said the state could lose out on as many as 100,000 new jobs in the next five years if the state restricts embryonic research.
House budget writers, spurred by a chairman angered by how Gov. Rick Perry helped steer a $50 million grant to the Texas A&M University System, voted Friday to strip Perry of one of the powers he used to make the grant happen.
The House Appropriations Committee put language in its proposed budget saying any transfers between the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund must be approved by the 10-member Legislative Budget Board. The panel also said the budget board, made up of the lieutenant governor, House speaker and members of the House and Senate, must approve any grants from the two funds.
Perry uses the Enterprise Fund to attract businesses to the state and the Emerging Technology Fund to launch tech projects at universities working with the private sector. Current law says grants from those accounts must be approved by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker.
Friday's move was a response to Perry's announcement this week that he had transferred $50 million from the Enterprise Fund to the Emerging Technology Fund to pay for a grant to the Texas A&M University System for a new pharmaceutical manufacturing center.
But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie , says that's not how the state usually pays for buildings at universities.
Several members of the Appropriations Committee, including Pitts, praised the Texas A&M center, saying they were more concerned with the process than the result.
"We have a legitimate concern that funds (that) were dedicated for one purpose were moved to a fund with a completely different purpose with little or no input from the Legislature," Pitts said.
One more thing:
The Appropriations panel also proposed putting $136 million into the Enterprise Fund and $77 million into the Emerging Technology Fund over the next two years -- combined, more than $200 million less than Perry requested.
"Now is not the time to cut back on job creation programs," Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said.