Texas lawmakers approved on May 26 a $196.9 billion state budget, a hard-fought piece of legislation that includes billions of dollars in restored funding for public education and hundreds of millions in new money for mental health programs.
As the only constitutionally required job lawmakers are tasked with during the five-month legislative session, approval of the state's budget for the next two years happened just under the wire—one day before the 83rd Texas Legislature wraps up its regular 140-day session.
And lawmakers did it in spite of tough fights over the constitutional spending cap, spending of the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, tax breaks and education funding.
“I am pleased that we were able to pass a balanced state budget that does not raise taxes, maintains a robust rainy day fund for future emergencies and stays within our constitutional spending limit,” said Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston.
The increase in spending over last session is $3.7 billion, below the constitutional limits on biennial spending increase, according to budget writers.
“It's a budget that makes responsible use of our resources,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “It protects the health of our citizens as well as protects our fiscal health."
After a painful and historic budget crunch last session, lawmakers arrived in Austin in January to find a budget flush with cash, with much of the credit going to the recent oil and gas boom.
The package of bills covering state spending for the 2014–15 biennium also includes $1.2 billion in tax relief and increases pay for state employees and law enforcement.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, applauded the pay increase for police.
Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said he hoped the pay raise would reduce the number of officers leaving for positions elsewhere.
"We are losing them faster than we can train them to other jurisdictions—who just love to hire them away from the Texas Department of Public Safety—because they are best trained and the most elite in the state of Texas," Williams said. "I hope the pay raise will help stem that tide. We have a lot of vacant positions."
The occasionally tense 11th-hour negotiations included battles over two measures tied to the budget package. After a deal was reached, the Senate passed the budget on May 25, and the House approved it late in the evening on May 26.
One measure was a constitutional amendment seeking voter approval to spend $3.9 billion in rainy day funds.
The second was a measure outlining the uses for the fund: $2 billion for the Water Infrastructure Fund, $1.75 billion to fill a deferred education payment and $185 million for wildfire recovery. The measure also includes $450 million to fix deteriorating roads in the state’s oil patch and a supplemental increase to the Foundation Education Program.
Public education funding
In 2011, state lawmakers cut more than $5 billion from public education, but this session restored most of those cuts.
The budget fully funds expected enrollment growth in public schools at a cost of $2.2 billion, increases by $3.4 billion funding for the Foundation School Program, adds $530 million to the Teacher Retirement System, boosts per-student funding at colleges and universities, and increases funding to the TEXAS Grant program.
Lawmakers anticipate a Supreme Court decision on the way the state funds public schools after a judge earlier in the session said it was unfair and amounts to an illegal property tax. Part of the funding plan for the session was to get closer to the correct formula, Williams said.
"We targeted the money in our increase in public education funding to address the concerns that were raised in the lawsuit," Williams said of the school funding litigation pending in state district court. "This is a significant improvement in [the way] school funding formulas work. It makes the entire school finance system more predictable in how it yields results for our schools as a result of SB 1."