Texas Senate, House budget drafts offer little consensus on state spending

There is very little consensus between the Senate and House versions of the 2018-19 state budget proposals released early in the 85th legislative session.

The Senate’s first draft, written by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, accounts for $103.6 billion in spending from the state’s General Revenue Fund, notably below the Comptroller’s Biennial Revenue Estimate, which limited the Legislature to spending $104.89 billion.

The House, on the other hand, calls for spending $108.9 billion from the General Revenue Fund, which would include funds not allotted in the revenue estimate.

Early analysis indicates legislators might need to dip into the Rainy Day Fund, a state savings account that sets aside money for when state budget demands exceed estimated revenue. The account currently contains roughly $10 billion and will grow to contain about $14 billion by the end of this session.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, was the first to propose pulling money from the Rainy Day Fund during a Senate Finance Committee meeting Jan. 23.

“I would emphasize we are not a poor state,” he said. “We have valuable resources that we could call upon, starting with the Rainy Day Fund.”

Both chambers also have differing strategies to tackle school finance fixes. The House plans on fully funding enrollment growth within Texas schools while supplementing public schools with an additional $1.5 billion.

The Senate, alternatively, will add $2.65 billion, which is just enough to account for an additional 160,000 students projected to enter into Texas public schools in the next two years.

Aside from increased funds to public education and mental health care, both chambers are also proposing vastly different cuts across the board. The Senate is calling for a 1.5 percent funding decrease for every state agency, excluding public education. The House is calling for a less severe cut of less than 1 percent across the state.

Both sides seek additional funds for Child Protective Services, proposing roughly
$260 million in the next biennium—which is surprising, according to some insiders, given the fact both chambers balked when CPS requested $53 million extra in October.

The House and Senate typically start with their own draft budgets before hearing testimony on the proposals at the committee level. Both chambers then join in a conference committee to establish a unified budget that will fund state activity for the next two years.


 Legislative Highlights

The 85th Legislature has been in session for less than 60 days, and the Capitol is already rife with action. Skim this section for important things to note early on in the legislative year.

Hearings over school funding begin in Senate
Hearings began Jan. 23 for the Senate Finance Committee. The group of 15 legislators will hear testimony from a number of state agencies over a month of hearings, including reports from the Texas Education Agency. The TEA reported the state’s share of school finance funding has shrunk from roughly 46 percent in the 2011-12 school year to less than 40 percent in the 2017-18 school year. The TEA projects local districts will have to pick up more than 62 percent of the bill as early as 2018-19 school year.

Straus re-elected as House speaker
On Jan. 10, the first day of the 85th legislative session, 150 House members unanimously voted Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to serve as speaker of the House. This election puts Straus in a three-way tie for the longest-serving speaker in state history. This was Straus’ first election for this position that did not include an opponent. In his opening speech, Straus revealed his priorities as fixing school finance and increasing funds for mental health care, child protective services and public education.

Patrick will not run against Abbott for governor
In a news conference held to end the circulation of rumors, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced he will be running for re-election as lieutenant governor in 2018. He said there is no circumstance in which he would run against Gov. Greg Abbott for governor. Patrick also announced he has roughly $13 million in his war chest for re-election efforts.

School choice rally heightens tension with House
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spoke at a rally for school choice in front of the statehouse Jan. 24. Advocates and private school student gathered at the steps to listen to Abbott say he would pass any school choice bill that landed on his desk. Patrick called on the House to allow a vote on the matter. In the past, school choice efforts have died in House committees after clearing the Senate.

Local senators learn committee assignments

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick unveiled which senators would be serving on each of the 15 committees at the end of the second week of the session.

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, was named to Senate committees on Business and Commerce, Finance and State Affairs. He was also named chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, was named to Senate committees on Finance, Health and Human Services, and Higher Education. He was also named vice chairman of the Nominations Committee.


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