Published 5:58 pm Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Senate Finance Committee completed work marking up the budget Thursday, approving workgroup recommendations in preparation for a final vote on the Senate’s plan to pay for state services over the next biennium. For the past few weeks, members in smaller workgroups have focused on spending for education, healthcare, public safety, transportation and other critical state needs and this week met as a group to hear and vote on workgroup recommendations.   The final version has some significant differences from the version initially filed by Finance Chair and Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson in January, including more funding for mental health and foster care, with some cuts to university budgets through a change in funding philosophy.

The Article II workgroup, headed up by Health and Human Services Committee Chair Senator Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, deals with the largest slice of the state budget. A down year for revenue meant hard choices had to be made, Schwertner told his colleagues. “Just like the people of Texas, we must live within our means,” he said. “With that said, I believe the product before you represents a responsible budget that will meet the health and human services needs of Texans and address the most pressing issues we will face in the coming biennium.”

Those issues identified by the workgroup were foster care and mental health care, which got special attention in the Article II recommendations. The committee approved more money to reduce the caseload for foster care workers to seventeen, an increase in payments for people who take in foster kids, and an expansion of a privatized case management program to four new regions. It also continues emergency funding approved during the biennium to improve operations in the foster care system.   For mental health, funding will maintain current capacity levels and add new beds for maximum security patients.

The second biggest section of the state budget is education, and new attention on a specific funding source will mean less money for most state institutions. Called “special items”, these are one-time appropriations intended to help colleges start new programs or increase capacity which then get renewed every budget cycle, eventually becoming part of base funds that universities rely on and expect year to year for general operations. This means that universities that rely more on standard formula funding rather than these items are at a disadvantage, said committee member and Higher Education Committee Chair Senator Kel Seliger of Amarillo, who led committee efforts to examine the issue. Also, it makes institutions reliant on getting these special items renewed each biennium by legislators, which could lead to sudden losses of funding. “What we foresaw instead of an ad hoc system with a special item here and a special item there, was to deal with it within the instructional operation formula,” he said. “The good thing about a formula is, we have never cut formulas by sixty, seventy, eighty percent.   Individuals items are easy to do that way.”

Last year the state spent more than a billion dollars on these special items. The recommendations approved Thursday cut that amount to $700 million.   It will go through funding formulas, and individual institutions will pick which special programs they want to fund. The cuts are spread across the university system, with no institution losing less than six percent of funding, but none losing more than ten percent.

Nelson told members she expects to take a vote on the final budget as a whole by the middle of next week, and send it to the full Senate for consideration.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 20 at 2 p.m.