Published 10:37 am Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed its version of the state budget in the form of SB 1, a bill that would spend $106.4 billion in state revenue over the next two years.   Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson of Flower Mound led the budget writing efforts, and told members that in spite of a reduction in available funds this session, the Senate’s budget still meets the state’s critical priorities “This is a lean budget, but it’s also a smart budget,” she said. “It responsibly meets the needs of our state and it preserves our principles of fiscal responsibility that have guided us through tough budgets in the past, and I believe it helps us come out stronger on the other side.”

As in every session, the two largest slices of the budget go towards healthcare and education spending, but for the first time health and human service spending in all funds has surpassed the education budget.   Health and Human Services Chair and Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner led the Article II workgroup, which developed the health care spending portion of the budget. He said they prioritized two areas, Child Protective Services and mental health spending.   The Senate budget will continue the emergency interim funding aimed at solving the state’s foster care capacity crisis, with $430 million more going to the agency charged with overseeing foster care and preventing child abuse and neglect. That money will fund the hiring of additional caseworkers and a pay raise for employees, as well as increased services for children with the highest level of behavioral treatment needs.   To address mental health needs, the budget will maintain current capacity levels at state hospitals and community treatment centers, and takes steps to end mental health waitlists.

Higher education funding got special attention, with Nelson forming a dedicated workgroup to focus on what are called special items. These are supposed to be one-time appropriations, intended to help an institution start up a program on pay for single costs. That’s not how they get used today, said Higher Education Committee Chair and Amarillo Senator Kel Seliger, who led the committee’s efforts to deal with special items. “They were intended to fund certain things, certain programs, certain innovations, some of them going all the way back to 1909, growing in 2016 to $1.1 billion and they never went away,” he said.   The Senate budget would remove the $1.4 billion spent on special items last session, and replace it with $700 million to increase standard formula funding. Though all public institutions will get less money after this session, Seliger said they tried to spread the pain equally, with no institution losing more than ten percent of funding, and none losing less than six percent.

Some other budget highlights include: $25 million to fund a program to help local police and sherrif’s departments purchase high-caliber resistant vests; $5 billion in funds dedicated towards transportation as approved by the voters through Proposition 7 last November; $800 million to continue funding at current levels for border security, including 350 new DPS troopers; and $780 million to repair and renovate state mental hospitals.

The next step comes after the House passes its version of the budget. Then, five Senators and five Representatives, appointed by the Lt. Governor and Speaker respectively, will get together to resolve differences between the two plans. Each chamber will be presented a final conference committee report for a vote on the final version of the state budget for the next biennium. Nelson said that she will continue to work through the process to further improve the bill. “I want to stress that this is a work in progress,” she said. “We will continue to look for savings, efficiencies and opportunities to free up resources to fund additional priorities”.

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, March 29 at 12 p.m.