Published 10:06 am Monday, May 1, 2017

Members of each chamber assigned to the budget conference committee met publicly for the first time Monday to open negotiations on the final version of the state budget for the next two years. Each chamber has passed its own version, and while the total numbers are relatively close, both versions differ in where some of that funding goes. Regardless, Committee Chair and Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson says the group will produce a final budget on which lawmakers can agree. “Both chambers have prioritized child protective services, mental health, both chambers have prioritized our long term commitment to transportation funding,” she said. “Both want to ensure our borders are secure and our children are properly educated I have no doubt that we are going to pass a budget that meets our needs and keeps Texas strong and successful.”

Both the Senate and House versions of the budget will spend almost identical amounts in all funds, an amount that includes dedicated and undedicated general revenue as well as federal funds. The two chambers are less than $400 million apart in this number, with the Senate spending $217.7 billion versus $218.1 billion for the House. That’s less than a one-and-a-half percent difference, but the gap increases somewhat when considering only non-dedicated general revenue. General revenue is the spending that lawmakers have the most control over, as dedicated funds are automatically appropriated by statute and federal funds usually come with conditions. Here the Senate would spend $106.3 billion over the next two years compared to $104.4 billion for the House, or almost $2 billion more.

The ten members negotiating the budget are nearly all veterans of the process. Senators Nelson, Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen, Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Joan Huffman of Houston all served on the budget conference committee for the Senate last session. There is almost equivalent experience on the other side, with Representatives John Zerwas of Richmond, Sarah Davis of Houston, Trent Ashby of Lufkin and Larry Gonzales of Round Rock all former House budget negotiators; only Mission Representative Oscar Longoria is serving on his first appropriations conference committee. Representative Zerwas told members he doesn’t see the two chambers as rivals in the process. “It’s not going to be the House, it’s not going to be the Senate, it’s going to be the citizens of Texas that ultimately win as a consequence of this conference committee,” he said. Members have until the end of session on Memorial Day to present a final budget proposal to each body, where a simple majority vote in favor in both chambers is all that’s required to send the measure to Governor Greg Abbott’s desk for signature.

On the floor this week, the Senate approved a bill, SB 457, that would increase facilities funding by $100 million for both traditional and charter public schools. The bill that came out of committee only applied to charter schools, who bill author and New Braunfels Senator Donna Campbell says are disadvantaged by laws that limit funds for buildings to traditional public schools only. “Charter public schools receive no state aid for facilities and are forced to shift limited classroom dollars toward cost of facilities,” she said. On the floor, Austin Senator Kirk Watson added two amendments, one that would split the funds evenly between charter and traditional public schools and another that lowered the price tag of the bill from $400 million to $100 million. Watson said the bill shouldn’t pick between traditional and charter public schools. “I think we ought to help traditional public schools with facilities funding at the same time we’re doing this,” he said. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it for everybody.”  The bill cost isn’t accounted for in the Senate version of the budget, so it would be up to budget conferees to decide to fund the proposed measure.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, May 1 at 1 p.m.