By Ed Sterling
Four days before the June 1 end of the 84th regular session of the Texas Legislature, both houses finally agreed after months of deliberation on a state budget for fiscal years 2016 and 2017.
A 10-member conference committee worked out differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget. The House vote on final adoption of House Bill 1 was 115 ayes to 33 nays; the Senate vote was 30-1. HB 1 awaits approval by Gov. Greg Abbott.
House Speaker Joe Straus called the $209.4 billion budget “balanced and disciplined.” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, praised the budget and stressed the $3.8 billion tax cut the conservative budget pays for. The two biggest funding areas in the budget are $78 billion for education and $77 billion for health and human services. Straus posted comments, paraphrased here, on priorities HB 1 addresses:
- Education — The budget pays for the addition of roughly 80,000 new students per year in the state’s overall public school enrollment. Also provided is an additional $1.5 billion for public education. More resources will go toward higher education, graduate medical education and TEXAS Grants, the state’s signature financial aid program.
- Transportation — Reversing a decades-old practice, all of the money in the State Highway Fund must be used for transportation. Diversion of some of those dollars for other programs will not be allowed. The transportation budget is augmented by oil-and-gas tax revenues through a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November 2014.
- Transparency — Taxes and fees must be used only for their intended purpose.
- Border Security — Some $840 million of the budget will be used for the implementation of HB 11, the border security bill, and to hire 250 new DPS troopers and allow a 50-hour work week for DPS troopers statewide.
- Long-Term Obligations — Funding is provided to address a shortfall in retired teachers’ health care and to address the solvency of the state employee pension system.
- Mental Health — Funding for behavioral health and substance abuse services is increased by $151 million, providing additional resources for both inpatient and outpatient services.
Lawmakers explain votes
One of 33 House members who voted against HB 1 was Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. Rep. Howard said the public school funding portion of the bill leaves 31 percent of school districts with less funding per pupil than was received prior to 2011 budget cuts; pre-K funding at some $148 million is still below the $200 million appropriated prior to the 2011 budget cuts; higher education funding is still less than the high-water mark of a decade ago; and TEXAS Grant recipients would receive smaller grants than previously offered.
Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, the only senator who voted against final adoption of HB 1, said, “While I wanted to join my colleagues in voting for this budget, I could not in good conscience support a budget that fails to adequately fund the priorities of working families in Texas while leaving roughly $18 billion in state coffers. We have many unmet needs that could and should have been addressed in this budget. All Texans would benefit from investments in our infrastructure, our health and our youth.”
‘Campus Carry’ bill passes
SB 11, allowing a concealed handgun license holder to carry a weapon “on or about their person” but not in plain view of another person on the campus of a college or university, was passed on party-line votes in both chambers of the Legislature on May 31.
The legislation, written primarily by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and cosponsor, Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, would take effect Aug. 1, 2016, for four-year institutions and on Aug. 1, 2017, for public junior colleges.
A “local control” amendment drafted by Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, allows the governing body of an institution of higher education to amend or prohibit concealed carry on campus or on certain premises within a campus. Institutions that pass such measures must report their rules and reasoning in periodic reports to the Legislature.
Federal disaster aid granted
Gov. Abbott on May 29 requested a Presidential Disaster Declaration for Texas counties suffering from damages brought on by recent thunderstorms, tornadoes and flooding. President Obama granted the request and Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel are on the job.
“We have seen so many lives lost, homes damaged or destroyed and communities threatened by this devastating storm system,” said Nim Kidd, director of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. “Texas is grateful for the swift response by FEMA and I look forward to working with my FEMA partners to ensure critical assistance is delivered to Texans in need.”