Friday, April 13, 2007

Budget will 'tighten the Legislative Budget Board oversight of TxDOT's agreements with private companies for the construction of toll roads.'

Budget moves out of Senate

Plan includes more money for education, human services, parks

April 13, 2007

By Jason Embry
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Senate leaders overcame objections from the left and right Thursday and won approval of a proposed budget that increases spending by about 7 percent over the next two years.

The Senate plan, unlike the budget passed in the House two weeks ago, would pay for merit-based raises for teachers and state employees. Senators also put a greater emphasis on giving college students forgivable loans instead of grants.

The Senate approved the $153 billion budget 26-5. Now it's up to five members from each side of the Capitol to write the final version before the legislative session ends May 28.

"The budget is balanced; it is conservative and fair," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. "It dramatically increases legislative oversight throughout state government."

But Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, criticized the budget for what it does not spend: about $3 billion set aside to pay for already approved property tax cuts in 2010 and 2011.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, defended the decision to leave some money unspent by pointing out that Comptroller Susan Combs has warned that a new business tax might not bring in as much money next year as projected. The Legislature created that tax to replace property-tax dollars.

But Shapleigh said the money should be spent to loosen eligibility guidelines for the Children's Health Insurance Program and to further increase spending on Child Protective Services and mental health programs, among others.

"You're banking tax cuts for political purposes for 2010 and 2011, and who pays the tab is the children of the State of Texas," Shapleigh said.

Ogden told Shapleigh, "This budget, far from ignoring those complaints, takes them head-on."

He pointed to an increase of almost 80,000 people covered by the CHIP perinatal program for pregnant women, continued staffing increases at Child Protective Services and a $52 million increase for community mental health crisis services. He also touted a $700 million increase in state spending to upgrade children's Medicaid services in response to a federal lawsuit against the state.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said the budget was too large, noting that the state was spending about $100 billion over two years at the beginning of the decade, which marks an increase of about 50 percent.

The five-hour budget debate intensified when Patrick objected to a claim from Sen. Mario Gallegos Jr., D-Houston, that property-tax cuts mostly benefit the rich. Gallegos was back in the Senate for the first time since a liver transplant this year.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, angrily demanded that Patrick spell out $3 billion in savings that Patrick claimed could be found in the budget.

"It's your time to show this body that you know what you're talking about," Whitmire said.

Patrick, host of a conservative radio show, responded, "I don't have to be lectured by you."

Earlier, Whitmire said the attacks from each side of the spectrum bode well.

"If Sen. Shapleigh and Dan Patrick can both criticize you in the same discussion, that's evidence enough to me that you've drafted a good bill," Whitmire told Ogden.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, voted for the budget, as did GOP Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, who represents Hays County and part of Travis County, and Ogden, who represents Williamson County.

The Senate budget also:

•Increases the state's contribution to the Teacher Retirement System.

•Gives state agencies money for merit-based raises but does not provide an across-the-board pay raise for state employees.

•Puts more money than the House into the "B on Time" program, which offers zero-interest loans to college students. Those loans are forgiven for students who graduate in four years with a B average. (The House put more money into Texas Grants, which cover college costs for students who take tough classes in high school and show financial need.)

•Tightens Legislative Budget Board oversight of the Texas Department of Transportation's agreements with private companies for the construction of toll roads.

Bills under consideration

Other bills being debated on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives

House Bill 1634:

Media industry incentives

Author: Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin

Changes the film industry incentive program. Would allow producers to apply for grants of up to $2.5 million for making films, TV shows and videos in Texas. Gov. Rick Perry's office says Texas is losing business to other states: At least 30 films have gone elsewhere.

Next step: Goes to the Senate, where a similar bill is in committee.

House Bill 158:

Reporting value of gifts

Author: Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin

Requires public officials to report the fair-market value of gifts. The issue of cash gifts dogged the Texas Ethics Commission after it was revealed that Bill Ceverha, a member of the state Employee Retirement System board, took $100,000 from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, the state's largest individual Republican campaign donor. Ceverha simply reported the contribution as cash, rather than listing the amount on his personal financial disclosure statement.

Next step: Goes to the Senate, which has passed a similar bill.

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman:

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