Friday, April 13, 2007

"Budget would give legislators a tighter grip on the state Department of Transportation."

Senate approves budget

Legislature: Plan includes tax cuts, teacher merit pay, limits on toll roads

April 12, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – The Senate passed a two-year, $152.6 billion budget Thursday that would leave billions unspent for tax cuts and also raise pay for high-performing teachers, make sure poor children receive health checkups and let lawmakers veto toll road deals.

The measure was approved 26-5. Differences with the House must now be ironed out, probably by a committee of five lawmakers from each chamber.

"The budget is balanced; it is conservative and fair," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. "The state is in the best fiscal shape we've been in since the early '70s."

The budget would give legislators a tighter grip on the state Department of Transportation, which has greatly expanded use of toll roads across the state. That has sparked a backlash, prompting the House to vote this week to stop private toll-road deals for two years.

Mr. Ogden said the budget provisions would require prior approval by lawmakers before the department could spend upfront payments by private toll-road builders, or agree to "no compete" clauses limiting its ability to improve free roads near a toll road. He predicted the rules would survive legal challenges if other bills to rein in toll roads don't survive.

There was criticism aplenty, with both Republicans and Democrats questioning priorities. Some conservative Republicans complained, mostly off the Senate floor, that senators should have taken a harder line against spending. And Democrats said the budget is too tight-fisted when the state has a projected $14.3 billion surplus.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said lawmakers should spend more to restrain college tuition increases and put 200,000 more low-income youngsters on the Children's Health Insurance Program.

"We are starving government," Mr. Ellis said. "We are taking a holier-than-thou attitude that we are smarter and more efficient than 49 other states in this country."

Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, complained that the budget would set aside up to $3 billion to pay for school property tax cuts over the next four years but leave caseworkers at Child Protective Services with workloads that are among the nation's highest.

"You've got CPS foster children sleeping in hotels," Mr. Shapleigh said.

"What's more important, tax cuts four years from now, for millionaires ... or the children?" he said.

Mr. Ogden replied: "It's a false question. The budget addresses the problems you're talking about." He said spending $3 billion more, as Democrats want, wouldn't solve social problems.

And he said the budget manages to protect tax relief but also improve public schools and expand college financial aid by one-third, reaching 80,000 students.

He also said the state would make a "dramatic change" in delivering preventive health care to poor youngsters on Medicaid. Under a proposed lawsuit settlement, Mr. Ogden said, Texas would spend $150 million to dispatch mobile medical and dental units to underserved areas, or give young dentists and doctors incentives to work there.

Senate GOP leaders protected the nation's largest teacher merit pay program. Last month, House members decisively rejected performance-based pay and instead used the money to give teachers and other school professionals an across-the-board raise of at least $800 a year.

On CHIP, Democratic senators complained that the Senate budget would add only 32,000 more children to the program in the next two years, while the House voted to add 101,000.

The proposed spending represents an increase of about 10 percent over the budget lawmakers passed two years ago – or about 7 percent, if last year's extra spending on teacher salaries and high school improvements is taken into account. Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, pounced on the growth, saying he can't believe there's not fat to be trimmed.

Mr. Patrick was one of three Republicans and two Democrats to vote against the budget. The others were Sens. Chris Harris, R-Arlington; Mike Jackson, R-LaPorte; Mr. Ellis; and Mr. Shapleigh.

Other budget writers rallied to Mr. Ogden's defense. Said Lewisville Republican Jane Nelson, who shepherded the social services budget: "It does reflect our values. It shows we do care ... about the needy ... and the children."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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