Thursday, April 07, 2005

House Approves $137.5 Billion State Budget

By Jason Embry
Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Texas House overwhelmingly approved a $137.5 billion, two-year state budget early Thursday. Critics said the spending plan would only marginally improve state services.

The House approved the budget with a 105-41 vote after more than 16 hours of debate on state spending. Although more than 100 amendments were offered, the debate lacked the intensity of 2003, when lawmakers passed a bare-bones budget in the face of a $10 billion budget shortfall.

The House also passed a bill Thursday allocating $3.4 billion to pay for shortfalls in programs such as Medicaid and public education this year. That bill also includes some money to spend over the next budget cycle. Between the two measures, the House intends to spend about $139 billion during the next two years, or 10 percent more than in the current budget.

The Senate has passed a $139 billion budget. Lawmakers will write the final budget in a conference committee.

"We feel like we've covered the needs of the State of Texas," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said of the two bills. "During the course of the conference committee hopefully we can address some other needs."

But Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said much of the new money in the budget pays for enrollment growth in programs such as public education or Medicaid, leaving little room to upgrade services for the poor, the elderly and college students.

"If you look at the things where we have an opportunity to make decisions for the state, the decision was made to keep the bad status quo," Coleman said.

The House budget does not restore some services cut in 2003, such as hearing aids, eyeglasses and mental health counseling for adults on Medicaid. It also does not increase the rates paid to doctors who treat patients in Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, which were cut in 2003. It also continues to require families to reapply for the children's insurance program every six months instead of once a year.

Thousands of students have qualified over the last two years for the Texas Grant program, which pays college tuition and fees for students who take tough classes in high school and show financial need, but they have not received the grants because of limited funding two years ago. The House budget under consideration Wednesday was not likely to provide a grant for everyone who will qualify over the next two years.

The budget would restore some services cut in 2003, such as dental and vision benefits in the children's health program. It also aims to prevent growth in waiting lists for programs that serve people with disabilities, and it pays for major reforms for the agencies that protect children and the elderly from abuse and neglect.

"Some Texans will think we're not spending enough. Some Texans will think we're spending too much," Pitts said, adding that the plan is "just right, reflecting our priorities, our needs and our revenues."

The House voted down most amendments that Democrats tried to add to the budget. Some of those amendments would have added restrictions to the Texas Enterprise Fund, a deal-closing account used to encourage businesses to expand in Texas, or redirected money from that fund to other programs. Critics say the fund is a boondoggle for big businesses in a state strapped for money to spend on government services.

One amendment that won approval would reduce the advertising budget of the Texas Lottery Commission to increase the allowance given to nursing home residents for personal needs, such as adult diapers.

The supplemental spending bill would pull about $1.9 billion out of the state's so-called rainy day fund, effectively taking all of the money from it. If that measure is in the final budget, this would be the second legislative session in a row that lawmakers have used that fund to balance the budget, causing Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, to say it should henceforth be called the "Every Day Fund."

The fund consists, in part, of excess oil and gas tax revenue. With oil and gas prices escalating, Pitts said the account would be replenished quickly.

The House would spend less in its budget than the Senate on several areas of government, including higher education and criminal justice.

The House plan includes $3 billion to be spent over two years on education reforms. Senators want to spend about $3.2 billion on school reforms but did not include that money in their budget. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has said senators will fill that void with what he has described as nontax revenue.

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