Thursday, April 07, 2005

Texas House Passes State Budget

Thursday, April 7, 2005

By ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – About 6,000 fewer college students would receive financial aid and the state would spend the least it's spent on school textbooks in a decade under a two-year budget plan that passed in the House early Thursday.

Discussions stretched into the wee hours of the night as weary lawmakers labored through a stack of amendments.

Despite surging enrollment in public schools, the House budget, approved by a 105-41 vote, would pay out $336 million for textbooks – $54 million less than lawmakers approved amid a huge shortfall last session and less than half what was spent when the state enjoyed big surpluses a few years back.

In higher education, the House would assist 50,327 students a year from financially strapped families, down from 56,109 students this year and 63,834 last year. In the last two years, some 82,000 freshmen were eligible but denied the aid, called TEXAS Grants.

"Even though we talk about education, we really don't put our money where our mouth is," said Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine. He said the budget would squeeze middle-class Texas families already reeling from recent tuition increases.

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the budget is "sound and responsible" but would spend record amounts on public schools and health care programs for the poor.

Paraphrasing a fairy tale, Mr. Pitts said: "Some Texans will think we're not spending enough. Some Texans will think we're spending too much. The Appropriations Committee believes this budget is just right, reflecting our priorities, our needs and our revenues."

Spending in the next two years would grow by nearly 9 percent, to $137.5 billion in state and federal funds, Mr. Pitts stressed. Earlier, the House passed an emergency appropriation bill, 137-8. It would spend an extra $1.9 billion in 2006-07, for a total of $139.4 billion.

However, while the House would spend some $13 billion more in the next two years, most of the new money would be soaked up by inflation and population growth. Some of the additional expenses:

•Nearly $4 billion more than in the current budget to cover enrollment growth and soaring costs for prescription drugs and medical care in Medicaid, the state-federal health program for the poor, disabled and elderly.

•Some $3 billion to fund an overhaul of school finance that would end Robin Hood transfers of money from property-rich school districts to poor ones. GOP budget writers said it includes some $600 million for school technology, part of which might pay for textbooks, easing pain school districts would feel because a lower amount was earmarked for books.

•About $1.1 billion more for public schools, to catch up with some of the cost of increased enrollment and a payment the state delayed last session.

•An immediate infusion of $300 million to hire new caseworkers and make other improvements at Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services.

•Hundreds of millions more to cover higher costs of providing health coverage to current and retired public employees, including teachers.

The outlook for social programs was mixed, however.

While poor youngsters in the Children's Health Insurance Program would regain coverage of dental and vision care, the changes in eligibility and enrollment procedures made in 2003 would stand, despite Democrats' attempt to undo them. They helped cause enrollment to dip, by some 179,000 children, to 328,350 as of last month.

Waiting lists would not shrink for respite and community care programs designed to keep the mentally retarded and frail elderly out of institutions that cost more. Adults on Medicaid would not regain coverage of eyeglasses, hearing aids, podiatry services and mental health counseling cut last session.

However, the House approved an amendment that would increase a monthly allowance for impoverished nursing home residents on Medicaid. Last session, lawmakers cut the stipend from $60 to $45. The House would increase it to $75.

The budget now returns to the Senate, which is expected to reject House changes, setting up a showdown in a House-Senate conference committee.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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