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Thursday, March 31, 2011

House Gives Early OK to Bills Balancing '11 Budget

by Thanh Tan - Texas Tribune
March 31, 2011

House lawmakers preliminarily passed two bills Thursday that together will balance the state's budget for the remaining months of the fiscal year through a mix of spending cuts and use of the Rainy Day Fund. The cuts were in the first bill, HB 4, which passed by a party-line vote of 100-46. The second bill, HB 275, authorizes the use of $3.1 billion from the state's Rainy Day Fund. (See our liveblog of the debate here.) The latter measure generated more support from Democrats, with a final vote of 142-2.

Most of the reductions outlined in HB4 have already been implemented by state agencies. (See the list of agency fund reductions here.)

The votes came after nearly ten hours of intense debate. In all, lawmakers filed 65 amendments to HB 4. Democrats attempted to restore funding for public education, higher education, and health services. Some amendments were contingency-based; others targeted the governor's various funds, including the mansion restoration account.

"I believe that the priority of making college accessible is so much higher than allowing the governor to pick winners and losers in the free market," said Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, in reference to amendments to keep funding for grants for incoming freshman college students by diverting from the governor's trusteed programs.

Over and over, the Democrats' motions were tabled.

"As worthy as all these amendments are to try to restore, we cannot piecemeal 'earmark' funds," said Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, in response to Democratic Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon's amendment to restore funding for UT-San Antonio.

While the Democrats tried to frame the debate as a matter of prioritizing education and health, members of the majority party, including House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, argued that making about $1.5 billion in cuts for the current biennium is the only way the state will be able to pay its bills before the next fiscal year begins on Sept. 1, 2011.

In the end, two notable Republican amendments were withdrawn. The first, by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, would have tapped the System Benefit Fund, a dedicated account used by the Public Utility Commission to help the elderly and the low-income pay their electrical bills. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, argued against using the money for other purposes.

"The state is taking the money. It's not going to the low-income and the elderly, and this amendment will take away money that pays for their bills in May, June, July, August and Sept. 2011," Turner said.

Christian said those funds are going unused by the PUC. "To sit here and not use that money in a crisis situation... is evil on our part," he said.

The other GOP-sponsored amendment that was pulled down came from Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney. His proposal would have reduced salaries by just over one-half of one percent for state employees who make more than $60,000.

Soon after the vote, Gov. Rick Perry sent a statement to the press praising the vote.

“Today’s action by the House on HB 4 demonstrates a commitment to the fiscally responsible government Texans have called for," he said. "I look forward to continuing to work with lawmakers to live within our means and fund our state’s priorities without raising taxes, while laying the foundation for continued job creation and our state’s future prosperity.”

The House continued to debate the amendments for HB275 until about 7pm Thursday. In all, they considered 21 amendments. Democrats attempted to withdraw more from the Rainy Day Fund for various education programs and nursing homes, but Republicans stuck with Pitts and won all the votes by a two-to-one margin.

The final vote was 142-2. The no votes came from Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, and Rep. Barbara Mallory-Caraway, D-Dallas.

Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, blasted the supermajority's refusal to drain the Rainy Day Fund, which would be left with $6 billion if HB 1 survives the Senate and the conference committee process.

"These bills are a band-aid fix for the serious injury that Governor Perry's poor fiscal management has done to Texas. House Democrats have said from the beginning that we want to pass smart cuts and to close corporate tax loopholes in order to prevent teacher lay-offs, keep nursing homes open, and save jobs," she said.

The chamber is scheduled to vote on the general appropriations bill, HB 1, on Friday. It is expected to last into the late hours because lawmakers have filed more than 300 amendments.

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