FINANCE COMMITTEE OFFERS UPDATE ON BUDGET PROCESS
(AUSTIN) — The Senate Finance committee held a public hearing Thursday, February 21, to update the public on the progress made toward a final budget that can be put before the full Senate for approval. The committee wrapped up its initial round of hearings last week, and split up into ten different workgroups, each tasked with one area of spending. Committee Chair Senator Tommy Williams of the Woodlands thanked members for their work and then identified several areas of concentration on which he wanted the groups to focus.
Before making recommendations, the committee heard from Legislative Budget Board analyst John McGeady about where the budget sits relative to state revenue and past spending. Though the actual dollar amount of money spent over the last ten years has increased by an average of 8.5 percent biennially, when adjusted for population growth and inflation, the relative size of the budget has actually decreased by 8 percent over the last decade. He said the current Senate budget is $4.5 billion under the cap that constitutionally limits how much the state can spend every two years. Furthermore, if the Legislature approved a budget that spent as much as constitutionally permitted, there would still be $1.2 billion left in state coffers.
Williams reiterated Thursday a theme he has emphasized throughout the session; Medicaid growth is crowding out spending for other state priorities. The new twist this session, he said, was that instead of just affecting spending in different areas of the budget, Medicaid growth is now requiring reductions to other parts of the healthcare budget. "Health and human service needs aren't being met because the Medicaid monster just consumes so much of our revenue," he said. Williams directed members of the health and human services work group to preserve the money they have allocated to mental health services, $200 million more than in the introduced bill, as well as funding for the Texas School for the Blind and Texas School for the Deaf.
Williams told members that he wants to approve three sections of the budget, the parts dealing with general government, the judiciary and regulatory agencies, next Wednesday. As workgroups continue to identify priorities and allocate spending, he will hold votes on other articles as they become ready.
Also Thursday, the Senate Education committee considered a bill that would lift the cap on the number of charter schools permitted in the state. Senate Bill 2, by Houston Senator and Committee Chair Dan Patrick, would create an authorizing board to issue new charters and oversee performance of current charter schools. There would be no limit on the number of charter schools that could operate in the state, but any school that didn't meet educational accountability standards in three of its first five years would be closed by that board. The bill also includes a provision that would allow charter schools to lease or purchase unused public education facilities at fair market value. That bill remains pending before the committee.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, February 25 at 2 p. m.