LEGISLATORS OPEN BUDGET NEGOTIATIONS
(AUSTIN) — Members of the House and Senate began the process of reconciling the two chambers' versions of the budget on Tuesday. Both proposals contain identical amounts, $9 billion, towards state leaderships' top priorities for the session, which the Senate's lead negotiator says starts discussions off on the right foot. "This process is made easier by the fact that both chambers are prioritizing three key issues, that's certainly property tax relief, education reform and teacher salary," said Flower Mound Senator and Finance Committee chair Jane Nelson. "The good news is that both chambers have demonstrated their commitment to our top priorities." Her counterpart from the House, Appropriations chair and Richmond Representative John Zerwas was also optimistic. "I know without a doubt that this group will be able to consider the differences in our budgets and make the smart and reasonable decisions for what is best for Texas," he said.
In raw totals the two versions are very close, with the Senate budget appropriating only $300 million more than the House's $116.5 billion in non-dedicated state revenue over the next two years. Including federal and all other funds, the bills are about $3.4 billion apart, with the Senate proposing to spend that much less than the House's suggested $251.1 billion. Where differences arise, they are generally in methods of finance, Legislative Budget Board assistant director John McGeady told conferees as he went over summary documents. "On this page there are some funding differences that don't represent decision differences, so much as differences in approach or methods of finance," he said. For example, both chambers agreed on $636 million to help offset lost revenue for school districts impacted by Hurricane Harvey; the Senate chose to fund that with general revenue in the budget bill, while the House chose to fund that in the supplemental appropriations bill. In addressing problems with state driver's license wait times and capacity, the Senate dealt with that within the budget article relating to public safety, while the House put that money in the article related to state regulation.
That doesn't mean, however, that there aren’t going to be some stickier issues the conferees will have to navigate. "An example of a real difference that y'all will have to deal with is Article II, Health and Human Services," McGeady added. "You can see that $922 million difference in general revenue there. There are dozens of items y'all will have to work through, including one, for example, the Senate adopted a cost containment measure that's about $350 million."
There are differences large and small to be worked out, but with both chambers generally agreed on top priorities and funding amounts, negotiations should be smoother than in past sessions, where the House and Senate might be billions apart on totals, lack consensus on key issues or face hard choices due to anemic state revenue collections. This time around, a strong state economy simplifies things, even in the face of billions of dollars in hurricane recovery needs. "Thank goodness the economy is cooking, we have the resources to do what we need to do," Nelson told her fellow conferees. "We're going to have to prioritize but I just want to remind everybody, going into this session, what we faced." Conferees have just five weeks left to develop a compromise budget proposal. That final version will be presented for an up or down vote in each chamber before the 86th Session concludes on May 27th.
The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, April 24 at 11 a.m.