By Jimmy Ardis
AUSTIN, Texas: The Texas Senate approved a $176.5 billion biennium state budget last week. That is $11 billion dollars less than the current budget. Democrats and Republicans were split along party lines as all Republicans voted for and all Democrats voted against the bill in a 19-12 vote. The two-year budget passed the Senate after $3 billion of spending from the state’s Rainy Day Fund was removed. A multi-billion dollar budget shortfall estimated at anywhere from $15 billion to $27 billion has plagued Texas legislators since the November elections, making the budget the most vexing problem facing the Republican-led 82nd Legislature.
Controversy ensued over Republican procedural maneuvering that allowed the bill to be passed with a simple majority vote, as opposed to the traditional two-thirds majority. While two-thirds of Senators normally have to vote in favor of a bill for it to pass in the Senate, Republicans utilized a Senate rule that allows House bills to be passed by simple majority on certain calendar days to their favor. Since the budget bill (HB 1) originated in the House, a 19-12 split was enough to get it through. Such procedural measures were taken out of knowledge that Senate Democrats would not pass a budget that didn’t contain a contingency to tap the state’s $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund for $3 billion if needed.
Republican Senators chose to the remove the Rainy Day Fund spending measures over fears the budget bill had no chance of passing the House if they were left in. Finance Committee Chairman Senator Steve Ogden (R) amended the bill the day of the vote to remove the Rainy Day Fund spending rider “and replace it with one that would institute a $1.25 billion shift in health and human services in fiscal year 2013 and a 1.2 percent across-the-board cut to state agencies, excepting the Permanent School Fund and debt service.”
The last minute removal of the $3 billion rider polarized Democrats who are adamant that tapping the Rainy Day Fund is preferable to diminishing essential services and social programs. Medicaid and public education saw the largest cuts, a highly controversial move with Senate Democrats. Republicans insist that the bill cuts waste and that service delivery will experience minimal disruption.
The budget still has to make it through House negotiations and will likely see further changes before becoming law. The bill is now in a 10-member budget conference committee, made up of five Representatives and five Senators appointed to reconcile the differences between the two chambers’ budgets. The budget passed by the House last month includes even more cuts than the Senate version, coming in at $164.5 billion for the 2012-2013 cycle.
Democrats continue to voice opposition to the Senate budget, claiming it sacrifices services to those suffering the hardest from the economic downturn. Supporters contend that the cuts, while difficult to make, are sound choices in light of the multi-billion dollar revenue shortfalls Texas is predicted to face due to the economic recession. In its defense, Senator Ogden commented “This bill maintains and preserves critical state programs. This is a smart bill.”