In an effort to balance the budget and provide enough funding to offset property tax cuts, the Senate passed a bill late Tuesday that would add billions to the state general revenue fund. House Bill 3540, sponsored by Senate Finance Chair Senator Steve Ogden, would make a number of accounting moves, debt deferments, and fund shifts to add about $3.7 billion into state coffers for the 2006-2007 biennium. Ogden said earlier this week that without this bill, the state would be hard pressed to pay for the education reforms and property tax cuts that have been the focus of the 79th Session.
HB 3540 continues the 90-day waiting period for new state employees to enter the Employee Retirement System, which would save more than $6.5 million. The bill would also roll forward the existing debt allotment for public school facilities for two years, for a savings of $150 million. About $581 million would be generated by delaying the transfer of the motor fuels tax revenue from general revenue to the state highway fund by three months in odd-numbered years. The bill would also put an additional $1 billion into general revenue by shifting tobacco settlement funds into the state treasury.
An amendment by Senator Kip Averitt of Waco would extend continuous eligibility for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) from six months to 12 months. During the 78th Session, a $10 billion shortfall required a number of cuts, including a reduction of continuous eligibility for CHIP to six months. This means that a child who is currently enrolled in CHIP is re-evaluated for membership every six months, meaning that more children come off the rolls as the financial status of their families changes. The extension to 12 months of eligibility would keep more children covered by state health care. "Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured children in the nation," said Averitt. " Whether we insure those children or not, they will receive medical care somewhere, most likely in an emergency room. When working Texans are forced to take their children to the emergency room because they cannot afford insurance, taxpayers pay the bill."
Midnight Wednesday is the deadline for bills to be heard on second reading in the Senate. This means that any bills that do not get a hearing today are likely dead for the session. The Senate will work through the night to pass legislation pending on the intent calendar, and will likely pass nearly 500 bills before the clock strikes 12.