SENATE PASSES BUDGET
|Senate Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden discusses provisions contained in the $152 billion Senate version of the state budget.|
(AUSTIN) — The Senate approved its version of the state appropriation bill Thursday, allocating $152 billion for state services during the 2008-2009 biennium. This budget is the largest budget ever considered by the state, said author and Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, and it represents major increases to higher education and health care funding, as well as addressing other vital needs. "I believe the budget is balanced, it is conservative, and it is fair," he said. "It focuses on our priorities." He added the budget dramatically increases government oversight on state agencies and pays back deferments the state used to balance the budget in past years.
As in past years, the lion's share of state funds goes toward public education and health and human services. The bill would increase funding to health and human services by 20 percent, for a total appropriation of $20 billion in general revenue. The Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) would get an 80 percent increase, moving total funding for the program to $1.8 billion for the biennium. Ogden said this amount, coupled with additional appropriations for state Medicaid, will ensure that every eligible child in Texas will receive health coverage.
The Senate budget spends $34 billion for public and higher education, and includes money for last session's teacher pay raises, as well as an additional $500 per year increase in teacher pay. It also increases state contributions to financial aid programs by 33 percent, to $525 million, and increases funding for the Foundation School Program.
|Senator Mario Gallegos chats with his wife at his desk in the Senate Chamber. Gallegos, who has been recovering from a liver transplant in his hometown of Houston, made his first visit to Austin since January to add his voice to the debate over the state budget.|
Not everyone was happy with the spending priorities outlined in the budget. El Paso Senator Eliot Shapleigh questioned the provisions earmarking $3 billion to ensure property tax cuts in 2010 and 2011, asking why that money wasn't going toward critical services, like education, CHIP, mental health, Child Protective Services, the Texas Youth Commission and others. "In this budget, the priority for the three billion dollars is tax cuts, 95 percent of which go to people making over $85,000," he said.
Ogden responded, saying the budget may not be perfect, but it is a lot better than the state has done in the past. "Every problem you described is addressed in this budget, with huge increases in funding to try and redress some of the grievances you talked about," he said. "This budget, far from ignoring those complaints, takes them head on." He added that the budget can pay for critical needs, and still provide property tax cuts to ensure a constitutional school finance system.
The House and Senate will now come together in a conference committee to hammer out differences between the two versions of the budget. Ogden said he doesn't see any insurmountable differences, and he expects a relatively easy conference process. Finance Committee Vice-Chair Judith Zaffirini said the 26-5 passage of the bill shows how lawmakers from both sides of the aisle worked together to craft a bill that most Senators could support. "Some of us wanted to spend more, a lot more, but some people wanted to spend a lot less," she said. This is a bill that reflects negotiation and serious compromise. It's a good bill."
The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 16, at 1:30 p.m.