WEEK IN REVIEW
SENATE WRAPS UP BUDGET HEARINGS
(AUSTIN) — After two months of hearings and meetings on how to spend nearly $90 billion over the next two years, the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday approved all of the workgroup recommendations for the 2014-2015 budget. Only technical corrections and proofreading stand between this bill and a committee vote, which will be held next Wednesday, according to committee Chair Senator Tommy Williams of the Woodlands.
Before they finished work this week, the committee considered recommendations for the state's higher education budget, which will see more money this biennium than last. Higher Education workgroup member Senator Robert Duncan of Lubbock told his colleagues that one of his groups goals was to restore as much funding as possible after last session's cuts. With the money available, the workgroup recommended restoring the higher education budget fifty percent closer to what it was in 2011.
Community colleges were a big focus for the workgroup. Workgroup leader Senator Kel Seliger of Amarillo was especially proud of a plan they worked out on benefit proportionality. "Proportional benefits have bedeviled us every session," he said. "But this session we've come to a resolution." That resolution would split the cost of salaries and retirement evenly between state money and college revenue. The Finance Committee also adopted a plan to tie student performance and contact time to community college funding. Contact time is the actual time a student spends in front of an instructor or professor, which may or may not reflect actual hour credits. Most of a community college's funding would be based on actual contact time, with the remainder coming from a flat base payment all colleges will receive, as well as some room for rewarding schools that demonstrate good education outcomes.
After the Finance Committee approves a budget next week, it will likely lay out another week before it comes to the Senate floor to give all members plenty of time to review the massive document. If approved by the Senate, five members of the Senate and five members of the House will be appointed to a conference committee, where they will try to hammer out the differences between the two chambers' version of the budget.
In session this week, the Senate approved three bills that would roll back some accounting maneuvers that last session's lawmakers used to balance the budget. Facing a massive shortfall and a constitutional requirement for a balanced budget in 2011, the legislature had to push some funding into the current biennium and pull some revenue forward. The Texas economy outperformed expectations, and in the last two years the state has collected enough revenue to cover expenses, so the Senate voted Tuesday to cancel out the tax speed-ups and payment deferrals in the 2011-2012 budget.
Some of that revenue came in the form of earlier tax collections on certain levies, like the sales and use tax and the gasoline tax. SB 559, by Duncan, will push those collections back into next year. That will cost the state $864 million for the current biennium, but will make $767 million available for the budget for the next two years. The Senate also passed two more bills, one that covers about $6.6 billion in shortfalls in the Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program, and one that restores $1.75 billion in funding to public education for the current biennium. All three bills now head to the House for consideration.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 11, at 2 p.m.