BUDGET, TESTING, TAX CUT BILLS PASS ON FINAL WEEKEND
(AUSTIN) — As the 83rd Legislative Session ended on Monday, legislators looked back at their accomplishments over the last 30 days. The last day is a day mostly for celebration and reflection, but lawmakers spent all weekend passing measures critical to the operation of the state for the next two years. First among these was the budget bill, which passed both chambers on Saturday.
The final budget approved this weekend is 3.7 percent more than last session's, which Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams of The Woodlands said is less than would be expected given population growth and inflation. The budget will restore about $4 billion in education cuts from the last biennium. It, along with other key spending bills, would put $2 billion into the state water fund, pending voter approval of the fund's creation in November. It increases mental health and substance abuse programs by $300 million and adds $40 million to funds used to fight wildfires. It also grants pay raises to state employees working in the highest turnover areas to improve employee retention. The final state budget now needs to be signed by the Governor before it becomes law.
Late Sunday night, both chambers also approved the final version of a bill that would grant a franchise tax cut to all businesses in the state. As it came out of the Senate, HB 500 by Katy Senator Glenn Hegar, would implement a five percent across-the-board franchise tax cut. The final version would phase that in with a 2.5 percent cut in 2014 and increasing to a five percent cut in 2015. It also permanently exempts businesses that earn less than a million dollars in annual revenue.
Big education bills passed this weekend as well. SB 2, by Senator Dan Patrick, would increase the number of charter schools in the state. It would permit an increase in the number of charter schools over the next six years, from the current cap of 215 to 305 in 2019. Also a bill that would reduce the number of end-of-course exams, HB 5, received approval from both chambers. Pending the signature of the Governor, students in high school will see the number of end-of-course exams drop from 15 to five.
This session, lawmakers passed a budget that increases education funding and funds the state water plan for the first time since its creation in 1997. It saw the end of a controversial curriculum program called CSCOPE, and reforms to an embattled Cancer Prevention Institute of Texas. Lawmakers approved reforms to reduce abuse and waste in the state's Medicaid program, and passed a $480 million franchise tax cut. Houston Senator John Whitmire, who as the longest serving member acts as the dean of the body, told his colleagues that he felt the 83rd Session was among the best in history. "31 Senators [had] what I believe, in my 30 years of service in this body, is the best environment, the most respectful working relationship of any session I've seen," he said.
Though the Senate has completed the 83rd Regular Session, Governor Rick Perry announced a special session on redistricting, which began immediately at 6 pm. The Senate will reconvene for the 1st Called Session on Thursday, May 30 at 12 p.m.