WEEK IN REVIEW
SENATE FORMALLY BEGINS BUDGET PROCESS
(Austin) — Officials gave the public its first look at the Senate version of the State budget this week when Lt. Governor Dan Patrick joined Senate Finance Committee Chair Senator Jane Nelson in unveiling the first draft of the Senate budget bill. "This budget is responsible. It's compassionate. It meets our growing needs and remains true to the policies of fiscal discipline that has led to the Texas miracle," Nelson told reporters at a Tuesday press conference. The document that will serve as the starting point for Senate budget writers would spend more than $200 billion in state and federal money to fund state government for the next two years.
The budget unveiled Tuesday represents an increase of 1.5 percent over the last biennial budget, but Nelson said it fully funds enrollment growth in public schools and includes more money for mental health services, border security as well as $4 billion in tax relief. "That's relief that taxpayers will actually see and feel," she said. That relief would be split, with $3 billion going to lower property taxes and $1 billion to business franchise tax cuts. The actual mechanisms by which that will be realized, Nelson said, will come in separate legislation.
Other budget highlights include more than $800 million for border security, twice what the state allocated for 2014 and 2015. The Senate budget would also end diversions from the state transportation fund. Past budgets have used this money to pay for things ranging from state trooper pay raises to filling budget shortfalls, but the current budget plan would put all that money, about $1.2 billion, towards transportation costs. Road and highway funding would also get a boost of $2.6 billion from the Rainy Day Fund approved by voters in the last election and a one-time use of $1.2 billion of motor vehicle sales tax funds.
The Senate Finance Committee began public hearings on the budget Wednesday, and has already scheduled hearings through the end of February. At these hearings, the committee will hear requests from state agencies, recommendations from state budget analysts, as well as take public testimony on where budget priorities should lie.
Also this week, the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development committee got an update on the implementation of the statewide water plan. Voters approved funding the plan with $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund in 2013, and that money will be used to raise $27 billion for future water projects. Texas Water Development Board Chair Carlos Rubinstein told members that his agency has already started taking applications from regional water authorities who want to use these funds, and will began evaluating these applications in March. Rubinstein said that his agency predicts funding up to $800 million in regional projects per year for the next 10 years.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, February 2 at 2 p.m.