(AUSTIN) — The Senate took its final vote on the state budget, approving a measure that would spend $209 billion in state and federal funds over the next two years. The spending plan was the result of negotiations between the House and Senate and is the only piece of legislation that is constitutionally required to be passed every session. Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, who led Senate efforts in crafting this session's budget, said it was a document that she and her colleagues could be proud of. "This is a responsible budget," she said. " It is a compassionate budget, and it will keep our state strong and prosperous." She also touted the document as a conservative plan, pointing to a modest increase in spending over last biennium of only three percent.
As in past biennia, the lion's share of funds are earmarked for health and human services and public education funding. Thirty seven percent of the budget goes to pay for healthcare services and about the same amount goes toward primary, secondary and higher education. Excluding federal funds, more than half of all state revenue goes to pay for education. Nelson said that number is higher this year, as budget writers increased appropriations to schools and upped the daily allotment, the amount that each school gets per student, by $100.
Nelson highlighted a number of areas that will be getting more money. Border security funding was doubled, up to $800 million to pay for more manpower and technology to police the border with Mexico. The budget allocates funds to cover more than $4 billion in tax cuts, with reductions to the state franchise tax, property tax and occupations taxes. Transportation will get more money, $3.7 billion, by ending diversions from the state mobility fund and allocating money approved by voters for highway spending last year.
Senator Kevin Eltife praised Nelson for her efforts, but said that the state has a long way to go to meet all of its obligations. For the past ten years, said Eltife, the state has kept taxes low by issuing debt and ignoring critical state needs. He estimated the legislature will leave Austin in June with more than $7 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and $2.5 billion in unmet transportation needs. Eltife said, however, that for the first time since he was elected to the Senate in 2005, lawmakers aren't pretending everything is fine. "I think this session we're finally admitting we have problems," he said. "We can't solve them overnight, but we have to admit we've neglected so much in this state. Now's the time to fix them. "
Nelson largely agreed with Eltife's assessment, but pointed out that this session's budget is making great strides toward fixing the concerns he raised. "We are finally addressing things we should've been addressing. We shouldn't have gotten to this point," she said. "We didn't get here overnight, we're not going to solve it overnight. We are making significant steps this session to address them." The state will pay more than $700 million this year to shore up teacher pensions, with a goal of coming up with a permanent fix over the interim. Nelson said the state's ratio of debt to revenue has decreased from 4 percent in 2010 to 2.9 percent this year, with forecasts showing a continued downward trend.
With the House approving the final budget plan Friday as well, all that remains is for Governor Greg Abbott to sign off on the final document.
The Senate will reconvene Saturday, May 30 at 11:00 a.m.