AUSTIN - With time running out on the legislative session, Texas lawmakers approved the $153 billion two-year state budget early Monday.
The House passed the spending plan late Sunday night, then the Senate took its turn and approved the measure early Monday. At one point, some senators threatened to kill the budget by talking it to death, but that never happened. The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Perry.
The budget is the only legislation the Legislature is legally bound to pass when it meets at the Capitol for 140 days every two years. But this year, the budget got caught in the middle of an ongoing House rebellion.
Among other things, money in the state budget is used to keep public schools open, pay for state law enforcement and health insurance for children in low-income families.
This year, it includes money for a teacher pay raise of up to $450 and a $35,000 raise for Perry. It also includes enough money to add up to 127,000 children to the state’s low-income children’s health care program.
“I believe we should take care of the oldest and the sickest and the poorest among us and we have in this budget,” said Rep. Dan Gattis, a Georgetown Republican who helped work on the budget negotiations.
But critics this year complained that special projects for local parks and colleges - even a helicopter in one South Texas district - were used as leverage by embattled House Speaker Tom Craddick to keep lawmakers from kicking him out of the leadership role.
“This budget has grown out of control,” said Rep. Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican who has filed his candidacy to replace Craddick as speaker. “It is full of wasteful and unnecessary spending, much of it placed in the budget in the last two weeks.”
The House has been gripped in a rebellion as lawmakers, who complain that Craddick rules too much like a dictator, have tried unsuccessfully to vote him out as speaker.
In the spending plan, funding for state parks rose by $180 million, including money to increase maintenance at the 600,000-acre state parks system and refurbish Battleship Texas.
Rep. Pete Gallego, an Alpine Democrat who represents Garner State Park on the Frio River, complained that 18 other state parks have been given priority in the budget for construction and maintenance money.
“We can’t even fix the bathrooms at Garner State Park,” Gallego said.
The budget also includes $93 million to increase the number of college students eligible for TEXAS Grants. In the next two years, the number of students eligible for the grants will increase from 48,000 to 69,000.
Much of the 2008-09 budget is being used to reverse actions lawmakers took in 2003, when they were faced with a $10 billion shortfall.
For example, about $90 million was added to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program, which was scaled back in 2003. The money is enough to cover up to an additional 127,000 children.
While a group of lawmakers angry about the so-called pork were lobbying their colleagues to vote against the budget, Speaker Pro Tempore Sylvester Turner made a tear-filled plea.
"You can criticize the budget all day long but if 127,000 kids who are uninsured today get insurance from this budget, I'll proudly vote for it and I'll proudly defend it," Turner shouted as tears streamed down his face. "I'll fight with everything I have … I will vote for this budget not for the speaker, not for a special session … I will do it for the children."
The Legislature agreed last week to leave an estimated $2.5 billion unspent to help continue a one-third reduction in school property tax relief in 2010 and 2011.
The leftover money is part of a $14 billion surplus lawmakers started the session with in January. An additional $4 billion will be saved in the state's so-called Rainy Day Fund.
Critics, including several House Democrats, argued that the unspent money should not be committed to property tax relief when so many other state needs exist.
Months ago, they had planned to store away $4 billion for future tax relief, but the amount available to save dwindled after they funded special projects and other health care expenses ordered recently by a federal judge.
In one of two victories for Perry, lawmakers allocated a $100 million fund that he requested to use for higher education incentive programs.
Perry will have discretion on how he plans to use it.
Perry's office of homeland security also would get $43 million to provide extra manpower and equipment for security and anti-crime operations along the border. An additional $65 million will be funneled directly to other law enforcement agencies for border security efforts.
Along with an annual teacher pay raise of about $450, the state would increase their contribution to the Teacher Retirement System to 6.5 percent.
Most of the 2008-09 budget comes from sales taxes. Education gets the most state money, followed by health care programs. Dollars also would be spent on courts and prisons.
The budget is HB 1.