The Austin Chronicle

Budget: Signed, Sealed, Deliverable

By Richard Whittaker, May 29, 2009, 5:30pm, Newsdesk

The House just blew its perfect record on unanimous budget votes after Reps. Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, and Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, voted nay on the final version of Senate Bill 1. Still, 142-2 isn't too bad.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Pitts called the $182 billion cash pile for 2010-11 a "conservative, balanced budget that meets the need of the state" that cuts general revenue expenditure by $1.6 billion while rising, in total, 2.2% over 2008-9 (yes, there's a lot of Federal stimulus money bailing this state out.) The Senate passed these conference committee numbers out yesterday 31-0, so now the bill heads to the governor for signing.

Before the House vote, Appropriations Committee members got to explain the big differences between what left the House and what came back from the conference committee. Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, emerged from the conference discussion of public school finance in HB 3646 to talk up the extra $25 million in pre-K grants up, plus the provision of Texas grants for an extra 35,000 students. Similarly, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, was happy about the extra $5.1 billion over the 2008-9 budget for Health and Human Services.

The experience may not have been as cheerful for Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, who failed to protect $5.5 million for a border security regional operations center in his district in the supplemental budget. Yet there was still enough for him to talk up, like $14 million for chemical abuse beds in correctional facilities, plus extra cash for diverting kids from Texas Youth Commission.

There was a little to-and-from between the front and back mikes, most of it to clarify legislative intent. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was concerned that the original 20% pay raise request for prison guards, which left the house as 5%, had shrunk to 3.5%. Raymond was quick to assure him this was 7% over two years, and covered more employees than just correctional officers. "We took care of everyone that works in the prison," he said, adding that "this is the highest percentage [increase] that anyone got in any state agency."

Turner still wasn't satisfied that this would really deal with the employee attrition in state prisons, or fill the existing 3,000-plus vacancies, but he was equally worried that the ongoing CHIP expansion negotiations wouldn't result in a germane vehicle arriving before deadlines. While Pitts could assure him that the CHIP cash was in the budget, he couldn't be so up-beat about the enabling legislation. Still, he said, "Nothing's dead until we sine die."

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