The Austin Chronicle

How Much Will Texas Spend?

By Richard Whittaker, May 21, 2015, 12:10pm, Newsdesk

It's arguably best that the joint House and Senate Budget Conference Committee does most of its work behind closed doors. After all, with 10 chefs, no one needs to see how that sausage is made. On Wednesday, the five senators and five representatives came out of the kitchen to give the first taste of the final dish.

"These have been some long days and nights, but we have made some great progress," said House Appropriations Chair John Otto, R-Dayton, as he unveiled the conference committee version of House Bill 1, the 2016-17 biennium budget for the State of Texas. His Senate counterpart, Finance Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, echoes his sentiments. However, not everything is at a "we can all go home" level of agreement. "We're not done yet," the pair chorused so close that, if one had yelled "jinx," the other would have owed them a Coke.

There are still some key issues left to be decided and made public: For example, no one yet has said the headline number of what the total budget will come to, only limiting calculations to somewhere around $210 billion.

As it emerges from conference committee, HB 1 is supposed to be a compromise document. Yet, as with the seeming "compromise" on tax cuts, on key issues the House seemingly folded and gave the Senate what it wanted. It was hard to tell in the blur of numbers as the Legislative Budget Board staff lead the committee through articles I through VIII. Often the winner would simply be announced by "House" or "Senate," so the lobbyists, journalists, and interested/worried parties crammed in the packed room were having to speed-read through the results.

It was generally left to House Appropriations Committee Vice Chair Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, to point out holes in the document. First he raised a dismissive eye to the idea that raising Medicaid reimbursement rates (a House demand) wouldn't increase the number of doctors taking Medicaid payments, or at least staunch the bleeding of healthcare providers. Ultimately, he was the only member of the committee to vote against that article.

Here are some of the headline issues so far:

Article I: General Government

• Long time political kick ball the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program (often and wrongly known as the film incentives) survives yet again. The cash will come in two parts: $22 million from the House, and $41.7 million from the Senate, dependent on excess Hotel Occupancy Tax. That's a dramatic drop from the $95 million the same system produced in the 2014-15 biennium, or the $70 million for which Gov. Greg Abbott had asked. In fact, the number goes back to 2012-13 levels. So much for inflation.
• The Racing Commission, which the Senate had tried to kill, also survived (the precise logic for its demise always seemed unclear, unless it was purely petty vindictiveness against House Speaker Joe Straus, whose family made its fortune in running race tracks).
• There will also be big investment in the state's ridiculous level of deferred maintenance for state buildings, including a new headquarters for the Department of Motor Vehicles. Significantly for Austinites, the proposal allows for relocation of the Hobby Building at Fourth and Guadalupe.

Article II: Health & Human Services

• The Medicaid reimbursement issue is extremely worrying for many of the state's poorest residents, and the doctors dedicated to helping them.
• A win for reproductive and sexual health advocates: the deranged plan to move $3 million from HIV education to abstinence-only education slid quietly into the night.
• A loss for the same groups: Planned Parenthood – and the women who benefit from its services – were hit yet again, as the state removed the program from access to funding under the Breast & Cervical Cancer Services program.

Article III: Education

• A complete cave to the Senate model. The House had wanted $2.2 billion, the Senate only $1.5 billion. In fact, if HB 1759, Killeen Republican Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock's interim school finance fix, had passed, then it would have been closer to $3 billion.
• The overall budget will include an extra $1.2 billion to fund school property tax relief, created by adding $10,000 to the homestead exemption. However, the House has never really wanted this, and Ways and Means Committee Chair Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, has consistently said this will produce no meaningful change in tax bills for more than a year.

Article V: Public Safety and Criminal Justice

• Extra funding to put DPS troopers on a 10 hour work day
• $800 million for border security, almost half of which will go to hiring new troopers and support staff. However, as Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has noted, Texas can't fill the DPS vacancies it has: Where does anyone think the extra 360 applicants needed to fill these vacancies will come from?

The hearing continues today, with a lot of work still to do, beyond just Articles IX and X. As it seems unlikely there will be a major outcry in either chamber once the bills are delivered, this seems to be the final version. But then, the question remains: What are the issues that the committee itself is still working on, and how far apart are the members and the chambers?

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