Final Budget: Pork for Me, Not for Thee

Property owners – particularly wealthy homeowners and major businesses – came out on top in the new two-year state budget, thanks to lawmakers' eagerness to use the lion's share of a $14.3 billion surplus to cover future cuts in school property taxes.

The $153 billion budget passed easily in both houses, despite earlier threats by lawmakers to filibuster the bill to death, which would have automatically resulted in a special session and another round of budget battles. Unsubstantiated rumors had Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst privately relishing the idea of a Senate filibuster as political payback to House Speaker Tom Craddick, a tough-as-nails negotiator on budget matters. The pair has a history of butting heads during last-minute budget wrangles.

But neither the filibuster nor the related fireworks managed to fully materialize, and the budget passed on an anticlimactic note, leaving plenty of time for other bills to pass along with an endless parade of resolutions recognizing everyone from Capitol staffers, to lawmakers' spouses, to one more fallen soldier.

Tax-cut proponents and fiscal conservatives would have preferred to see larger tax cuts, but ultimately praised the budget bill for holding the line on spending, except where the spending appealed to their interests. Such an assessment often signals a spending plan heavy on pork. In this case, the fat tipped the scales at $100 million in spending for higher ed pet projects. Former Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, one of several GOP candidates running for the speaker's seat, was especially critical of the budget, noting that Craddick really cleaned up with $55 million going to his Midland-area district.

In particular, Democrats and anti-Craddick Republicans pointed to one choice cut of meat – $16 million to pay for paving a parking lot at UT-Permian Basin in Odessa, next door to Craddick's hometown. Moreover, some community colleges were given special funding preferences over others. Legislators also questioned how nearly 20 local parks ended up with extra cash while others were left by the wayside. "It's very easy to get carried away with pork," said Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine. "And there are a lot of hogs in this bill."

After the slaughter, nearly every other stakeholder in the budget process managed to catch some bacon bits, for which they were grateful but not ecstatic.

Public school teachers took it on the chin, again, with a peanut-sized pay raise of about $425 a year. After taxes and deductions, education advocates say teachers will actually receive less than $25 a month – enough to spring for a pair of movie tickets and a box of Milk Duds, but not enough to cover health-care premiums.

Lawmakers were friendlier toward the Children's Health Insurance Program, which enters the new budget cycle with fewer roadblocks and the addition of about 125,000 uninsured kids to its benefits roll. Foster children also got a break. Lawmakers directed $99 million toward improving the state foster-care system, adding more than 500 caseworkers to its meager 1,500 head count.

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