The Austin Chronicle

State Budget Budges Forth

By Richard Whittaker, April 3, 2009, News

The only thing the Texas Legislature must do in a session is pass the state budget. The Senate Finance Committee approved Senate Bill 1, its version of the 2010-11 budget worth $182.2 billion, on March 30 and scheduled it for an April 1 floor debate (expected to last well beyond press time). So now it's up to the House to finalize its version.

While House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, is still waiting for a full estimate from the Legislative Budget Board of how big the House version will be, he has a clear timeline for getting House Bill 1 to the floor and aims to have it finalized and printed in time for his committee's April 7 meeting. "We have the votes to kick it out of committee, so it could be a short meeting," Pitts predicted. Next up, he's working on a calendar rule, setting an April 14 deadline for all amendments and riders. Even the complicating factor of waiting for final rules on federal stimulus money isn't slowing him. "We're spending [it] in the way it was directed to be spent," he said.

It's not just about how much money is spent but where it goes. That issue came to the fore on March 27 during a lengthy committee grilling of staff from Gov. Rick Perry's office over how $120 million was transferred from the overstretched unemployment-insurance fund to the Texas Emerging Technology Fund – including $50 million for Perry's alma mater, Texas A&M University. Pitts explained: "We put some riders in the Appropriations bill that says that he cannot do that anymore. He can't switch it from one to another without the approval of the Legislative Budget Board, and he cannot spend it without their approval." While Pitts expects that riders will be enough for this budget cycle, "probably eventually it needs to be put in statute." He also plans to extend that clarity into the rest of the process. "Hopefully we can do a rule that says ... you can't take money from the education article and put it into health, and you can't take money from health and put it into education," he said.

Pitts remains optimistic Perry will approve the final budget, avoiding the need for a special session this summer. He added, "We're going to do what we have to do, and we think we're going to put a good bill on his desk."

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