Budget Wins at the Capitol
Texas Lege finally funds public education
Leave it to Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen to declare victory and end the celebration at a stroke. On May 23, the Grand Triumvirate – Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Bonnen – assembled at the Governor's Mansion to announce a deal on the budget, property taxes, and school finance. "We won the Super Bowl today," Bonnen told the press, "and we're not going to talk about whether the quarterback or the running back had more of the success in our win." Translation: Ask us no questions and we'll tell you no lies.
Minus the confetti, there were indeed reasons to celebrate. A dam had broken after decades of obstruction, and the GOP leadership, House, and Senate had agreed to spend more money on public education. The omnibus budget bill (House Bill 1) includes $6.5 billion more for public schools, and another $5.1 billion to "buy down" school property taxes (as prescribed in HB 3, the "Texas Plan" school finance vehicle), a dual dispensation that for years has seemed impossible for lack of political will. If the deal remains intact beyond the upcoming biennium (a major uncertainty), the state will have moved from providing 38% of Texas public schools' direct financial support up to 45% – not a historical high-water mark, but a substantial improvement.
Simultaneously, the state will impose on local jurisdictions – cities and counties as well as schools – caps on property tax revenue increases, essentially forcing those entities to go to the voters to make major increases to their budgets. (The havoc that engenders will be felt on another day.) Public pressure on both fronts – taxes and schools – had reached a point that the two issues became intertwined, and the Lege couldn't fix one without also addressing the other. Moreover, the prospect of a competitive 2020 election meant the GOP majority could not reflexively kick the can to 2021. The open question is whether the juggling act – which also relies on one-time "rainy day" funding – can be sustained beyond the immediate biennium.
Overall, the $250.7 billion, two-year budget represents a 16% increase over 2017 (3.5% caps are for lesser folk), including a $6.1 billion rainy-day infusion for unpaid bills from this current biennium (Hurricane Harvey, other infrastructure). There's half a billion for new mental hospitals (including a new 240-bed Austin State Hospital), but also a $900 million reduction for Medicaid – possibly the most miserly gesture of the whole session.
But in a minor victory for the forces of sanity, the budget does not include an additional $100 million for a border security "surge" – lawmakers came to their senses on Sunday, after somebody pointed out that the current $800 million per biennium should be quite enough tribute to Trump.