Politics complicates Texas budget process

Politics complicates Texas budget process

(Texas) A growing political riff between Republican leaders of the Legislature is threatening critical steps in building the 2017-18 state budget, as well as a bill that would restructure school funding.

With close of session only a few weeks off, political observers are watching with some wariness as Gov. Greg Abbott, House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick—who controls the state Senate—struggle over spending and policy priorities.

“From outside, it appears one party has control of the Texas government,” wrote columnist Ross Ramsey this week in the Texas Tribune. “From inside the Capitol, that one party acts more like two parties at war.”

The political landscape in Texas has been solidly Republican red for nearly two decades, but party affiliation hasn’t always resulted in a smooth process when it comes to making hard decisions.

In January, the state comptroller estimated that lawmakers would have almost $105 billion for general fund spending over the next two years, which represents about a $1.5 billion dip from 2016-17.

Although the state’s rainy day fund will still have close to $12 billion by the time the Legislature reconvenes in January, 2019, Gov. Abbott has already said he will not support raiding the reserves.

Both Abbot’s budget and the one prepared in the state Senate calls for $103 billion in general fund spending and $213 billion in all funds, which would result in a cut of about 8 percent. Meanwhile, the House plan calls for $221 billion in spending and a smaller, 5.6 percent reduction.

The difference between the budgets isn’t just the amount of money that would be needed; the programs and services are different too.

Abbott, for instance, has made early learning a key educational program and wants to allocate about $240 million to pre-kindergarten classes over the next two years. The House version offered only about $117 million to the program and the Senate just $75 million.

There are expectations that much of the activity in the Legislature in the coming weeks will be focused on the Texas version of the transgender bathroom bill instead of spending priorities.

It is against that backdrop that a school funding plan, House Bill 21, was introduced last week by State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who is chair of the House education committee.

The bill comes in the wake of the state’s Supreme Court ruling last year that the Texas system for funding public education, while constitutional, was deeply flawed.

According to the author, the bill will provide $1.6 billion more to schools while making other improvements. He said if approved, it would raise the basic allotment per student from $5,140 to $5,350 and add a new transportation grant of $125 per student.

“This plan helps students across the board, including those who attend charter schools,” Huberty said in a statement. “We are beginning to fix flaws in our school finance system and helping schools meet the increasingly high demands that have been put on them.”