AUSTIN — The Senate unanimously passed a two-year, $308 billion state budget on Monday that focuses on property tax cuts, mental health, the power grid and wage increases for state employees and teachers.
While senators would spend several billion more state discretionary dollars than the House, they would still leave more than $17 billion on the table, said the bill’s author, Senator Joan Huffman, R-Houston.
“We need to build a responsible and sustainable budget in the years to come, which requires leaving revenue in the treasury to support ongoing new spending,” she said.
Once the House rejects the Senate changes, as is traditional, a 10-member conference committee will negotiate a final version of the budget. It will be made up of five senators and five state representatives, selected by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and President Dade Phelan respectively.
Lawmakers must pass the budget before the end of the session on May 29.
The Senate’s spending plan follows the House’s in committing $5 billion in new funds to public schools, with final decisions on how that will be distributed yet to be made. The Senate mentions education savings accounts to allow parents to choose private schools as a potential use; the House does not.
The budgets of both chambers would spend $4.6 billion on Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star. In the current cycle, the state is expected to spend just under $4.4 billion on the border security effort.
Like the House, the Senate budget would give state employees 5% pay raises in each of the next two years and offer retired teachers their first cost-of-living adjustment in 19 years.
Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said in addition, the 186,000 retired teachers aged 75 or older would receive a “13th check” for $7,500.
For active teachers, Creighton said, the Senate plan could result in pay increases in rural areas of $6,000 a year.
“Every teacher in Texas will see a $2,000 pay raise,” he said. “We are raising all teachers and creating parity for areas of the state that have long paid less.”
On mental health, Austin Democratic Senator Sarah Eckhardt said the Senate plan is a “stellar” investment of new funds.
As for tax relief, the Senate would add $9.7 billion in school property tax cuts to those passed in 2019, which would cost $5.3 billion to continue for another two years.
The senators would also allocate an additional $1.5 billion in corporate tax cuts. The House would continue school tax rate cuts in 2019, then inject $12 billion into further rate cuts.
Other major differences between the Senate budget and the House include a plan to use $10 billion of unspent but available revenue to pay private interest to build 10 gigawatts of natural gas power generators. They would act as a backup power source if the grid – which came minutes after the blackout in February 2021 – ran into a problem.
Patrick said the Texas Energy Insurance Program, as the plan is called, would finally repair the grid operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Abbott said bills passed in 2021 and new rules crafted by his appointed regulators would ensure no more problems.
The House, while mostly silent, did not include money for backup generators in its budget. The Senate budget states that if the senators’ bill to create the energy assurance program fails, the Public Utilities Commission should get $100 million in discretionary funds available next year to fix the grid and preserve the ability.
The Senate passed its version of the budget Monday in less than 90 minutes. Earlier this month, it took the House almost 10 hours – and that was fast, compared to some sessions.
The state enjoys a record $32.7 billion revenue surplus in the current two-year cycle, and Comptroller Glenn Hegar predicts further growth.
“This is a unique opportunity to meet long-standing needs, pay down debt, make strategic investments in our state’s infrastructure and historic sites, and most importantly, give money back to taxpayers,” Huffman said. She is in her first session at the head of the Senate Finance Committee responsible for drafting the budget.
Patrick showered her with praise, saying she stepped in where former Flower Mound GOP senator Jane Nelson, a veteran budget writer who didn’t run for re-election to the Senate last year, s is stopped.
“You did an incredible job of getting Bill 31 to nothing,” Patrick told Huffman. “Which means whoever is far left or far right has come together to support this bill.”
Other differences between the House and Senate budgets:
Remuneration of community care workers
The Senate bill includes “a substantial increase in wages for our community attendants” who help elderly and disabled Texans stay in their homes, said Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican from Brenham who serves as the budget editor for the Senate health and social services.
More than 302,000 Texans receive help from attendants paid for by Medicaid community care programs. But Medicaid, a state-federal health insurance program for the poor in which the state sets the provider’s wage, only funds a base wage of $8.11 an hour, with no benefits.
Dennis Borel, who leads the Coalition for Texans with Disabilities, led a campaign this session to raise base pay next year to $15 an hour and $17 an hour in fiscal year 2025. It would cost $2.6 billion in general purpose revenue. , generating an additional $4 billion in Medicaid matching funds.
So far, the House has offered $715 million. The Senate approved spending $902 million, enough to bring all attendants up to $11 an hour.
“If we wait two years and try to get $19 [an hour]and the base salary is still $8, it’s like trying to climb Mount Everest,” Borel said Monday after the Senate vote.
Although disappointed, Borel said the Senate version at least would likely start next session’s fight with a higher attendant salary locked in the Health and Human Services Committee’s initial budget request.
Budget negotiators can still do more for attendants, especially if Hegar, the state’s chief tax collector, updates his revenue estimate by May 29, Borel said. Hegar and the former Comptrollers are known to increase their forecasts at the end of legislative sessions.
Prison air conditioning
With new data showing that indoor temperatures at 15 state-run prisons exceeded 100 degrees last summer, prison guards, inmate families and criminal justice activists have demanded that Texas use part surplus to install more air conditioning.
Approximately 70% of state-run prisons do not have air conditioning in all of their inmate housing areas, and Texas is one of 13 states that does not require air conditioning in its prisons and state-run prisons. ‘State.
The terms have led to repeated litigation. The state is conducting 20 heat-related lawsuits in prisons, according to a prison system spokesperson.
The Senate budget would include $129 million for major repairs and restoration, but none would be specifically allocated for air conditioning.
The House would give the Texas Department of Criminal Justice about $570 million. This would fund the first two of four phases and add 62,000 air-conditioned beds to TDCJ prisons over the next eight years, the agency said.
Parks, higher education
The Senate would spend $500 million acquiring new land for state parks, assuming a separate bill passes and voters pass a proposed constitutional amendment. The House only approved $100 million, which is in the “supplementary” bill for the current cycle. (The Senate also has $100 million available for the purchase of land for the parks in its version of the interim funding bill.)
In higher education, the Senate would spend $2.5 billion, not the $3.5 billion proposed by the House, on a new college endowment to help the University of North Texas system, as well as the Texas Tech, University of Houston and Texas State systems. These expenses would also depend on the passage of a separate bill and a constitutional amendment.
Dallas Democratic Senator Royce West unsuccessfully sought to remove from the budget bill a provision prohibiting any use of state funds for diversity, equity and inclusion “similar practices or programs, including staff , training or activities” on the campuses of state colleges and universities.
West said the ban could hurt the ability of Texas health-related higher education institutions to attract research grants, as many of them “required the ‘DEI’ for inclusion. “.
Huffman responded by saying that the Senate would pass separate legislation today to ban DEI offices and programs at public universities. She said the hot topic debate should take place on this legislation.
Huffman urged senators to table West’s amendment. His motion carried, 19-12. With nine Democratic signatures on West’s amendment, all Democrats, the vote appeared to break at least mostly along party lines.