Senate budget panel approves $308 billion spending plan with new money for teachers, mental health, juvenile justice

State Capitol in the late afternoon on June 12, 2017 (Austin Price For The Texas Tribune, Austin Price For The Texas Tribune)

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Texas Senate budget leaders on Wednesday approved a $308 billion spending proposal for the next two years that would include billions of dollars in new money for mental health services, juvenile justice, property tax cuts, community colleges and pay raises for teachers and state employees.

The proposal for the 2024-25 budget cycle includes $142.1 billion in general revenue spending — about $5 billion higher than the proposal approved last week by the Texas House — at a time when lawmakers have a historic $32.7 billion surplus at their disposal this session.

Neither chamber’s proposal spends the entirety of the surplus, nor do they bust constitutional spending limits, budget leaders said.

Senators greenlit $5 billion in additional money for schools that would pay for teacher pay raises and other educational programs, including costs associated with offering parents private school subsidies. It also includes $3.7 billion for cost-of-living adjustments for retired teachers, $650 million for measures to help schools improve security and $650 million to revamp community college funding.

The bill also includes $1 billion to fund water projects and a $10 billion commitment to fund Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priority package of legislation addressing the stability of the electric grid. It also sets aside $16.5 billion for property tax cuts and $4.6 billion for border security — including more than $1 billion for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to use on border actions and programs that he chooses.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the budget plan by a vote of 16-0, sending it to the Senate floor for debate, which is expected to happen next week.

“Thank you all for participating in this process,” said Senate Finance Committee Chair Joan Huffman, R-Houston. “It’s a great budget, and I look forward to bringing it to the Senate floor.”

The Senate version also includes $900 million in new funding for mental health care — that’s in addition to $2.3 billion in a separate spending bill — and $2.3 billion to raise base wages for personal care “community attendants” who are paid through the Medicaid program to help patients with tasks such as laundry, errands, grooming, eating and medication.

And it allots $1.8 billion for state employee pay raises, as well as $370 million in new money to address issues at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which has been wracked with problems due to understaffing.

“We do need you to turn that place around,” Huffman told agency officials during the hearing Wednesday.

The agency is up for its sunset review in the Senate in the coming days, during which senators plan to make changes to address several issues that lead to complaints over youth being mistreated, said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.

“Help is on the way,” Whitmire said.

Senate budget writers also approved $500 million to support parks redevelopment, $500 million for broadband development, $500 million for Gulf Coast protection programs and $600 million for port and ship channel funds and projects.

The vote comes less than a week after the Texas House approved its own proposal, which differs from the Senate version in several areas — putting several billions of dollars at stake when negotiations between the two chambers start later this month.

Among the notable differences between the two chambers: the absence of the $10 billion grid legislation funding from the Texas House bill. Meanwhile, the Senate committee declined to commit $1 billion in funding requested by colleges and universities to allow them to freeze tuition for two years. The House committee version has that funding in it, setting up tuition freezes for a showdown in future negotiations.

The House version spends about $137 billion in general revenue and $306 billion in all state and federal funds.

The two chambers have also approved emergency spending bills to plug holes and bump up funding during the current biennium, adding billions of dollars more to mental health, pay raises and other projects.

Senators clashed briefly over a rider in the budget bill that bans funding from universities that use diversity, equity and inclusion practices in their hiring processes.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said recent moves by lawmakers and Abbott to ban DEI programs and practices on campuses has universities “frightened to death” because there’s not enough clarity on what that includes.

“Do you consider the university’s hiring of personnel to go out and recruit students, enroll and assist to go through the education process — mentoring and tutoring — a DEI practice that would be prohibited based on this rider?” asked West, who was not in committee when the rider was discussed last month due to a death in his family.

In a testy exchange with West, the rider’s author, state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, responded that the language pertains to personnel and hiring before mocking West’s reference to universities being “frightened to death.” Then Creighton told West he was “puzzled” by the question.

West said he plans to fight the rider on the Senate floor during debate and was hoping to get Creighton, whose Senate Education Committee is hearing testimony this week about DEI on campuses, to clarify what would not be allowed under the rider.

“I’m trying to make certain in terms of legislative intent, in terms of what this is actually about, that there aren’t any unintended consequences,” West said. “This is a big issue because of history, and I have never, ever tried to sever something on the floor of the Senate as it relates to the finance bill. But I will be compelled to do that this time because of the potential unintended consequences.”

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