Lean budget bill starts spending talks at Capitol

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 14, 2013 at 6:11 pm •  Published: January 14, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republican lawmakers proposed early budget drafts Monday that would keep in place deep spending cuts to Texas schools but leave about $5.5 billion on the table, measures they called careful starting points in their efforts to limit spending and lower taxes.

Both the House and Senate also are opening budget talks with no new money for the state's beleaguered $3 billion cancer-fighting effort, further clouding the future of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas as the agency reels under a criminal investigation.

Critics pounced on the lean proposals as tantamount to more spending cuts on top of the nearly $15 billion lawmakers chopped in 2011. Republicans said their proposals fund public school enrollment growth for an estimated 170,000 new students in 2014-15, but some budget observers argued that math only works if Texas once again decreases per-student spending.

Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the Senate bill ensures that a roaring Texas economy will keep adding jobs.

"To maintain that opportunity, we need to make sure to keep our spending under control, fund our priorities and keep our taxes low," Dewhurst said.

The House budget bill comes in at $89.1 billion and the Senate's at $88.9 billion. Both are expected to be filed Tuesday, and the nitty-gritty details of the proposals were not immediately released.

When lawmakers returned to the Capitol last week for a new session, they were greeted with a sunny $101.4 billion revenue forecast to spend on the next two-year budget. Coupled with a nearly $12 billion projected balance sitting in the Rainy Day Fund, teachers and Democrats were hopeful of restoring at least some — if not all — of the $5.4 billion cut from classroom spending in 2011.

But Gov. Rick Perry made clear last week there were no promises to roll back any of those reductions, and the budget bills unveiled Monday appeared to deliver on that warning.

The budget proposals are significant but are merely a starting point for negotiations leading to May — a fact underscored even by the Republicans who introduced the bills. Dewhurst, for instance, left the door open for budget-writers to go back and fund CPRIT if lawmakers are able to beef up oversight and restore confidence in the troubled cancer agency.

Democrats recognized the bills as a first draft, too, but that didn't blunt their frustration.

"I'm disappointed the first draft of the budget continues the historic education cuts," said Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat.