Texas could spend billions in new state money on community colleges, mental health services, property tax cuts and raises for current and retired teachers under measures Texas Senate budget writers approved Monday.
The Senate Finance Committee set aside an additional $5 billion over the next two years for teacher pay raises and other educator programs - as well as costs associated with offering parents private school subsidies - a proposal currently spurring heated debate in the Legislature. They also added $3.7 billion for cost-of-living adjustments for retired teachers and agreed to spend an additional $650 million on school safety measures.
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"BIG thanks to my colleagues and my staff for their many months of hard work and their efforts to help advance this historic and conservative budget," Senate Finance Chair Joan Huffman, R-Houston, tweeted moments after the measures were adopted.
The details and decision-making behind the Senate Finance Committee's latest budget effort - laid out over more than 1,000 pages - were hammered out largely behind closed doors. State agencies, advocacy groups and private citizens asked for tens of billions of dollars worth of requests, which were debated in smaller committee work groups not subject to public meeting laws.
The full committee heard nearly 100 hours of public testimony on the budget bill over nearly two dozen meetings in less than two months. Monday's meeting offered the first clear look at potential winners and losers.
The revamped bill will be considered by the committee in a formal vote expected in mid-April, The Texas Tribune reports.
Senate budget leaders declined to fund $1 billion for some programs requested by colleges and universities that the schools said would have allowed 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 senators on Monday added a provision to the budget that tied funding to a ban on diversity, inclusion and equity offices on college and university campuses. The measure passed on a Republican party-line vote, with three Democrats on the panel voting against it.
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The senators approved $500 million for broadband programs and $1 billion for a Texas "water fund" to help finance future water projects.
They also earmarked $18 million over the next two years for foster care services for children without placements. When the state cannot find a suitable placement for a child who has been removed from the home, the Department of Family and Protective Services is required to provide temporary emergency care until a placement can be secured. The additional funding, which would bolster security at facilities for them and help pay for nurses and other caregivers, was left out of a House version of the bill that passed out of committee earlier this week. Both chambers bolstered payments for family members who take in foster kids.
And the panel set aside $1 million to help county election workers get trained in security measures, a response to an uptick in violence and threats against those staffers.
Senators also funneled more than half a billion in new money to the Texas Department of Public Safety - including money for some 250 new officers, $381.5 million to revamp the training facility in Williamson County, and tens of millions for bulletproof windshields, new helicopters and upgraded communications equipment.
Senate budget writers agreed to fund Gov. Greg Abbott's $150 million disaster relief fund, which he controls - and through which he had been paying for Operation Lone Star, his border mission that has cost some $4 billion in less than two years. The border mission funding is likely to be shifted out of Abbott's office after the current budget cycle, with lawmakers expressing support for an estimated $4.6 billion in funding through state agencies.
They declined to commit another $150 million for Abbott's Texas Enterprise Fund, an economic development program often criticized for its potential for cronyism, but proposed funding the governor's victim's assistance program and allotting $55 million for his film incentive program.
They were kinder to Abbott than the House was on some of his favorite programs. House budget writers funded the victim's assistance fund but declined to spend anything on the other three priority Abbott programs.
Exactly how much money would be spent in the plan for the next state budget, which starts in September and continues through most of 2025, has not yet been made public. Specifics will be released when the Senate Finance Committee takes a formal vote to send its budget bill to the full Senate for debate - a move expected in mid-April.
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An early version of the Senate plan spends $130.1 billion in general revenue and nearly $289 billion total in state and federal funds, similar to the initial offering by the Texas House.
A plan advanced last week by the House Appropriations Committee spends $306.9 billion, including some $136.2 billion in general revenue. The full House is expected to pass its version of the budget next week.
State leaders learned in January that lawmakers would be convening their 140-day session with nearly $189 billion in general revenue to spend, a historic budget surplus of $32.7 billion - more than the entire budgets of 24 U.S. states.
But both the House and Senate have advanced plans that still leave tens of billions of dollars in available cash and revenue on the table.
Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican who leads the chamber's committee on education, said the attention given to public and higher education in the budget is a reflection of many conversations about the future workforce.
"As we all talk about these different tragic situations with regard to socioeconomic challenges, there's nothing like solving those problems with a higher paying job," he said, "and providing the training and credentials necessary to achieve it."
Kate McGee contributed to this story.
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