Budget deal in Texas slipping away


PAUL J. WEBER,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Forget those feel-good vibes at the Capitol. Unless a deal on a new Texas budget is struck in the next two weeks, a summer bummer is coming.

Gov. Rick Perry wants $1.8 billion in tax cuts and $2 billion for a new water fund to quench the state’s historic drought. So does the majority of the Legislature, which is also close to making peace with furious teachers by restoring most of the $5.4 billion stripped from classrooms in 2011.

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Big bills have advanced in bipartisan landslides since January, and purple ties have become symbolic fashion statements for Republicans and Democrats, just two years after the state GOP set up Perry’s presidential run by advancing an aggressively conservative agenda.

With the legislative finish line in sight, though, a budget impasse is souring the mood of the “Kumbaya Session.”

“There’s somewhat desperate moves right now because the options are so limited at this point in the session,” Democratic state Rep. Donna Howard said.

The House and Senate are at a budget stalemate. Republicans handily control both chambers, but with this 140-day session set to adjourn May 27, the top GOP negotiators from both chambers are at odds over the best way to pay for four main priorities — water, roads, education and tax cuts.

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After staying quiet for most of the first four months of the session, Perry this month warned lawmakers that he’ll keep them in Austin until they forward him a budget plan that includes significant tax relief and money for the water fund. That would surprise no one, as only one biennial session since Perry became governor in 2000 did not go to overtime.

Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts, the House’s chief budget-writer, has said he’s optimistic the session can end on time, despite a several-day suspension of talks this week with his Senate counterpart, Republican Tommy Williams. On Friday, Pitts was spotted walking to Williams’ office, but he declined to say anything about the meeting, other than that he requested it.

Minutes earlier, Williams told reporters that a deal was still within reach.

“If we’re meeting, there is,” Williams said.

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The House passed a two-year, $93.5 billion state budget in April that closely mirrored the Senate version. Classrooms are poised to get back at least $3 billion, and leaders in both chambers claim that some of the state’s more than 1,000 schools districts would return to the same per-student spending levels as 2009, before lawmakers gutted the budget to close a huge shortfall.

Here’s the rub: the other big-ticket priorities are drawing lines in the sand over how the state should pick up the check.

For Perry and the Republican-controlled Legislature, a major about-face this session was the political willingness to tap the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which is projected to sock away $12 billion if left unspent. The Senate plan calls for draining about half of the fund to pay for new highways and water pipelines, but voters would have to approve of the plan in November through a constitutional amendment.

House leaders call that approach cowardly, saying voters elect lawmakers to make tough choices and the issue shouldn’t be settled at the ballot box. Pitts is instead trying to corral enough support in the House to tap the rainy day fund by busting the state’s spending cap, which is politically toxic in the Senate.

Also unsettled are highway funding and tax relief. More than $1 billion in various business tax cuts have passed the House, and the Senate has approved refunding taxpayers $731 million from a long-collected electricity surcharge.

How close the Legislature comes in the next two weeks to hitting Perry’s target of $1.8 billion in tax cuts may decide if it’s going to be a long summer.

“The truth is, it’s not necessarily a good thing for him for us to be in a special session either,” said Republican state Rep. Harvery Hilderbran, chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. “He and I are allies on the tax-cut thing. So I’m not threatened or bothered. I’m OK with that, if it helps us get it done.”