House sidesteps deadline, delays major budget vote


PAUL J. WEBER,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Friction over a Texas budget deal revealed signs of distrust and frustration Tuesday night when the House blew off a midnight deadline and again postponed a major vote on a new state water plan that is crucial to a spending compromise.

The 140-day legislative session ends Monday. So high are the stakes surrounding the water bill that a roughly $100 billion state budget deal hangs in the balance, and a Wednesday showdown is now set.

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Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, the Senate budget chief, appeared irritated after his House delayed the water decision another day.

“By the reaction of them, I guess we did,” said Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts, the House budget chief, when asked whether the Senate had been told the delay was coming.

Williams released a five-word statement about the House’s surprising postponement: “They should take their time.”

A new state budget is the only bill the Legislature is constitutionally required to pass every two years. A pillar of the 2014-15 budget framework is a new state water fund, which is lawmakers’ answer to a historic drought and the needs of booming Texas population.

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Building new pipelines and reservoirs is a top priority of Gov. Rick Perry and has widespread bipartisan support. But the water fund is also propping up a necessary budget bill that must be on Perry’s desk by Monday — and skepticism from House Democrats is raising worries that a spending deal could come crashing down in the final throes of the session.

House Democrats are wary of promises from the Senate that public schools will not lose and extra $200 million pledged beyond the main budget bill. Tumultuous budget talks between House and Senate negotiators last week ended with a deal to restore a total of $4 billion of historic classroom spending cuts in 2011.

Democrats have bristled at the $200 million stashed in a separate bill, because it makes that money vulnerable to a line-item veto from Perry or last-minute decisions to spend that elsewhere. Williams said Tuesday he was still preparing a draft of that measure — called a supplemental spending bill — but insisted that the House had nothing to worry about.

“The money is in there,” Williams said.

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Pitts said the House simply wants to be careful.

“I’m not going to say we don’t trust the Senate, or our members don’t trust the Senate,” Pitts said. “But there are so many moving parts to our budget. … Let us get full disclosure before we get to the full House to see what’s in these bills.”

The House had been faced with a must-vote on the water bill before midnight, only to pull the surprise move of suspending parliamentary rules and delaying the decision to Wednesday.

Republicans overwhelmingly control the 150-member House. But they need Democrats to reach the two-thirds threshold necessary to both create the water fund, and take $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to get the aggressive water plan rolling.

Other hurdles to completing a complex budget deal also remain. Although the Senate on Tuesday approved refunding to taxpayers $630 million collected through a utility surcharge, the moved is opposed by some House Democrats.

Perry has demanded “significant” tax relief this session, and Williams says the refund is a big part of getting there. But the surcharge, collected through what is called the System Benefit Fund, was created to help low-income families pay their utility bills.

Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner on Tuesday appeared to tip his hand at resistance he may wage on the House floor.

Rushing to the dais when a separate and unrelated bill was ready to be taken up, Turner leafed through a bill packet and quipped that “there’s nothing in here about the System Benefit Fund.”

“It seems OK. I move adoption,” Turner said.