Senate passes budget, deal reached on education


CHRIS TOMLINSON,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Senate passed a $94.6 billion budget, top policymakers reached overhauling public education and Gov. Rick Perry received a bill requiring drug screening for unemployment benefits on Saturday, as the Texas Legislature worked to wrap up regular business before the end of the 83rd Legislative session.

The two-year spending plan represents an 8 percent increase from the last budget passed in 2011, which cut $15 billion in government spending, including $5.4 billion for public schools. The increase is less than the rate of population growth plus inflation, the conservative limit set by the state’s Republican leadership last year.

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Republican budget writers Saturday took shots at conservative pundits while laying out the budget bill, which mostly restores historic spending cuts to public schools in 2011.

Sen. Tommy Williams, the Senate budget chief, said outside fiscal hawks who criticized the spending should go back to school and be taught “how to count.” He defended the budget as a responsible spending plan that included tax cuts and left more than $500 million on the table.

Republican Sen. Donna Campbell, a favorite of the tea party, cast one of three Senate votes against the budget.

“I’d like to have seen more restraint in overall spending, and that any government growth supported by the budget is at the expense, I feel, of key infrastructure investment,” Campbell said.

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The budget must now go to the House for final approval, where House Speaker Joe Straus considered it a success despite the sniping by fringe groups.

“In every session I’ve been here, no one is 100 percent happy, but you have to get the votes to pass it. And that means the input of members from all parties and in both chambers,” Straus said.

The Legislature’s top education policy writers also announced an agreement to cut the number of standardized tests needed for high school graduation from 15 to five. They also changed curriculum standards and increased the number of charter schools allowed in the state.

The Legislature also sent a bill to the governor that would require workers who lose their jobs to clear a drug screening to qualify for unemployment compensation. The changes approved Saturday would require laid-off workers to fill out state questionnaires. Answers considered suspicious would lead to drug tests. Workers who fail would lose their benefits.

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Williams, R-The Woodlands, said the program will help maintain a competent workforce. Democrats have blocked a separate measure that would have required drug testing for welfare recipients.

In another bill, prisoners who have completed their sentences would get help readjusting to society under a bill unanimously approved by the Senate and sent the governor as part of a comprehensive bill addressing the mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The biggest policy change requires the agency to create a system that evaluates the needs of inmates leaving the system. The agency will assign counselors, educators, vocational trainers and public service volunteers to work with inmates to find employment and stability. Another major change proposed for the prison system would prioritize expensive privately operated facilities for closure. That measure has been shifted to the state budget bill still under debate.

Perry also vetoed a bill Saturday that required some politically active nonprofits to disclose their major donors, saying it would have a “chilling effect” on free speech. The bill had been seen as a likely target for a veto as influential conservative groups had urged Perry to strike it down.

“While regulation is necessary in the administration of Texas political finance laws, no regulation is tolerable that puts anyone’s participation at risk or that can be used by any government, organization or individual to intimidate those who choose to participate in our process through financial means,” Perry said.

Supporters said the bill would crack down on “dark money,” or contributions secretly made to groups that avoid campaign finance and disclosure laws because of their nonprofit status.

“This is a sad day for integrity and transparency in Texas,” said Sen. Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican who fought for the measure. “The governor’s veto is ironic since money laundering is illegal in other endeavors.”

Lawmakers could override Perry’s veto before the session adjourns Monday, but that appears unlikely.