Texas lawmakers agree on balanced budget with spending increases

By Bethany Blankley

Texas House and Senate lawmakers have ironed out a $3 billion difference in their budget proposals and unanimously approved a final spending plan. The bill now goes back to each chamber for approval. Once passed, it will head to the governor’s desk.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who chairs the Senate Finance committee, said the process was amicable. Nelson has led the Senate's budget writing effort for the fourth session in a row. House Appropriations Committee chair Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, said the conferees worked well together despite an unusually complex and challenging budgetary process.

"We've landed this plane very smoothly," he said in a news release. "The conferees have all done an amazing job. … It was really a great example of people working together to solve problems and to address what's important to the people of the state of Texas."

The proposed bill is a balanced budget “that meets our needs” and “is a testament to the resiliency of Texas," Nelson said.

Heading into last summer, Texas was facing a $5 billion shortfall. By the time the legislature convened in January, it was facing a $1 billion deficit. But that all changed in May when state Comptroller Glenn Hegar amended the budget forecast after sales tax revenue and federal money came in.

Sales tax collections surpassed projections, with a record $3.4 billion in revenue recorded in April from March collections alone.

Hegar told legislators the state would end the 2020-2021 fiscal biennium with a $725 million surplus. He also increased projections for available revenue through 2023 by more than $3 billion in state discretionary funds. In addition to the billions of dollars in federal funds Texas received last year and this year, the state’s all-funds estimate was increased by $24 billion.

The budget proposal approved by conferees represents a slight spending increase over the current biennium, but within constitutional spending limits and below the rate of inflation, Nelson said, adding it is responsible and “keeps Texas strong and successful."

Texans for Fiscal Responsibility notes that in the House debate of the budget there were more than 240 amendments, only eight recorded votes, and debate lasted roughly 11 hours.

“It does seem as though there has been a steady decline in record votes taken on House Budgets over the last four sessions,” the advocacy organization said. “Yet there have been hundreds of amendments filed each session” and “far less contentious debate” compared to other sessions.

Some of the amendments proposed by members of both parties, which didn’t make it into the budget, included language requiring Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session before any more federal funds were dispersed.

Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, tweeted, “Remaining fed $ to spend = $28.7 Billion. No reason not to add language to budget bill now.”

Roughly one month to the day after many amendments failed to be added to the House version of the bill, Abbott said he’s calling for a special legislative session to convene in September to allow the legislature to have a say in how additional federal coronavirus relief money is spent. The legislature will also address redistricting, and possibly a slate of legislative priorities that didn’t make it through this session. The session ends May 31 with a hard deadline of Tuesday at midnight for some bills to pass.

The Texas Constitution stipulates that the legislature only meet for a few months every two years and that only the governor has the power to call a special legislative session. During the entire state shutdown last year, Abbott refused to call a special session or to respond to Republican legislators who repeatedly asked him to do so.