Questions remain as Texas lawmakers work to finalize state budget

The 2024-2025 budget conference committee has released its decision docket on the next biennium appropriations bill, but the final version hinges on a settlement between the House and the Senate over competing pieces of legislation.

After the two chambers approved their respective blueprints, there was a roughly $6 billion delta between the two versions, though both eclipse the $300 billion mark. The 10-member conference committee has spent the last couple of weeks embroiled in negotiations on which funding levels to adjust and which riders to preserve or strip from the two versions.

While this conference committee report is a big step toward finalizing the 2024-2025 budget, some questions still remain.

Debate over how the budget should address property taxes remains at a statemate, and the conference committee was left with no choice but to punt on the issue for the moment. The House version lays out $12 billion in new levels of school district Maintenance & Operations tax rate compression, while the Senate allocates $9.8 billion.

The conference committee’s appropriation is contingent on which blueprint passes, and the legislative game of chess on that issue is still raging. Both chambers allotted $5 billion for a medley of education costs, including teacher pay raises, but in different sets of legislation — meaning that appropriation is also in wait-and-see mode. The same goes for the chambers’ divide on injections to the Teachers Retirement Fund (TRS).

A $7,500 supplemental payment plus a varied cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) for certain retired teachers was approved in the Senate; the House’s supplemental payment amounts to $5,000 but places more funds into a COLA. That is another facet that will become finalized once a plan is hashed out.

Included in the Senate’s $5 billion tranche is Senate Bill (SB) 8, its school choice and parental empowerment proposal, the cost of which is estimated to be just shy of $600 million.

On the House’s budget night, a rider was adopted that’d prohibit the use of funds to pay for school choice, education savings accounts, or voucher programs — a maneuver that provided a symbolic test vote on prospective legislation in the lower chamber. The conference committee stripped that rider from its final report, leaving the door open for creation of a state-funded school choice program if it can find the votes in the House.

Funding for the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) — whose head, Ken Paxton, has drawn some fire from legislators for the pending litigation from his former employees who’ve alleged improper use of office — was given $18.7 million for an array of salary increases. The budget also granted $10 million for the OAG to pay for its outside counsel hired to litigate the ongoing antitrust lawsuit against Google.

One theme of the budget process as it played out was whether the Legislature would appropriate any money that Paxton could use to pay for the $3.3 million “Whistleblower Act” settlement with former members of his staff. Back in February, Phelan drew a line in the sand, saying it’s not a “proper use of taxpayer dollars.” 

During its budget debate, the House sent a rider prohibiting the use of appropriated dollars to pay off a settlement — intended as a swipe at Paxton — to Article IX, the “budgetary graveyard” where most riders are left to die, but later approved it in the final version of the budget.

More appropriations include $343 million more toward construction of a southern border wall; $1.5 million to develop or enroll in an existing interstate voter crosscheck system, a rider previously specific to the “Electronic Registration Information Center”; a prohibition against using state and federal funds for promotion of COVID-19 vaccinations; and a prohibition against appropriated Medicaid funds paying for gender reassignment surgeries.

Also included is the Senate’s $400 million for the 1836 Project, a state-guided civics curriculum development program; more than $1 million to facilitate the school marshal program that allows certain school officials to carry handguns on campuses as extra security; a 5 percent salary increase for state employees; and appropriating the remaining $5.45 billion in federal COVID-19 aid to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. 

The final draft scraps the House’s $80 million funding increase to the Alternatives to Abortion program that it passed on budget night. The increase was added to compensate for a cost inflation and the growth in demand for the program after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. Instead, the final version adopts the Senate’s $20 million increase to the program.

Both chambers adopted a prohibition against institutions of higher education using state dollars to create offices of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Though both versions are similar, the House’s was selected for the final budget.
Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher is the editor and publisher of High Plains Pundit. Dan is also the host of the popular High Plains Pundit Podcast.

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