Athens Review, Athens, Texas

May 17, 2013

New Texas budget offer raises hopes of Friday deal

A breakthrough on a new Texas budget could be for real this time.

Associated Press
Associated Press

AUSTIN —

 

Following a week of seesaw talks and rising tensions between Republicans and Democrats over allegedly broken deals, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he expects the House and Senate to finally agree Friday on a new state budget that would restore $4 billion of public school funding that was cut two years ago.

That is the biggest giveback to schools on the bargaining table at any point during this 140-day session, where time and money are running out. A new wrinkle in the Senate offer divulged late Thursday calls for shaving $100 million from the budget. Lawmakers only have one full week remaining at the Capitol to make this deal and numbers work.

Which state agencies or programs would absorb those cuts was not yet known. But Dewhurst said the overall plan resolves all major issues with the House.

"We've written a good budget, and this makes it better," said Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, the Senate budget chief.

On Friday morning, Democratic state. Rep. Sylvester Turner said he had not seen the Senate offer but voiced both optimism and caution. Turner scolded GOP leaders a day earlier over stuck talks and insisted that House Democrats were holding firm for $3.9 billion in additional school funding.

He would not say Friday whether he would accept the new Senate plan if its numbers were true, but expressed hope of a deal being struck before the weekend.

"It's in the details," Turner said.

It's not the first time negotiators have predicted an imminent compromise. Williams and his House counterpart, Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts, had spoken with confidence of a midweek deal only to retreat back into offices and hash out new differences.

Dewhurst and Senate negotiators announced the latest breakthrough late Thursday, shortly after emerging from lengthy closed-door talks and walking to the office of Democratic state Rep. Craig Eiland. House Democrats had begun the day fuming at Republicans, accusing them of reneging on earlier compromises and pulling money set aside from education at the last minute.

The latest proposal may satisfy House Democrats: It calls for putting another $200 million toward education, which Dewhurst and Williams said would raise the total of restored cuts to $4.07 billion. Two years ago, the Legislature slashed public school funding by $5.4 billion to close a massive budget shortfall, and Democrats have called restoring that funding their priority since January.

The proposal also spells out at least $1 billion in tax relief.

"It's a package deal," Dewhurst said.

Republicans stand to score a political victory in the compromise; Williams said the deal would not bust the state spending cap that House negotiators were willing to consider as talks stalled this month but that the Senate deemed forbidden.

Dewhurst and Senate negotiators left the Capitol shortly before midnight following a day of faint signs that a deal was in reach. Budget leaders canceled meetings while Turner accused Perry of swooping in late and telling Republicans not to vote for an agreed-upon plan because too much was being spent on reversing public school cuts.

Perry responded by saying he was "not going to participate" with those he described as trying to create conflict in the waning days of what has been — until now — a largely and unexpectedly harmonious session. Aides to Perry also denied that he told GOP members not to vote on an earlier budget proposal.

Perry wants $1.8 billion in tax cuts and a new $2 billion water fund. The Legislature adjourns May 27, but Perry says he'll keep lawmakers working into June if they don't deliver.

Democrats have 55 votes in the 150-person chamber. Without their support, the House cannot reach the two-thirds threshold necessary to draw $2 billion from the state's Rainy Day Fund in order to jump-start an aggressive, bipartisan plan for new water projects across the drought-parched state.