State of Texas: In-Depth – Budget deals behind the scenes

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – A small group of lawmakers will soon make big decisions about how to spend your tax dollars. Both the House and Senate passed roughly the same size budget but there are drastic differences.  Now, a group of 10 negotiators – five from the House and five from the Senate – must turn those differences into a final budget.

State Representative Larry Gonzales has been one of those negotiators before.  The Round Rock Republican will likely be part of the conference committee this time around.  He spoke to KXAN Political Reporter Phil Prazan on Sunday morning’s State of Texas program.

“For the next several weeks we are going to go through the budget kind of line-by-line making sure that everything adds up.” Gonzales said most of the process goes smoothly, with differences in many line-item numbers getting ironed out quickly.  “It’s usually the really big conceptual things where the budget gets bogged down,” Gonzales explained.  “It’s the public education.  It’s the Foundation School Program money that goes in K through 12.  It’s the method of finance for how you’re going to pay for things.”

“I think this time, the real hard one to cross is that they disagree on which money to spend,” said Ross Ramsey, Executive Editor of The Texas Tribune. “The House is going for its savings account, the Rainy Day Fund.  The Senate is instead going to an untested, and maybe illegal transfer from general revenue to the state highway fund,” Ramsey said.  The question over whether the Senate’s transfer plan is legal is pending before state Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The plan involves money Texas voters approved in November 2015 to go toward transportation funding.  “Use some of our sales taxes for highways,” Ramsey explained. “The Texas Senate is saying well if we didn’t spend it in one fiscal year, if we scoot it one day to the next fiscal year, we could make our budget balance,” Ramsey said. “This is how I kinda paid my landlord when I was in college.”

Senate leaders have voiced opposition to tapping the Rainy Day Fund, which is officially known as the Economic Stabilization Fund, or ESF.  “They used to tap it almost every session,” recalled R.G. Ratcliffe, who covers politics for Texas Monthly. But Ratcliffe says things changed during the later part of Governor Rick Perry’s time in office.  “It has this kind of ridiculous idea that there’s something sacred about it.”  Ratcliffe pointed to how the fund keeps growing, even as the state faces a funding shortfall.  “That’s really kind of like hoarding tax dollars,” Ratcliffe said.  “I mean, in some ways it was set up to cover expenses when tax revenue did not.”

Despite the differences, Rep. Gonzales is optimistic.  “At the end of the day it will all work out, because it has to work out,” Gonzales said. “It is the one thing we have to do each session is to pass a budget.”

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