Rainy Day Fund

On Jan. 13, the 84th Legislature of Texas convened. Following a gubernatorial campaign that focused heavily on potential improvements to Texas’s education system, thanks in large part to the platform of Democratic candidate Wendy Davis, the legislature will vote on several bills this session that regard primary education in Texas. UT students should pay attention to several upcoming bills because, as future taxpayers, it will affect members of our campus in addition to the general landscape of primary education in Texas.

Although Wendy Davis did not win the gubernatorial election, one of the biggest dreams of her education platform may be realized should the Legislature pass House Bill 124, authored by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio. HB 124 proposes the expansion of free pre-kindergarten education to include children that are unable to speak or comprehend the English language, homeless, educationally disadvantaged or are/ever have been under the conservatorship of the Department of Family and Protective Services, in addition to the children of active duty servicemen and children who have lost a parent while serving in the armed forces (as the law currently stands). HB 124 is an enormous step forward in aiding the facilitation of early childhood education for children whose education is compromised by means outside of their control. 

House Bill 256, authored by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, also seeks to give opportunities to those whose opportunities for educational success are at risk. Although the state’s compensatory education fund already lends help to pregnant students and student-parents, HB 256 proposes an expansion of the monetary assistance for some of the state’s students that are most likely to drop out due to outside influences. HB 256 would provide child care services or assistance with child care expenses for student-parents at risk of dropping out of school, or help with paying the cost of day care or assisted transportation through a life skills program in schools. Aiming to help student parents at risk of dropping out of school, HB 256 would empower student-parents to get a high school diploma and ensure the care of their children while they’re at school. Though dissenting representatives may argue that it is not the responsibility of the state to fund the child care services of students who chose to become parents, HB 256 is only an expansion of aid that already exists—aid that the state has already decided it is responsible to provide. HB 256 is an investment in a future generation of taxpayers by giving the student-parents the greatest opportunity to succeed (and give back to the state) financially. 

Other bills, though well intentioned, may not be pragmatic. House Bill 387, authored by Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, proposes to take $1 billion out of the economic stabilization fund, colloquially known as the ESF or Rainy Day Fund, to distribute evenly among Texas school districts for the purpose of raising teacher salaries. As public servants who have dedicated their lives to the education of our society’s youngest generations, teachers certainly deserve the highest salary that can be afforded. Furthermore, every UT student owes their current educational situation to at least one teacher along their individual path to higher education. However, the Rainy Day Fund is not the place from which to draw these necessary funds. The Rainy Day Fund was created to be a savings account for the state, not a means of paying for normal funding. To use it as such will create a dangerous precedent for the state. The one-time extraction of $1 billion to increase teachers’ salaries would leave teachers unsatisfied two years from now when the 85th Legislature may not vote to extract another $1 billion to continue funding their increased salaries. Though increasing teachers’ salaries is a noble endeavor, and one I hope to see lawmakers pursue further, HB 387 is remiss in its proposal of using a finite and unreliably-fluctuating account to pay for a permanent increase in teacher pay. 

The upcoming legislative season may affect several changes in the landscape of primary education in Texas. Although members of the UT community have passed out of the direct influence of bills that endeavor to reform Texas’s education system, UT students should remain vigilant in their voice over bills that could affect them as taxpayers or parents.

Smith is a history junior from Austin. She writes about state politics. Follow Smith on Twitter @clairseysmith.

A majority of registered voters support a proposed constitutional amendment to use money from the Rainy Day Fund for water infrastructure and water projects throughout the state.

Proposition 6, which will go before voters Nov. 5, would establish the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas and the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund for Texas. This move would help finance projects in the state’s water plan.

“The most pressing policy for the state of Texas is over the issue of funding for water projects,” said James Henson, government professor and director of the Texas Politics Project.

Henson and his colleagues took a statewide poll to see if citizens favored funding water projects. The poll explained if water was important to citizens and how likely it was for citizens to vote in an election for funding water infrastructure. Henson said the data supports that Texas voters typically like to have a direct say on big decisions such as this, rather than leaving it up to the Texas Legislature.

Daron Shaw, the co-director of the poll and a government professor, said an overall 44 percent of voters were in favor of funding water projects.

According to the poll of 800 registered voters, 52 percent were in favor of funding for water projects, 19 percent opposed and 24 percent had no opinion, while the remaining did not intend to vote. Shaw said out of the 800 total, 611 were considered likely voters.

Shaw explained the issue of funding projects for water infrastructure is the question of the possibility of raising taxes or raising revenue. According to Shaw, this is not a generic question because of the importance of water in the state and dealing with a longstanding drought.

“Politics are dynamic and all polls, in a sense, are predictions,” Shaw said. “Not all registered voters show up on Election Day, but according to our polls, people are in favor of funding water projects.”

College of Liberal Arts spokesman David Ochsner said the polls taken by Henson and his colleagues were important because they showed people cared about funding water projects and that elections give people the opportunity to let their voice be heard.

“The polls reveal the importance of water to the voters — voters want to have a say and now they can,” Ochsner said.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, several quotations from James Henson, government professor and director of the Texas Politics Project, were incorrect. Henson said the most pressing policy issue for Texas is "over the funding for water projects" not the issue of "over-funding water projects." 

Last Thursday, Texas Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, filed Senate Joint Resolution 1, a proposal to spend $2.5 billion on water supply projects and $3.5 billion on infrastructure and transportation. It would also amend the Texas Constitution to create a permanent State Water Implementation Fund, as well as a similar funding source for infrastructure.

The proposal was quickly moved to a hearing in the Finance Committee, where it passed unanimously. It now awaits debate and a vote on the Senate floor, where it is likely to pass.

Senators from both sides of the aisle claim to support the bill, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, argued as he voted “yes” that the funding proposal should include a substantial amount of Rainy Day Fund money for public education as well, saying, “We shouldn’t pit the need for water or highways against public education.”

Several expressed reservations about whether the proposed transportation funding would be adequate, but Williams emphasized that it was not a panacea. Rather it is “part of a solution” to the problems. The most prominent part of the proposal — the creation of the water fund — was also the most popular. Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, called it “visionary.”

One of the most appealing aspects of SJR 1 is that it allows for greater expenditures for water management than have been previously proposed. Williams’ spokesman Gary Scharrer said that a constitutional amendment “carries no risk of running up against the state’s spending cap,” as that $97 billion limit does not apply to spending specifically outlined in the Texas Constitution.

While we support such a comprehensive move to fund the projects called for in the Texas Water Development Board’s 2012 State Water Plan, the proposal sets the stage for a precarious scenario by making the entire initiative contingent on one statewide vote in November.

Other legislative attempts to fund water supply projects have taken the form of bills rather than constitutional amendments and as such are subject to the legislative process — and the threat of a veto by Gov. Rick Perry. In his 2013 State of the State speech, Perry mentioned the need to spend money on both water and transportation, but his proposal was over $2 billion less than Williams’. If passed by the Legislature, SJR 1 would bypass Perry’s desk.

Scharrer also said, “On these big projects it’s good to get voter approval.” But there are several reasons why such a referendum could end in disaster.

A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll conducted in February reported that only 4 percent of Texans considered water the most important issue facing the state — and that’s the highest percentage since 2010. Even in this period of severe drought, water supply isn’t an issue that galvanizes the public. That likely has a lot to do with the daunting complexity of the problem, as well as the fact that most Texans’ taps are still running just fine.

Another problem is that the vote is scheduled for an off-year election cycle. In November 2011, only 5 percent of Texans went to the polls (compared to almost 60 percent in the 2012 elections). That low turnout was a contributing factor in the demise of the last legislative session’s proposed constitutional amendment, which would have provided tax incentives to landowners for water conservation.

That amendment was defeated despite the absence of any organized opposition. This one, if it passes the Legislature, will almost certainly face organized opposition. Conservative advocacy groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation have already come out against existing plans to spend money from the Rainy Day Fund on water management. A statement posted March 25 on the TPPF website claims that a two-thirds vote for such spending “would set a dangerous precedent in setting Texas on the path of growing government ahead of the people’s ability to pay for it.” Instead, they argue that the Legislature should “return the [Rainy Day Fund] money to the people with a tax cut.” SJR 1 would spend half a billion dollars more than the one that statement protested.

Such ideological opposition to necessary attempts to save our state is shortsighted at best. The question about such measures should not be whether they cost too much, but whether doing everything possible will actually be enough to prepare for the unprecedented water shortage that is approaching Texas like an oncoming train.

We support funding as much of the State Water Plan as possible, but we remain unconvinced that a constitutional amendment is the best way to do that. If Williams’ amendment goes to the polls in November, opposition groups could take advantage of what will almost certainly be a very small and unmotivated voter turnout and kill the proposal. If this is the path the Legislature chooses, then it’s absolutely vital that the amendment pass in November. If it doesn’t, then all of the efforts this session to prepare for the coming crisis will have gone in vain.

Texas lawmakers from all political parties are paying an unprecedented level of attention to Texas’ declining water resources. In addition to a host of smaller bills, both houses of the Legislature have filed major legislation that would allocate money for water management projects from the “Rainy Day Fund,” the state’s $12 billion reserve for unanticipated emergencies. Texas’ dire hydrological future not only qualifies as such an emergency, it’s arguably the biggest crisis this state has ever faced. The Legislature’s initiatives, however, are based on unrealistically optimistic projections, and various interest groups are bickering over what funding has been proposed. At a moment when this state must grit its teeth, buckle down and sacrifice short-term economic prosperity for long-term environmental survival, the major players are squabbling over who gets what portion of a hopelessly inadequate sum.

Almost all of the proposals in the Legislature attempt to meet the recommendations of the Texas Water Development Board, which releases a State Water Plan every five years outlining what Texas needs to do to prepare for a much drier future. Citing enormous population growth and declining water resources, the 2012 State Water Plan estimates that the state’s total unmet water needs in 2060 will amount to about 800 billion gallons per year. It also says that a $53 billion investment in local conservation and management projects is necessary to avoid that fate.

The TWDB has released similarly desperate reports for decades, and for the first time lawmakers are addressing their concerns. Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, have both filed widely-supported legislation that would take $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for the TWDB’s recommendations. “Our projections show that $2 billion would fully implement the State Water Plan as it exists today,” Ritter said in a statement. “With that one-time capital investment, we could provide adequate, meaningful funding to the plan and achieve the state’s goals of supporting local entities in the implementation of projects.”

Since those bills were filed in January, conflict has erupted between competing interest groups as lawmakers focus their attention on prioritizing the TWDB’s many proposals. Urban areas stand to receive by far the largest share of the money, partly for practical reasons — the vast majority of the state’s projected population growth will happen in the cities — and partly for political ones, as all that urban growth means an accordingly large increase in the power of urban voters.

Meanwhile, agricultural interests in the Rio Grande Valley, I-35 corridor and Panhandle demand their share. The Senate initiative mandates that 10 percent of the funding be devoted to rural projects, but to the agriculture lobby’s chagrin, the House bill makes no such promise. Currently 56 percent of Texas’ water supply is used for agricultural purposes, although that percentage is expected to decline as a result of skyrocketing urban growth.

Industry has a vested interest in the Legislature’s funding choices as well. Drilling companies, for example, require large quantities of water for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Their demand for water has grown considerably in recent years, according to a study at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences. It’s no secret that Texas lawmakers have long felt pressure from the state’s outsized oil and gas industry, but they’re toughening up on this issue. In a House Natural Resources Committee meeting in February, an industry representative requested tax breaks for drilling companies to encourage water recycling. Allan Ritter, the committee chairman, scoffed at the proposal: “It kinda sounds familiar, the first thing you do is come up and ask for tax incentives. Boy, I’ve heard that a few times. Good luck with that, sir.”

As the interest groups quarrel, the Legislature should be aware of evidence that even the TWDB’s basic premise — that we must prepare for a repeat of the 1950 “drought of record” as the worst-case scenario — may understate the severity of the situation. Although 1950 marked the worst drought in recorded Texas history, that history is only a few hundred years old. A study of tree ring data going back thousands of years by UT’s Environmental Science Institute reports that droughts like that of 1950 are regularly dwarfed by massive “megadroughts,” which last for decades. If such a megadrought occurs in this century — which is likely, the study says — it will be far more debilitating than even the most pessimistic estimates being discussed at the Capitol. Indeed, the ESI study predicts that repeats of the 1950 drought will occur at least once a decade starting in 2040. To prepare for such an outcome, we need to stop worrying about how much money stands to be lost by one group or another and start worrying about our state’s basic survival.

Gov. Rick Perry talks about fixed four-year tuition rates during his State of the State address at the Capitol in January.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

Gov. Rick Perry touted Texas as “stronger than ever”  in his State of State Address and called on legislators to begin using the state’s largely untouched Rainy Day Fund as a way to start making much-needed improvements to state infrastructure.

In his address yesterday, Perry said the decisions made in the 2011 legislative session continue to boost Texas into economic prosperity, with more than half a million private sector jobs created in the last two years. He spoke of creating tax relief for Texans and of making higher education more affordable for the entire state.  

“We led the nation out of recession and into recovery, and remain the nation’s prime destination for employers and job seekers alike,” Perry said in his address. “In classrooms, on assembly lines, in laboratories, on farms and in office buildings, hard-working Texans are today turning their dreams into realities.”

Perry said he supported using $3.7 million of the Economic Stabilization Fund, or Rainy Day Fund, for a one-time investment in Texas infrastructure issues such as water and transportation. The fund will hold about $12 billion in 2014.

“The Rainy Day Fund was created to ensure we had a sufficient amount in reserve in case of disaster, and to ensure Texas maintains its strong credit rating,” Perry said. “While we cannot — and will not — raid the fund to meet ongoing expenses, we also shouldn’t accumulate billions more than necessary.”

Perry said he supported a bill to give universities in South Texas access to the state’s Permanent University Fund, which is a public endowment that supports select universities in the University of Texas System and Texas A&M University System.

“Today, the students of South Texas are able to stay closer to home to earn their college degrees,” Perry said. “This area of the state is critical to our state’s future, and our investment in the children of South Texas will be returned a thousandfold.”

A protester stood up and interrupted Perry’s speech to express concern for the lack of available health care in Texas and was immediately escorted out of the building. Perry decided last year not to expand the Medicaid program for the state and said again in his Tuesday address that the state does not plan to set up an exchange program for health insurance.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said Perry’s decision not to expand Medicaid is neither socially nor economically responsible. 

“What it would do for the economic development of our state is pretty significant, if not phenomenal,” Watson said. “But yet, almost because of disliking who won in an election, we’re not going to focus on something that will make citizens of this state healthier and will make the economy healthier.”

Perry said he agreed with President Barack Obama’s statement in his second inaugural address about pulling forward as a united force, regardless of individual differences, and said he hopes to implement the same mindset in the state of Texas moving forward.

“I’m proud that Texas is a place where anyone can make a difference, regardless of where you’re from or how you might spell your last name,” Perry said. “We are a diverse tapestry of cultures, faiths and bloodlines, but we are bound by a common spirit and a common lineage that’s remarkable for a state so big.”

On Tuesday Jan. 8, the Texas Legislature, which meets every other year, reopened for business. Expect a contentious session, filled with triumph and frustration for onlookers on all sides. We’ll be there to offer our perspective on the issues that affect UT-Austin, but not exclusively. Many UT students have been and will continue to reside in Texas beyond our college years, and what the Legislature does today will affect our adult lives. Here’s a primer on the major issues and debates to watch out for in the months ahead.

The Budget
The day before the session opened, State Comptroller Susan Combs announced that the state will have a $101.4 billion budget to work with this session, with $8.8 billion left over from last year’s budget and $11.8 billion in the “Rainy Day Fund,” which is money the Legislature sets aside for use when it come up short of estimates. That’s more money than anybody expected, but don’t count on it funding the many state projects, most of which suffered budget cuts last year, that are desperately vying for the money (such as state parks, health care, infrastructure and environmental protection). Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders are not in a generous mood. “There are interest groups in the state who view Monday’s revenue estimate as ringing the dinner bell,” Perry scoffed in a speech to the Texas Senate on the Legislature’s opening day.  

Higher Education
As in previous sessions and centuries, the Texas Legislature will probably make the same tired calls for efficiency, four-year graduation rates and outcomes-based funding for Texas public universities. The chairman of the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Higher Education, Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas), who recently expressed skepticism at the Republican rank-and-file’s eagerly promised tax cuts, has indicated that those are his priorities for this session. We’d prefer the Legislature to instead re-regulate college tuition levels. Ten years ago, the Legislature voted to allow universities to set their own tuition levels so they could continue slashing governmental higher education funding and force students’ families to make up the difference. That vote is the main culprit behind the skyrocketing cost of a college degree in Texas; since then, tuition levels have doubled at UT, and the income bracket of those who can afford to attend school here has become disproportionately exclusive. If they keep cutting UT’s funding, we will keep paying the difference.

Another issue that will have far-reaching consequences is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Fisher v. UT, which will be announced at some point this spring. A lot could happen: If plaintiff Abigail Fisher prevails and UT’s race-conscious admissions policy is struck down, high school GPA could become the only criterion by which students are admitted. Ironically, according to admissions statistics in recent years, the group that would be hurt the most by such an outcome would be affluent, mostly white kids from competitive suburban high schools whom the holistic process favors. If UT wins, the rule guaranteeing admission to the top 8 percent of a high school’s graduating class could itself come under fire. Texas Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Panhandle and Permian Basin) has told The Daily Texan that he doesn’t like the government dictating the admissions of a majority of an incoming class. Whatever the Court decides, it’ll be a big deal.

There are other issues as well. Ever since Perry signed in-state tuition for undocumented students into law 10 years ago, it’s faced a great deal of criticism from the right. Unusually, Perry takes a moderate position on this issue, so even if legislators attempt to repeal that policy this session they’ll have to get it past him.

Public Education
The enormous, $5.4 billion public education funding cut made last session is taking its toll. Public schools face out-of-control class sizes, fees for extracurricular activities and school buses, while their teachers have zero job security. In spite of those cost-cutting measures, which mean retrograde education quality, the schools can’t cover payroll. In desperation, two-thirds of Texas’ school districts have sued the state for the money they need. Those lawsuits are ongoing, and regardless of which way the courts rule, the outcome will have major consequences for Texas children enrolled in public school now and in future years.

Be fearful. The 2012 incarnation of the State Water Plan, which is released every five years by the Texas Water Development Board, recommends spending $53 billion on improved water management strategies to avoid drastic consequences which could develop several decades down the road. Texas’ population is skyrocketing, especially in already overtaxed areas like the Valley, and according to the TWDB we’ll be dry as a bone by 2060 if nothing is done now. Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) is currently leading efforts to pass a $1 billion allocation from the Rainy Day Fund, but that measure is not guaranteed. The new surplus may change the political climate, and leaders and lobbyists on both sides of the aisle have said that better water strategies are a priority. For most of today’s college students’ lives, state leaders have ignored the TWDB’s water management funding recommendations. If they continue that pattern the water supply will stop meeting demand in our lifetimes and likely our young adulthoods.

Luis Malfaro, secretary treasurer of Texas American Federation of Teachers, leads a chant at the Texas State Capitol rotunda Monday during a rally to show support for public education in Texas.

Photo Credit: Trent Lesikar | Daily Texan Staff

The melody of “The Eyes of Texas” filled the Capitol’s halls Monday as protesters sang their discontent over potential cuts to public school funding with a modified version of UT’s alma mater.

A rally Monday at the Capitol attempted to fight legislation that would cut public school funding by $4 billion. Monday’s rally was the latest of several rallies over the past few months in reaction to the proposed cuts. Linda Bridges, the president of the Texas Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, held a press conference prior to the rally. Bridges sat beside 24,400 petitioned signatures in favor of using the state’s estimated $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund to minimize education cuts and keep classes with a 22:1 student to teacher ratio.

Bridges challenged the constitutionality of the budget cuts and emphasized the choices legislators still have available to them during this special session.

“Don’t balance the budget on the backs of students and teachers,” Bridges said.

She argued the proposed permanent cuts should only be temporary because the recession is temporary.

The protests have continued although the budget will soon reach Gov. Rick Perry’s desk for his signature.

“The kids are worth it,” Bridges said.

The protest continued into the rotunda. Louis Malfaro, secretary-treasurer of the federation, organized and addressed the crowd, claiming the cuts were “unacceptable of Texas and we can do better for our kids.”

Malfaro introduced speakers, including Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth. Davis led the May 29 filibuster to kill the School Finance Bill that contained the public school cuts. Her filibuster forced the Legislature to enter a special session.

“Regardless of the final vote that comes of this you have made your voice heard — and when November 2012 comes, legislators are going to have to answer to the voters,” Davis said.

Before going into the session to prepare for the vote on the bill, Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, also affirmed his commitment to saying no to cuts he believed would harm Texans.

A tele-town hall meeting followed in the Mexican American Legislative Caucus reception room, where Davis voiced support for eliminating tax exemptions for gas companies as a way to fund public schooling. This was proposed in addition to using part of the Rainy Day Fund, which Perry has recently claimed should be set aside in the event of a natural disaster. Correcting the issue of inequity of spending per pupil across different school districts was also cited as a way to fix funding shortfalls.

Outside, Joseph Ridgemoor, a retired educator from Fort Bend, called for the Legislature to authorize use of the Rainy Day Fund, holding up a sign that declared rainy weather.

“I know of many good, hardworking people who may lose their jobs because their legislators aren’t doing a good job, and I don’t think that’s right,” Ridgemoor said.

AUSTIN, Texas — Republicans began the Texas legislative session with unprecedented majorities in the House and Senate and holding every statewide office. But 140 days later, they still failed to pass a key budget-related bill and two of the governor's top priorities.

So, they'll be back at work on Tuesday.

The legislation session ended Monday, but lawmakers need to finish their work on a plan to fund state government for the next two years — amid the state's multibillion-dollar budget shortfall. Gov. Rick Perry called a special session, which will also be used by lawmakers to consider the governor's proposed changes to Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor.

"We have taken great strides this session ... but critical work remains to ensure we have a balanced budget that provides essential services without raising taxes, while protecting the Rainy Day Fund for future emergencies," Perry said in his call for special session late Monday.

The Texas Constitution requires the Legislature to pass a balanced budget every two years, and the state comptroller is responsible for certifying that they did their job. While both chambers passed the main budget bill, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, was successful with a filibuster against a new school finance law that would have cut the state's obligations to schools districts by $4 billion.

Without the new law, the budget doesn't balance and a special session is mandatory.

The proposed Medicaid reforms would also save the state money by expanding the privatization of Medicaid services in Texas and creating incentives to improve the quality of care, Perry's statement said.

Earlier Monday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wrote Perry asking him to put nine issues on the agenda during the special session, including new immigration enforcement rules, Medicaid savings measures, interstate health insurance, the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association and congressional redistricting.

Perry can still add those issues later, or call another special session later in the year. Last week, the governor's aides said Perry would call a special session to reform the windstorm insurance association, which helps coastal property owners find home insurance. Negotiations between the governor's office and trial lawyers on how to reform the association broke down Friday night.

Dewhurst also said he was ready to do away with the Senate's tradition of requiring a two-thirds vote to approve bills, something designed to give even the minority party a say in legislation.

"Given that a small number of Senate Democrats have demonstrated their unwillingness to find consensus on these important legislative items, I can see no other alternative than to operate under a simple majority vote in the special session," Dewhurst said in his letter to the governor.

Republicans hold 19 out of 31 seats in the Senate and 101 of the House's 150 seats. The only way Democrats can stop legislation is for senators to leave the state.

Seasoned veterans said the special session could be contentious.

"My prediction is this will be a long special session. I think it's going to be pretty hardball," said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. "This is a gift for the governor."

Republicans said Democrats made a mistake in triggering a special session.

"I think the Democrats have made a bad strategic move. They could have made a deal on a number of issues and we could've been done right now," said Rep. Larry Taylor, the Republican leader in the House. "I think the negotiations for them during the (special) session are going to be a lot harder for them."

House Democratic leader Rep. Jessica Farrar said her team was ready to fight for more school funding. They would insist that the public have a chance to let lawmakers know how they feel about the $4 billion in proposed cuts. She said Democrats want to tap the state's almost $10 billion Rainy Day Fund to give schools what they are owed.

Despite the failure to pass a budget, Republicans did score some major victories during the regular session, including four of Gov. Perry's five emergency items. Winning the hardest-fought item, Perry has already signed a bill requiring doctors to conduct a sonogram before performing an abortion and to force women to listen to a detailed description of the ultrasound image. The law goes into effect on Sept. 1.

Republicans also delivered a law that requires voters to show a photo ID before casting a ballot, and a "loser pays" bill that makes it harder to file lawsuits and also punishes claimants if they don't settle for more than they eventually win. Perry also signed new eminent domain rules that strengthen individual property rights.

But Democrats did block the so-called "sanctuary cities" bill that would force local law enforcement agencies to give immigration laws the same priority as violent crime. The politically charged moniker of the bill refers to police departments that tell their officers not to question a person's immigration status in order to focus on higher priorities or to facilitate better communication with residents. The measure is almost certain to come up during the special session.

Chris Tomlinson wrote this report for The Associated Press

Republicans pushed the next two-year budget through the Texas Senate on Wednesday by using a loophole to bypass Democrats, clearing the path for negotiations to begin with the House on the $176.5 billion spending plan.

After a week of delay, Senate leaders used a procedural maneuver to get around a long-held Senate tradition that requires a two-thirds agreement for the chamber to consider any legislation. Senators voted 19-12, along party lines, to approve the plan.

The plan makes about $11 billion in cuts compared with the current budget, though the cuts are much less severe than those in the bare-bones House version. Public schools and Medicaid providers, including nursing homes, would take the brunt of the cuts.

“This budget treats people as numbers,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Senate’s
Democratic leader. 

Sen. Steve Ogden, the chief Senate budget writer, defended the budget, arguing his team was able to maintain current services despite a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall.

“What do you do when the economy is not so healthy? The first thing is, you do no harm to that economy. You do everything you can to get that economy back on its feet,” Ogden, R-Bryan, said shortly before the vote. 

Normally, a two-thirds majority is necessary in the Senate to take up any bill, a supermajority that leaders didn’t have for the budget plan. But Republicans bypassed Democratic opposition by using a special rule that allows House bills to be considered on certain days without a two-thirds approval.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said a day earlier that he hoped he didn’t have to use the loophole in the rules to pass the budget.

Van de Putte said she and other Democrats were concerned about the parliamentary precedent set by the maneuver.

The GOP has a 19-12 majority in the chamber, but criticism over the budget mounted from both sides of the aisle over the use of about $3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund.

Republicans argued that $9.4 billion in the reserve fund should be left untouched, so it would be available during future state emergencies. Democrats said proposed cuts to schools and other programs are inhumane when the reserve fund is sitting idly by.

“We thought we had a bipartisan budget, a good budget, so quite frankly I was surprised last week when I got some push back from Republican senators on using the Rainy Day Fund and some of our [Democratic] senators started asking for more money,” Dewhurst said, shortly after the vote.

Ogden’s GOP-condoned compromise replaces about $3 billion in rainy-day money by underfunding Medicaid, pushing those payments to the end of the
budget period.

“The promise is that the money is going to be there, and frankly, I dated guys like that,” Van de Putte said, casting doubt on assurances that state coffers would see an uptick in revenue as the economy improves.

Ogden’s plan underfunds public schools by more than $4 billion.

The plan next goes back before the House, which is expected to reject the Senate version and appoint a conference committee to negotiate a compromise.

The state is facing a revenue shortfall of at least $15 billion. 

Texas senators are expected to debate two controversial pieces of legislation this week — the budget and concealed carry on campus.

The state House and Senate are looking for methods of easing the $15 billion to $27 billion budget deficit for the 2012-13 biennium. The House passed its version of the budget bill last month, which included major cuts to education and health care. Last week, the Senate Committee on Finance passed its version, which restores some of that funding.

The Senate’s proposed budget would cut UT’s funding by about $51 million and attempts to tap into the Rainy Day Fund, a $9.4 billion emergency fund lawmakers can use during financial crises.

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, filed a bill that would allow concealed-handgun license holders to carry on campus. The bill, which seemed likely to pass without much opposition at the beginning of the session, lost support after constituent pressure. Wentworth will try to give the concealed carry on campus issue new life through an amendment.

Senate on the State Budget

A week after the Senate Committee on Finance passed the budget bill, senators may soon begin to debate the 2012-13 biennial budget on the chamber floor.

The Senate budget bill, which totals $178.6 billion and would restore $12 million in funding for UT from the House version, was originally slated for debate Thursday, but the legislation did not have enough votes and was pushed back. Senators anticipate the bill will reach the floor today.

The proposed budget has drawn heat from both political parties, with some legislators opposing the use of $3 billion of the Rainy Day Fund. The disagreement over the fund is one of the main reasons the bill has stalled.

“While each of us could point to something in the budget we would change, I am comfortable with the method of finance for the budget,” said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a letter to senators last week.

Dewhurst said he prefers to use recurring nontax revenue, such as economic growth, to balance the budget instead of using the Rainy Day Fund.

On Friday, lawmakers approved Sen. Robert Duncan’s, R-Lubbock, fiscal matters bill, which would add $4.1 billion from existing tax revenue to help ease next biennium’s budget deficit.

The budget bill’s author and chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said members have been divided on the use of the Rainy Day Fund.

“If we’re not going to use the Rainy Day Fund when it’s raining, we might as well get rid of it,” Ogden said.

Concealed Carry on Campus

Senators are likely to take up the concealed carry on campus debate this week after Wentworth lost support for his original bill, which left the issue looking dead. Senators had also proposed amendments to allow public universities to opt out of the requirement as well as an amendment to leave the decision up to regents, both of which were not accepted and resulted in lost votes.

Last week, Wentworth surprised senators when he proposed an amendment to allow concealed carry on campus during debate for the higher education bill by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. Zaffirini’s bill would reduce reporting requirements for higher education institutions and in turn translate into lower tuition fees.

“That was the first bill I saw this [amendment] would be eligible for,” Wentworth said. “I have 20 votes to suspend the vote for freestanding, but you only need 16 votes for an amendment.”

Wentworth said the move was a “routine parliamentary tactic used by members all the time.”

Concealed carry on campus has generated heated opinions throughout the legislative session. Supporters said the measure would allow for personal protection, while opposers said it could make campuses more dangerous.

Zaffirini accepted six prior amendments to the higher education bill but pulled it down after Wentworth brought his final amendment forward.

The San Antonio Republican may be left searching for another option to pass concealed carry because Zaffirini said she is likely to kill her bill.

“If he is able to successfully pass his amendment, I will have to kill the [higher education] bill,” Zaffirini said. “It is unfortunate that it might happen because the [higher education] bill could help save universities millions of dollars. We will have to see what he does.”