Education, water center stage as budget talks intensify


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on May 15, 2013 at 6:13 PM

Updated Wednesday, May 15 at 6:20 PM

AUSTIN -- Lawmakers huddle with heads together in the session's final days, hammering out deals to pass key legislation before the gavel falls for good. With twelve days remaining in the regular session of the 83rd Texas Legislature, they have plenty to talk about.

As a conference committee of five state representatives and five state senators works behind the scenes to rectify differences between the House and Senate on state budget bill SB 1, funding for education, transportation infrastructure and water continue to dominate the discussion.
"All of those three things are still in the arena," state Rep. Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock) told KVUE Tuesday. "How one plays against the other, how one is leveraged against the other, what that priority is; how much money? Where does the money come from? Those are the questions that we still have a lot of work to do in a very short amount of time."
Meeting with media Tuesday afternoon, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) announced a budget deal was close at hand. The tentative agreement outlined by Pitts would set aside $2 billion from the rainy day fund to bankroll the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT), a financing vehicle for water projects that voters would be asked to authorize through a statewide constitutional election in November.
In order to put a constitutional election on the ballot, the House would have to pass SJR 1 with a two-thirds vote, requiring one hundred House members voting in favor. Democrats have expressed interest in the measure, provided that Republicans agree to put additional funding into public education. Pitts said Tuesday the current proposal would increase funding by $3.2 billion, yet many Democrats hope to fully restore the $5.4 billion cut from public education last session.
"That tells me that there's a billion and change left on the table, and frankly I think at this juncture that's not an acceptable amount," state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) told KVUE Wednesday, the day on which budget leaders had hoped to announce a deal was done. "I don't really think there is this 'compromise,' but I do believe there is a desire to find one."
Emphasizing that Democrats support funding the state's water needs, Martinez Fischer argues the goal of restoring education funds is equally important.
As the budget talks continue, Martinez Fischer says the "magic number" when it comes to compromise will be up to the budget conferees to determine. Meanwhile SJR 1 would have to be reported from the House Appropriations Committee by Saturday and placed on a calendar by Sunday. The final day for the House to consider SJRs on second reading is next Tuesday.
"When a hundred people are satisfied that we have reached common ground and found a common solution, then I think you're going to see white smoke emanate from the chimney at the Capitol," said Martinez Fischer. "There are members of both parties that are putting themselves in a room, locking the door, rolling up their sleeves and really trying to reach a compromise. That is reassuring to me."
"Stay tuned, because I don't think anybody knows," said state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), a member of the SB 1 conference committee. "It's just very fluid, and that's not totally unusual for this time of year, but we've got some pretty big numbers that they're not agreeing on."
Pointing out the Senate passed SJR 1 with a unanimous vote, Whitmire suggests the majority of the hangup is on the House side. Meanwhile, Whitmire predicts lawmakers hoping to return to their districts after the May 27 adjournment sine die could be called back for a special session.
"I did bet a Coca-Cola that we'd probably be here in June, and that's just my judgment," said Whitmire, suggesting that redistricting, guns and tax cuts could be issues addressed in a special session.
At the same time, he cautions talk of a special session could have a significant impact on how the rest of the regular session plays out.
"What happens is when you think you're going to have a special anyway, you lose some of the urgency of getting a budget," Whitmire said. "There's some of that circulating."