Finance committee approves supplemental budget

By Richard Lee
For the Fort Bend Star

The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday approved $1.7 billion in spending to reconcile the current fiscal year with appropriations made in 2015.

This happens every session; since budgets are passed prospectively, relying on estimates of revenue and costs, they never match actual expenses and earnings in a given biennium. So lawmakers have to look at the gap between the budget approved two years in the past and how much the state actually had to spend, and make up the difference with a supplemental appropriations bill.

“This bill protects the most vulnerable among us, our children, it balances our ledger for our current budget and it puts Texas in a strong position to meet the challenges ahead,” said Finance Committee Chair and bill sponsor Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound.

The biggest cost by far to the supplemental budget this session, as in most, is healthcare. Under the supplemental budget bill, HB 2, the Senate would spend $794 million in state revenue to cover Medicaid costs for the current fiscal year. That’s about $150 million less than the House version, but that’s due to different methodologies and times at which cost estimates were made, according to Legislative Budget Board Director Ursula Parks.

Another cost to the bill is funds to cover emergency appropriations made to the Department of Family and Protective Services to address pressing issues in the state’s child protective services system. State leadership approved emergency funding last year in order to hire more than 800 new full time employees and increase salaries for current employees to address a critical shortfall in foster system capacity and reduce worker caseloads. That cost about $160 million.

Other costs include reimbursing the Texas Forest Service for expenses incurred in dealing with flooding and wildfires in the state and $80 million to true up spending for prison healthcare. The bill includes some savings as well. The state cut funding for TABC travel outside the state after abuses were uncovered this session, and the state saved another $80 million due to debt service reductions from various agencies including the Texas Facilities Commission and the Texas Department of Transportation.

The measure passed the committee unanimously and will now go to the full Senate. Once passed there, it will have to be reconciled with the House through the conference committee process. The Legislature has until May 29 to make that happen.

Fixing Dallas pension funds

Also Thursday, Dallas area lawmakers and local officials announced at a press conference they are moving forward on a fix to the city’s fire and police pension funds. The fund was facing a multi-billion dollar shortfall and looming benefit cuts, but Dallas Senators Royce West and Don Huffines joined with Dallas Representative Dan Flynn to announce a deal has been made with all stakeholders for a plan to address issues with the fund.

“I’m confident this agreement opens the door to a brighter, safer and more prosperous future for our great city Dallas,” said Huffines.

With only a few days left in the session the bill must move quickly and it’s already been passed by the Senate State Affairs Committee. West said once the bill comes to the floor, it will be amended with the new compromise language.

This deal comes after the Legislature passed another bill earlier in the session to address similar problems within the Houston city, police and fire pension systems. That bill, by Senator Joan Huffman of Houston, is currently in conference committee as lawmakers from both chambers work out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

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