Texas Senate approves $248.5 billion budget; Adds $3.1 billion to public education

In the last full week of the 87th Legislative session, the Senate approved key spending bills, avoiding significant cuts many lawmakers feared during the depths of the global pandemic last summer.

A resilient Texas economy and federal aid dollars made the fiscal situation much better than expected, according to Senate Finance Committee chair and Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson.

In her fourth session leading Senate budget efforts, Nelson won unanimous approval of a plan Wednesday to spend $248.5 billion in state and federal funds for the 2022-2023 biennium.

"It's a budget you should be proud of, members," said Nelson.

A 5.5 percent increase over last biennium, the bill is well within constitutional spending limits, said Nelson. It adds another $3.1 billion into state public education, continuing the school finance reforms passed in 2019. With this budget, state spending on public education is up 20 percent compared with the pre-reform system.

Senators also approved language that ensures they aren't left on the sidelines during the legislative interim, unable to exercise oversight over billions in federal aid expected to reach Texas after lawmakers go home on Monday.

That's what happened when the pandemic struck in 2020, leaving the governor as the sole authority over the disbursal of billions in CARES relief act dollars. The amendment, added into the state supplemental budget on Wednesday, would require that the governor call the legislature into special session to spend any non-dedicated federal funds from March's American Rescue Plan Act.

"Any money that we have discretion over, we will now hold back until there is a gubernatorial-called special session," said Nelson.

Similar language was added as a rider to the House version of the budget, but was removed in conference. Though well-intentioned, said Nelson, that rider might have inadvertently encumbered dedicated federal funds that go to things like housing aid.

With the 2020 US census data not due to be released until August or September, Governor Greg Abbott must call a special session sometime this fall to draw new statehouse and congressional maps.

Abbott committed to legislators last week that he would add federal aid allocation to the call for that session; the amendment approved by the Senate would guarantee that.

Abbott is set to sign legislation that will allow anyone legally permitted to carry a handgun under state and federal laws to do so, either concealed or openly, without a license.

Both chambers approved a deal this week between House and Senate negotiators on HB 1927, which removes the requirement for a license-to-carry, but leaves the program in place for the purposes of reciprocity in other states that recognize Texas' license laws.

“During the conference committee, we worked diligently with our House colleagues to ensure a final bill that restores a fundamental right of all law-abiding citizens in Texas to carry without a license: a right that was stripped away in 1871, a right already afforded to owners of long guns, a right to fulfil our constitutional right to keep and bear arms without the requirement of a license,” said bill sponsor and Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner.

Any Texan who is at least 21 years old and has a clean criminal record could carry a holstered sidearm in public under the new law. Private property owners and businesses could still prohibit carry and the bill enhances penalties for convicted felons and domestic violence offenders who aren't legally permitted to carry a handgun. Once signed by the governor, the law would go into effect on September 1st.

Also headed to the governor is a bill that would ban abortion if the US Supreme Court changes its opinion regarding the constitutional right to the procedure.

SB 1280, by McKinney Senator Angela Paxton, would permit the state to regulate abortion to the extent allowed by the court, going so far as to make the procedure a first-degree felony.

The law would make or a special session on abortion laws unnecessary should the court make a significant ruling on the subject during the legislative interim that begins on June 1st.

-RICHARD LEE