$130 billion Texas budget: ‘We have about 100 days to decide how to spend it all’

Yesterday, the Texas House of Representatives and the Senate proposed the first draft state budgets, which total up to $130 billion, an unprecedented figure.

At a time when there is more money in the state treasury than the state constitution actually allows them to spend, it looks like there’s about $50 billion left on the table – at least for now.

Robert Garrett, Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, oversees the state’s budget proposals. He joined the Texas Standard to talk about how the legislature is thinking of spending all that money. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have been very vocal about property tax exemption, and in these preliminary budget proposals, I understand that about $15 billion is set aside for something called the Tax Exemption Fund. on property. Could you tell us a little more about these efforts?

Robert Garrett: I’ll try. It’s very shaky. Some of them do continue the tax cuts we made in 2019. So you subtract $3 billion from that $15 billion and you end up with about $12 billion. They talk differently about how to ease people’s property taxes. And the main way the government can do that is by simply buying up tax breaks on school property. Our school financial system is so intertwined with state and local money that it’s the only way legislators here in Austin can affect your property tax bill. Dan Patrick in the Senate wants to increase the tax credit I got from Dallas, which will cut people’s tax bills by $355 a year. This is significantly more than it was in the last sessions. The house is committed to providing a commensurate level of property tax relief, but has not yet decided how to do so. You can lower your rates, you can make it an exemption from the homestead. You can do different things.

Another topic making headlines is raising the salaries of civil servants. I see a 5% raise being offered for most civil servants. But what else are lawmakers discussing on that front?

Well, that’s right. You know, state employees have not had a general salary increase since 2014. And their purchasing power has since fallen by 27%. And retired civil servants have had no cost-of-living adjustment since 2002, and their purchasing power has declined by 38% in that time. So those $3,000 per worker… civil servants working groups want $10,000 and $5,000 raises—they start in these budgets with just $3,000 at least or 5%. And they are talking about starting them in June, that is, before the start of the next biennial budget in September.

I also want to talk briefly about Operation Lone Star. It has, of course, been Governor Abbott’s costly border surveillance efforts, which have sometimes siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars from other agencies in the past year. How did this fit into the early budget proposals?

Well, both the House of Representatives and the Senate want to spend $4.6 billion on Operation Lone Star for the troops, state police, building walls, busing migrants, processing centers. This is 5.5% more than the gigantic fivefold increase in the current cycle compared to historical spending levels. So we do not refuse to use the money of state taxpayers at the border.

We’ve talked about some of the details here, but are people talking about what can be done about the state’s expected $30 billion surplus? Are they included in these budgets at all?

Well, they’re starting to prioritize how they spend that money, and it’s a process that will continue for another four months to get those budgets worked out. One of the key things the government does is pay for public schools. And so far, we haven’t increased the element of how we fund public schools in Texas. Base selection. However, it will remain at $6,160 per student per year in these budgets. And that, I think, will almost certainly be discussed, because if you raise it, you can raise teachers’ salaries and raise all other things, but it will take a lot of money.

Well, what else in these proposals is now striking?

Well, I think we will see some action to build more mental hospitals. Lieutenant Governor Patrick made this a priority. They will probably take money from the surplus and put it into a constitutional amendment that will be presented to voters in November, $2 or $3 billion for that. And I think we’re seeing things like taking care of decaying and deteriorating government buildings and buying new park areas. So, there is a lot of money, a lot of needs, and we have about 100+ days to decide how to spend it all.

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