SENATE APPROVES FINAL BUDGET HEADING INTO SESSION’S LAST WEEKEND

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(AUSTIN) — The Senate approved a final version of the state budget for the next biennium Friday, one that its author says takes advantage of the state’s record revenue and surplus. With more revenue projected and more money left in the treasury than ever before, Finance Committee Chair and Houston Senator Joan Huffman said this bill sets records in the amount of state spending towards public education, border security, mental health, and property tax relief. “Our commitment to conservative fiscal policies has put Texas in position to have a record surplus, while other states are facing shortfalls,” she said. “As I said when we passed the Senate’s budget earlier in the session, this is a once in a generation opportunity to make strategic and forward thinking investments to better our state and return billions of dollars back to the taxpayers.”

PHOTO: Senator Joan Huffman of Houston, in her first session shepherding the Senate's budget process, received overwhelming support for the $321b spending proposal.

Senator Joan Huffman of Houston, in her first session shepherding the Senate’s budget process, received overwhelming support for the $321b spending proposal.

The bill would appropriate $321.3 billion in state and federal funds for 2024-2025, $144.1 billion coming from discretionary state revenue. It includes $17.6 billion set aside for property tax relief, it also increases funding for public education by 30 percent, increasing the state share of public education spending from 35 percent to more than half. It will fund the largest pay raise for state employees in 40 years to answer the state’s workforce crisis, and includes $5.4 billion to raise teacher pay. Despite the historic funding levels, Huffman said the state budget still comes in under all constitutional and statutory spending caps.

Much of this spending is contingent on legislation currently being negotiated between the House and Senate in conference committee. Teacher pay raises, power plant construction, property tax relief, border security, and other key priorities have been funded in the budget, but the how this money will be spent must still be resolved in negotiations between the two chambers. The Legislature will work through the weekend to reach final deals on these key issues, but at midnight on Sunday, any bill that has not been approved by both bodies will be dead for the session, which ends Monday.

Wednesday, the Senate approved a sweeping border security bill, one that would create a new border unit within the Texas Rangers at the Department of Public Safety. HB 7, sponsored by Granbury Senator Brian Birdwell, would create the Texas Border Force and seek to staff it with law enforcement officers and military members who have experience in border operations. This force would be further trained by DPS and would be involved in every aspect of operations along the border, from surveillance and detection to interdiction and detainment. It would also enforce a new state trespassing law created in the bill: improper entry into the state from a foreign nation. Immigration enforcement, Birdwell said, would remain with the federal government. “They would be arrested for improper entry into the state of Texas, processed for that crime, and then also processed through Border Patrol for immigration as well,” he said. “Again, the state’s not enforcing immigration law, we’re enforcing improper entry into the state to compel people to go to the 29 ports of entry that are in Texas or compel the cartels to move them to Arizona.”

The Senate on Monday also approved a new cost of living adjustment for retired teachers, the first since 2013. The state couldn’t grant a COLA to beneficiaries as long as the Teacher Retirement System fund wasn’t solvent, but reforms over the past two sessions have restored that fund to actuarial soundness. In the past two sessions, lawmakers were only able to give retired educators a 13th annuity check, but this session many retirees can expect to see both an extra check and a bump in benefits. The bills, sponsored by Senator Huffman, would increase benefits based on date of retirement, between two and six percent. Voters will be asked to approve $3.32 billion in November for this purpose, which Huffman thinks is likely. “I’m confident the voters, the citizens of Texas, will want to give this benefit to our very valued retired teachers,” said Huffman. Retired educators aged 70 years or older will also be eligible for a $5,000 bonus annuity check.