AUSTIN – The Texas Senate approved a new state budget on March 20 which prioritizes public education and mental health initiatives.
The 2014-15 budget plan totals $94.1 billion in general revenue and represents less than a 4 percent annual spending increase, which is lower than the state's expected growth in population and inflation.
"Our Senate 2014-15 budget is a model of fiscal conservatism that holds spending below inflation and population growth yet still funds our state's priorities such as public and higher education, new highways, border security and public safety, veterans' health, plus necessary health services and Medicaid," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said. "I thank Senator Tommy Williams and the Senate Finance Committee for their tireless work in developing a fiscally responsible budget that will help our state meet the demands of tomorrow."
Wide Senate support for the new state budget pleased Senate Finance Chairman Williams (R-The Woodlands), who expressed gratitude for the long hours and hard work his colleagues invested in developing the plan.
"The bill reflects the priorities of our diverse state by emphasizing increased funding for mental health services, increased funding for public education and increased funding for the Department of Family and Protective Services to protect vulnerable children," Sen. Williams said.
The budget now heads to the Texas House. A final budget will be negotiated between leaders of the two chambers later in the session.
The Senate budget fully funds K-12 public school enrollment growth, allocates more than $1.5 billion for Pre-Kindergarten and provides nearly $1.4 billion more in formula funding designed to improve equitable funding for school districts.
The Senate version of the budget leaves nearly $1 billion of unspent money on the table - potential revenue to be used later after the Texas Supreme Court rules in the pending school finance case.
"It's important we not spend every dime we get our hands on," Sen. Williams said. "Flexibility is needed to address whatever the court decides."
The Senate budget increases spending for mental health services by more than $240 million across various state agencies.
Most of the increase for mental health services is reflected by an additional $226 million for community mental health/substance abuse services and for reducing mental health waiting list time.
The Senate budget also provides $850,000 to the Texas Adjutant General's office to hire four mental health counselors to help address the needs of returning veterans.
The budget plan adds $15.2 million for the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission to provide mental health services grants to local juvenile probation departments.
"It's important to provide the Department of Family and Protective Services funding for caseworkers to do their job in a timely manner," Sen. Williams said. "They often deal with life and death situations."
The Senate budget also recommends nearly $80 million in priority repairs and renovations at state mental health hospitals.
Other highlights of the budget include:
• $746 million increase for higher education, including $204 million for community college formula funding and employee benefits;
• $120 million for TEXAS Grants on top of $559.5 million in general revenue in the base bill;
• $6 million in general revenue and 50 full-time employees to address Veteran's issues;
• $100 million general revenue for primary care expansion to provide comprehensive and preventive health care to an additional 170,000 low-income women;
• $18.7 million (offset by $15 million in savings) for 106 additional employees in the Office of Inspector General to reduce costs from Medicaid fraud and overpayment investigations;
• $80.8 million added to formula funding for health-related institutions, including the health-related institution formula for graduate medical education;
• Closing two Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities for savings of nearly $100 million. The savings will fund required correctional health care ($45 million), parole supervision ($10 million), community corrections and diversion programs ($30 million), and other basic needs, such as computers, vehicles and an electronic management system to maintain the prison system;
• $139 million in general revenue to increase salaries to improve correctional officer, health care provider, and officer retention;
• $35 million increase for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to prevent any park closings and $32 million in general obligation bonds to perform critical maintenance at state parks;
• $27 million increase for graduate medical education.
"Newly graduated medical students typically need three to seven years of graduate medical education before entering a practice," Sen. Williams said. "Our state does not have enough graduate medical education slots to support the medical students who graduate from our Texas medical schools. Often, they leave the state and do not return. When that happens, we lose the four year investment we make in medical students, which is more than $170,000 according to the Texas Medical Association."
Sen. Williams, who presided over the budget process for the first time as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, emphasized there is more work to be done before the budget is finalized during the closing days.
Members of the Legislature will continue to work on small business tax relief and funding for water projects and state highways. Those issues will be addressed separately later in the session.
Senator Tommy Williams represents Senate District 4 covering all or portions of Montgomery, Chambers, Harris, Jefferson and Galveston Counties. He serves as Chairman of the Texas Senate Finance Committee and is a member of the Senate State Affairs, Open Government and Administration Committees. Visit Sen. Williams' website at senate.state.tx.us.