Texas budget deal still elusive despite confidence

No announced deal on new Texas budget as House, Senate negotiators work deep into night

Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Compromise on a new Texas budget remained elusive late Wednesday as House and Senate negotiators worked deep into the night with no word of a deal after earlier confidence that one was imminent.

Top negotiators had predicted a deal by midnight, yet remained holed up in back offices at the Capitol with no announcement in sight. A little more than a week remains in this 140-day session, and no unfinished business carries higher stakes than the budget bill, which spells out how the state will pay for classrooms, health care and roads the next two years.

Details on daylong talks were kept tightly guarded. When asked late Wednesday afternoon whether the deal still called for reversing $3.2 billion of the massive cuts to public schools in 2011, the House budget chief seemed to suggest that number might not be firm.

"We're working on that. We got some other things with that," Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts told reporters.

As for sticking points that would threaten to block passage of a compromise in either chamber, Pitts said, "hopefully none."

His Senate counterpart, Tommy Williams, who would not divulge details of the negotiations.

The House and Senate have passed separate but similar two-year budgets for 2014-15, yet the differences must be reconciled before sending a budget to Gov. Rick Perry for his signature. A deal largely hinges on how much the Legislature will restore $5.4 billion stripped from public schools and a paying for new water infrastructure.

There appears to be near universal support to creating a $2 billion water development bank to finance $27 billion worth of reservoirs, pipelines and conservation projects over the next 50 years. Pitts has been willing to bust the spending cap to create the fund, but conservatives in the Senate, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, prefer a using a constitutional amendment to avoid casting a politically harmful vote.

Passing a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature —100 out of 150 in members the House, and 21 out of 31 members in the Senate.

Democrats, some of whom have signaled wanting as much as $4 billion pumped back into classrooms, hold a little more than one-third of the seats in each chamber and were trying to leverage their votes into more spending on public education.

"This is not a question about money, this is a question about votes and how do you package a number of votes," said Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. "Is $3.2 billion for education enough to satisfy 100 votes on the House floor ... at this juncture that is not a satisfactory amount."

Conservative Republicans have complained that the Legislature has gone on a spending spree since learning that state revenues are forecast to be $8.8 billion more than what lawmakers thought they had to spend in 2011, when the state budget was cut to the bone in the face of a $27 billion shortfall.

The Legislature adjourns May 27. Perry has insisted on at least $1.8 billion in tax cuts and the new water fund, and says he'll force lawmakers to work into the summer unless they deliver.

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