AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers on Saturday approved a revenue bill crucial to passing a two-year state budget.
The bill would save the state at least $2.5 billion, of which between $1.8 billion and $2.3 billion would be from delaying the state’s August payment to school districts by one month.
Among the amendments tacked on to the bill was one that bans indoor smoking in public places throughout the state, with exemptions for certain places such as tobacco shops, bingo and pool halls and VFW posts.
The smoking ban is expected to save the state more than $30 million in Medicaid costs over the next two years in health-care costs, according to the Health and Human Services Commission.
Another amendment could nearly cancel out the savings
in the bill with tax breaks for businesses that are not profitable. It could mean a loss of up to $2 billion for the state, according the Legislative Budget Board.Both of those amendments will have to survive budget negotiations between the House and the Senate. The latter faces slim odds since the bill is trying to find revenue, not spend it.
State Sen. Jose Rodríguez, D-El Paso, and state Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, are banking on those negotiations to get approval for their measure that was placed in the Senate bill but not in the version approved by the House.
The amendment that Rodríguez added to the bill in the Senate would establish a $5 court fee on convictions that do not include pedestrian citations or parking tickets.
The measure would bring in about $32.6 million over the next two years to help pay for indigent defense and basic legal services for the poor.Lawmakers are grappling with budget shortfall of up to $27 billion.
A compromise reached last week on the next two-year budget will cut at least $15 billion from current spending levels. The proposed budget does not account for inflation or the costs of providing services to Texas’ growing population.
Republican lawmakers, who have commanding majorities in the House and the Senate, have thwarted efforts to tap the state’s nearly $10 billion Rainy Day Fund for the 2012-13 budget.
Education and health care will see the most dramatic cuts.
A few dozen parents and teachers set up camp outside of the House chamber Saturday and called for lawmakers, as well as Gov. Rick Perry, to save education funding.
They chanted “Use the Rainy Day Fund” and “We will vote you out!”
Some held signs that read: “See Rick run, see Rick elected, see Rick drop the ball on education,” “WTF: Where’s the Funding,” “Don’t expect exemplary if you give us mediocrity” and “Yo government, pull your head out yo politics.”
Some lawmakers rushed past the group. Several Democrats such as state Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso, spoke to the crowd and urged its members to vote in the next election.
“Bad things happen when people don’t vote,” Gonzalez said.
The freshman lawmaker made her own attempt to resurrect a bill she filed that would have raised the state’s traffic fine by $15 through an amendment to the fiscal bill. It failed with opposition from Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who said “this is a fee and probably a tax increase.”
Her amendment would have generated an additional $40.6 million in general revenue for the state and nearly $20 million to restore some money cut from the budget for trauma hospitals, including University Medical Center of El Paso.
Budget negotiators have already agreed to cut public education by $4 billion through funding formulas. That does not include the loss of grants for pre-kindergarten and other programs.
On Monday, lawmakers will debate a school finance bill that determines how money will be distributed among public school districts.
Most El Paso school districts support a plan proposed by state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. His plan reworks the school finance system by removing a component called target revenue that tied school funding to the state and local tax revenues they received per student in 2005. The target revenue system has been blamed for inequities in the state’s funding of public education-particularly for property tax-poor school districts.
But Hochberg’s proposal faces tough odds against competing Republican plans. One of those plans, by House Public Education committee chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, would require that districts take a six-percent across-the-board cut.
Zahira Torres may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org;512-479-6606.