The $164.5 billion two-year budget approved by the House would trim $23 billion from current spending. House Bill 1 leaves schools almost eight billion short. It includes a two-year hiring freeze for state agencies, except approved emergency hiring. And it cuts funding for higher education by more than ten percent. The Texas Senate has to finish its version of the budget. Senator John Whitmire is a Democrat whose district covers northwest Houston.
"I don't know. I'm really frustrated that a lot of the members just don't realize that, you know, state government is not a business. That's kind of easily-coined around here, 'Well, we've got to run it like a business.' If you want to run it like a business, we've got demand for our product. Fifteen hundred people move to Texas each day. Well, you've got to provide roads and schools and public safety."
Republican Senator Tommy Williams from The Woodlands says a spending gap between the versions from each chamber will have to be worked out in a conference committee.
"The House bill will be referred to the Senate Finance Committee, and we'll substitute our version of the bill, send it back over to the House and they'll ask for a conference committee and we will get to work ironing out the differences between the two budgets."
This happens on almost all bills. Voting in the House version of the budget was along party lines. Senator Whitmire says politics plays a part in the timing of the process.
"In past years, historically you kind of split the difference. But someone like myself, who thinks we can provide basic services and not make cuts, I need some assurances, because the rules are different. When you go into the conference, you need two-thirds — 21 Senators — to approve the budget. When you come out of conference, you just need a simple majority of 16, so several Senators lose their leverage."
Republicans and Democrats agree that the final budget will sting a bit. Senator Williams says Republicans have certain goals.
"Both versions of the budget will include pretty substantial cuts from our current level of spending. We're still going through the House budget to see what the differences are. Our priority is protecting the social safety net, public education and public safety, and we've worked really hard on those three pieces. And then just this morning, Chairman Ogden appointed a subcommittee — which I'll chair — on the environment and the highway portion of the budget. But, you know, we're still in the middle of the process."
The conference committee will be made up of five committee members from each chamber, selected by the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House.