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Dewhurst calls budget 'historic"

By J. Lyn Carl, GalleryWatch.com

Austin, TX – Calling it an "historic agreement" between the Senate and the House, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst today addressed budget negotiations that led to an agreed-to state budget proposal by the members of the Conference Committee on HB 1.

At a press conference today, Dewhurst noted that the House and Senate leadership promised when the legislative session began that it would balance the budget without raising taxes, protect essential services and keep the state economy growing. "I believe we have kept those promises," he said.

The lieutenant governor said the budget cuts non-essential services, reduces spending by some $5 billion over what was originally proposed, and does not raise taxes. He said the Foundation School Program is fully funded and $110 per public school student has been added for the 2004-05 biennium. Additionally, $1.2 billion has been added for public education and $115 million for facilities. Dewhurst said the budget maintains the 200 percent of poverty level for Medicaid eligibility and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), maintains a strong criminal justice system and provides new money for highways and state infrastructure.

"We eliminated non-essential spending," said the lieutenant governor, "and focused our dollars on our core services all the people of Texas expect."

Senate Finance Committee Chair Teel Bivins (R-Amarillo), who served as co-chair of the conference committee, said the budget process in light of a nearly $10 billion budget shortfall was "the most difficult legislative challenge I've ever faced" and called the compromise "an amazing feat."

"We had a breakdown this weekend over health science center funding," he said of a walkout by all but one of the Senate side members of the conference committee, "but we ultimately came to a resolution." He called that incident the "final chapter of many, many disagreements" that were worked out during the budget deliberations.

Conference Committee member Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) said that a couple of weeks ago, she told media representatives that the committee was looking at additional priorities for Article Two funding, relating to health and human services. She said the agreement reached in conference was "even better than the Senate version."

She said the proposed budget maintains the policy regarding Medicaid simplification, maintains the six month eligibility for children, and does not reinstate face-to-face certification.

Zaffirini said CHIP funding was a priority for Dewhurst and the Texas Senate. She said the eligibility was maintained at 200 percent of poverty level and federal minimum requirements are instituted. "It will look like the coverage you buy," she said. The Laredo Democrat also said prescription drugs were added for persons with disabilities and for TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) clients. "It is significantly better than what we had a few weeks ago," she said of the health and human services portion of the budget. "I believe we did good work."

"If there are any winners in this budget, public education is a winner," said Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) of public education funding in the proposed budget. Duncan said $1.2 billion funding was added for public ed, textbook purchases are funded, and many programs begun in recent years to improve the quality of education have been restored. The committee also was able to save the TRS Care health insurance program for retired Texas teachers.

"Higher education did well," said Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan), especially when there was talk early on of cuts of 12 percent and more for higher ed.

And the budget ensures the state criminal justice system will remain strong, said Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston). Whitmire said there will still be very effective punishment, rehabilitation, drug and alcohol treatment, and pardons and paroles divisions. "We'll have a very effective and strong public safety specter in this state," said the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Regarding tuition deregulation, which has been a sticky subject for lawmakers in dealing with higher education funding problems, Dewhurst said a compromise was reached. He said, "In return for $500 million of additional spending on higher ed, the Senate would agree to pass out whatever House agreed to on tuition deregulation."