Texas budget standoff shows late signs of easing
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- A spending bill crucial to a complex Texas budget deal contains an extra $200 million to public schools as pledged by Senate negotiators.
The bill unveiled late Wednesday has created a standoff between the House and Senate during what has been a tense final week of the 140-day legislative session. House Democrats were wary of the Senate keeping classroom spending in the bill.
The House was reluctant to take action on a separate - but equally crucial - component of a multilayered budget compromise until seeing the Senate measure.
Both chambers were expected to take up the key bills late Wednesday night.
The Legislature must come to an agreement on a new state budget before adjourning Monday. If not, Gov. Rick Perry will haul lawmakers back for a special session.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
In the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, a furious final week is being dominated by distrust, deadlines and delays.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says he takes House leaders at their word, and that delicate pieces of a complicated budget deal will be passed.
A big test comes Wednesday. That is when the House is expected to finally take up a new state water plan that is crucial to a spending compromise, a day after blowing off a midnight vote deadline as signs of skepticism and frustration with the Senate surfaced.
"Obviously, I was disappointed," Dewhurst told The Associated Press late Tuesday night. "But the House leadership has assured us they're going to be able to pass (the water bill) tomorrow, and I take them at their word."
The 140-day legislative session ends Monday. So high are the stakes surrounding the water bill that a roughly $100 billion state budget deal hangs in the balance.
Another major part is $1.8 billion in tax cuts that Gov. Rick Perry says lawmakers must deliver to avoid being hauled back for a special summer session. Dewhurst touted $1.5 billion in business tax reforms and refunds approved in the Senate on Tuesday, calling it a "big number" not to be taken lightly.
He declined to predict whether the cuts would be enough to satisfy Perry.
Dewhurst also downplayed what, at times this week, has seemed like a game of chicken between the House and Senate over passing key budget measures.
"At this point, the last two or three weeks, there's a certain amount of fatigue," Dewhurst said. "But we're all working hard."
A new state budget is the only bill the Legislature is constitutionally required to pass every two years. A pillar of the 2014-15 budget framework is a new state water fund, which is lawmakers' answer to a historic drought and the needs of booming Texas population.
Building new pipelines and reservoirs is one of Perry's top priorities and has widespread bipartisan support.
But the water fund is also propping up a necessary budget bill that must be on Perry's desk by Monday - and skepticism from House Democrats is raising worries that a spending deal could come crashing down in the final throes of the session.
House Democrats are wary of promises from the Senate that public schools will not lose an extra $200 million pledged beyond the main budget bill. Tumultuous budget talks between House and Senate negotiators last week ended with a deal to restore $4 billion in classroom spending that was cut in 2011.
Democrats have bristled at the $200 million stashed in a separate bill, because it makes that money vulnerable to a line-item veto from Perry or last-minute decisions to spend that elsewhere.
Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, the Senate budget chief, said Tuesday he was still preparing a draft of that measure - called a supplemental spending bill - but insisted that the House had nothing to worry about.
"The money is in there," Williams said.
His House counterpart, Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts, said lawmakers simply want to be careful.
"I'm not going to say we don't trust the Senate, or our members don't trust the Senate," Pitts said. "But there are so many moving parts to our budget. ... Let us get full disclosure before we get to the full House to see what's in these bills."
The House had been faced with a must-vote on the water bill before midnight, only to pull the surprise move of suspending parliamentary rules and delaying the decision to Wednesday.
Williams appeared irritated by the maneuver and released a five-word statement about the House's surprising postponement: "They should take their time."
Republicans overwhelmingly control the 150-member House. But they need Democrats to reach the two-thirds threshold necessary to both create the water fund, and take $2 billion from the state's Rainy Day Fund to get the aggressive water plan rolling.
Other hurdles to completing a complex budget deal also remain.
Although part of the tax relief package passed by the Senate includes refunding to taxpayers $630 million collected through a utility surcharge, the moved is opposed by some House Democrats.
Williams says the refund is a big part of getting there. But the surcharge, collected through what is called the System Benefit Fund, was created to help low-income families pay their utility bills.
Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner on Tuesday appeared to tip his hand at resistance he may wage on the House floor.
Rushing to the dais when a separate and unrelated bill was ready to be taken up, Turner leafed through a bill packet and quipped that "there's nothing in here about the System Benefit Fund."
"It seems OK. I move adoption," Turner said.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/pauljweber