AUSTIN — The Senate Finance Committee, at work on the 2018-2019 state budget since January, on March 16 approved workgroup recommendations in preparation for a final vote. 
Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said she expects her panel to vote on the state budget, Senate Bill 1, this week, March 20-24. After the committee votes, the next step for the budget is consideration by the full Senate.
So far in the process, the committee has approved more money to reduce the caseload for foster care workers, an increase in payments for people who take in foster children and an expansion of a privatized case management program. Funding for mental health would be maintained at current levels while adding beds for maximum-security patients.
Health and human services takes up the largest share of the state budget. Senate Health & Human Services Committee Chair Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who serves on the Senate Finance Committee, commented on SB 1, saying, “Just like the people of Texas, we must live within our means. With that said, I believe the product before you represents a responsible budget that will meet the health and human services needs of Texans and address the most pressing issues we will face in the coming biennium.”
SB 1 would include less money for education — the second-biggest element in the state budget. One issue is funding for so-called “special items” or one-time appropriations to help colleges start new programs or increase capacity. Higher education institutions that have come to rely on the renewal of special items every budget cycle would be at a disadvantage under SB 1, according to Senate Finance Committee member Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who serves as chair of the body’s Higher Education Committee. Previously, the state spent more than a billion dollars on “special items.” On March 15, the Senate Finance Committee approved language cutting that amount to $700 million. 
Immigration bill is heard
An overflow crowd numbering in the hundreds gathered in the state Capitol on March 15 to testify on a House committee substitute for SB 4, the immigration law enforcement bill written by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock,and passed by the full Senate on Feb. 8.
The bill proposes to prohibit “sanctuary city” policies that prohibit local law enforcement from inquiring about a person’s immigration status and complying with detainer requests by the federal government. 
Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, laid out the committee substitute, followed by hours of deliberation by the House State Affairs and five hours of public testimony. 
Among those testifying against the bill was Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops. Vásquez called immigration reform a moral issue and said Pope Francis’ position is that immigrants should be supported.
Jackson County Sheriff A.J. “Andy” Louderback of Edna, a member of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas, was among those testifying in favor of the bill.
Senate OKs bathroom bill
On a vote of 21-10, the Texas Senate on March 15 approved Committee Substitute SB 6, legislation to require people in public buildings, including schools, to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex marked on their birth certificate. 
Opponents said the bill unfairly targets transgender Texans, but the bill’s author, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said the legislation is necessary to keep men out of women’s restrooms. 
The bill, which has moved to the House for consideration, applies to multi-stall restrooms, showers, dressing rooms and locker rooms in public buildings. Private entities and businesses would be left to decide their own policy, and government entities would not be able to use those policies as criteria when deciding how to award government contracts. 
Study examines health care
Texas Comptroller Glen Hegar on March 15 posted notice that the cost of health care is rising faster than both the general inflation rate and the growth of the state’s population. In fiscal 2015, he said, the state spent $42.9 billion on health care services, or 43.1 percent of all appropriations from state, federal and other sources.
The March issue of Fiscal Notes, a publication produced by the Comptroller's office, examines and quantifies health care spending by 68 state agencies and higher education institutions over a five-year period.
“Emerging technologies, demographics and the growth of our great state will ensure the demand for health care services continues to increase even while the cost of these services is on the rise,” Hegar said. “The question for policymakers is how to contain these costs.”