Cobler: Lawmakers start $7 billion away from target


Texas House and Senate leaders appear to agree on their proposed budgets. Next, they just have to figure out how to cut $7.2 billion

Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, worked with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to propose a state budget of $119.7 billion in general funds. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, proposed the same budget figure, indicating a collaborative spirit at the start of the 87th session.

That spirit will be tested as legislators try to meet Comptroller Glen Hegar’s budgeted revenue forecast of $112.5 billion. 

“We have many tools available to balance this budget, which will require us to re-establish our priorities, stretch every dollar and find more efficient ways to deliver services,” Nelson said in a statement.

Among the priorities she set:

◾ Maintaining the education funding increases and teacher pay raises established in 2019, including $3.1 billion to fund enrollment growth for public education and $1 billion in additional state aid related to property tax compression in the 2022-23 biennium.

◾ $5 billion for payroll growth and continued reforms to the Teacher Retirement System passed last session.

◾ $8.1 billion to fund higher education institution formulas.

◾ Combined projected funding of $8 billion for mental health across 24 state agencies, including an increase of $19.5 million to maintain operations for the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium; more than $1 million in new funding to create a peer-to-peer counseling network and increase access to licensed mental health providers for Texas Law Enforcement Officers; and $145 million to continue community mental health grant programs.

◾ $352.6 million for women’s health programs, including the continuation of the Healthy Texas Women program’s enhanced postpartum care services implemented by the Legislature last session.

◾ $57.6 million to continue fighting human trafficking through prevention, detection, victim services and the justice system.

◾  $1.3 million to perform necessary maintenance on the Texas Election Administration Management System, which manages voter registration in Texas.

◾ $39.1 million in new appropriations to fortify security at the Texas Capitol, including additional troopers and enhanced safety measures.

◾ $30.4 billion to the Texas Department of Transportation to address the state’s transportation needs, including $26.4 billion dedicated for highway planning, design, construction and maintenance.

Phelan’s statement indicated the same support for public education and also included an appropriation of $74.2 billion for the Texas Medicaid program, including $27.4 billion in general revenue.The House version includes an additional $920 million to address projected caseload growth.

“The decisions we make during the 87th legislative session will have lasting effects on the future of our state, which is why the House will work to improve our business climate, foster economic prosperity, and do what’s right for our students,” Phelan said.

Strawberry fields forever

You don’t find many strawberry fields in Texas, but that could change if a seed planted by the Texas Department of Agriculture takes root.

The department has awarded a second grant to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service to research and test how the state’s farmers can make more money growing strawberries.

Leading the project is AgriLife extension’s Russ Wallace, a horticulturist in Lubbock. You might call him the John Lennon of Texas strawberries.

“We’re extremely excited about what we’ve learned thus far to successfully grow strawberries in Texas and increase profitability,” Wallace said in an AgriLife news release. “This is the next step in our ongoing research where we’ll be doing more work with shading trials, fine-tuning fertilization and additional work with herbicides.”

Strawberries have some juicy potential as a specialty crop because consumers have shown an increasing hunger for locally grown produce, ag experts say, although they don’t often use bad puns.

One of the research sites is Atascosa County’s Poteet, the self-proclaimed strawberry capital of Texas. Poteet Strawberry Festival organizers recently announced the event will go on April 9-11.

Some readers of the festival’s Facebook page criticized the move as having the potential to spread COVID-19 faster than jam on toast.

Festival organizers responded that “we’ve been working and hoping for a blessing that we can continue, within allowable restrictions or capabilities, but still continuing as possible. We hope all goes well.”

With your permission, gentle readers, we’ll close here with this Beatles’ opening stanza and try to leave you with a song in your heart:

Let me take you down

’Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields

Nothing is real

And nothing to get hung about

Strawberry Fields forever

Chris Cobler is a board member and past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He welcomes email at ccobler@texaspress.com. Veteran journalist Gary Borders will be taking over the “Capital Highlights” column starting next week as Cobler embarks on a new challenge.