After four weeks of hearing agency requests for funding, the Senate Finance Committee will now move on to the next phase of developing the Senate proposal for state spending in 2020 and 2021. Since January 22nd, the committee met 13 times publicly to consider the advice of the Legislative Budget Board and question agency representatives, offering praise for a job well done in many cases but in others, demanding answers on why long-term problems go unsolved. Hearings were broken down by budget article, with Articles II and III taking up both the most hearing time and the most proposed funding. Those are the sections of the budget that fund health and human services and public education, respectively, and together they make up about 85 percent of total proposed state spending. In keeping with priorities laid out by the Governor and Lt. Governor earlier in the session, the Senate budget as filed includes $6 billion in spending in Article III to pay for across-the-board teacher pay raises and to offset revenue lost by any property tax reform measures passed this session. Next, senators on the 15-member committee will break up into workgroups focused on individual budget articles and develop a spending plan for that section of state government. Then each workgroup recommendation will be rolled into a final version to be voted on by the full committee.
Monday, the Senate Property Tax Committee amended and passed the property tax growth reform bill, Senate Bill 2, by committee chair and Houston Senator Paul Bettencourt, after adding 15 amendments. "This will be a big step in Texans getting the needed property tax relief that they deserve," he said. Bettencourt added these changes were developed following more than 11 hours of public testimony on the bill in a hearing last Wednesday. The major provisions in the bill remain: the 2.5 percent rollback rate, automatic trigger for tax ratification, or rollback, elections, as well as the myriad of transparency and appraisal review board changes. Most of the amendments were technical corrections, but there were some significant modifications. Perhaps the biggest change is an amendment added by Conroe Senator Brandon Creighton, which would allow voters in smaller taxing jurisdictions a chance to decide if they want to implement the provisions of SB 2. As filed, the bill exempted those taxing entities that collected less than $15 million in combined sales and property tax revenue. Another change would prohibit cities and counties from cutting funding to first responders due to fears of lost revenue caused by passage of the bill itself, and a third would change the name of the rollback rate to the "voter-approved rate." Author Senator Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills said he believed that this would better describe what the rollback rate means, that is, the maximum rate of annual growth in a property tax rate allowed before taxpayers get the final say. That bill now heads to the full Senate.
Also out of committee this week is Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson's proposal to better coordinate mental health services on a statewide level and improve service delivery to the state's children and adolescents. SB 10 would create the Mental Health Consortium, which would coordinate behavioral health services and research at Texas medical schools and other health-related institutions of higher learning. It would give pediatricians the opportunity to consult with mental health professionals about treatment of their young patients using telemedical technologies, allowing assessment and treatment to begin as early as possible. The bill would also provide access to telemedical consultations for at-risk public school students. Nelson said that youth mental health in Texas is approaching a crisis point, and the state needs to act. "I firmly believe that this legislation will help identify youth at risk, get them to treatment, and prevent them from becoming a danger to themselves or others." This bill was passed by the Health and Human Services Committee unanimously and should fare just as well before the full Senate, as all 31 members are signed on as co-authors.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, February 19, at 11 a.m.