Gov. Abbott gets $100 million more for budget priorities to avert special session
AUSTIN -- Gov. Greg Abbott obtained an additional $100 million for his office's economic-development programs early Sunday by threatening to veto the state budget and force a special session, according to two people familiar with the late-hour intervention.
House and Senate budget negotiators relented, but the House's price was some extra education money it had been pressing for, the officials said.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has insisted savings not be used for any ongoing expenses, rejected that, said the two officials, who are not authorized to discuss the sensitive negotiations and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
That turned the dickering into a contest between the state's top two officials on one hand, and House allies of Speaker Joe Straus on the other.
The unusual wrangling delayed for several hours but did not upend the tentative ratification by the budget conference committee members of a belt-tightening, two-year state budget.
"If we'd had a little bit more heads up, we might have been able to make the accommodation" of Abbott's demands, recounted chief House budget writer John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who co-chaired the conference committee.
Abbott "clearly felt he needed more in the area of his trusteed funds in order to carry out some of his economic development" efforts, Zerwas said, referring to funds managed by the governor's office for recruiting new business and granting film, music and video game incentives.
Senate lead negotiator Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, did not respond to reporters' questions about the last-minute addition of $100 million for Abbott's funds and $75 million for the House's demand - aid for school districts hurt by depressed property values.
Abbott chief of staff Daniel Hodge, who relayed the governor's demands, declined to elaborate. As he and two other Abbott aides left the House negotiators' office late Saturday, Hodge declined to discuss the events.
"Always working," he said when asked if Abbott was attempting to wheedle more funds for his favorite programs. Asked if that was stalling final action on the negotiators' proposed deal, Hodge repeated, "We are always working."
Hodge told negotiators Abbott would veto the budget if lawmakers didn't add $100 million more for favored programs, such as the governor's deal-closing Texas Enterprise Fund, film and music incentives, and a two-year-old fund that has helped recruit 11 new academic stars to Texas universities.
The House originally proposed that the $75 million for schools with depressed property values come out of the rainy day fund, the subject of a session-long battle between the two chambers.
Patrick, who has insisted savings not be used for any ongoing expenses, rejected that. But when Abbott, through Hodge, came demanding economic-development money, Zerwas told Abbott he had to tell the lieutenant governor to restore the $75 million of schools money in order for Abbott to get his money.
When weary negotiators resembled for their final act of the night about 1 a.m. Sunday, Rep. Sarah Davis, a West University Place Republican, seemed to refer to the governor's apparent demand for more money for financial incentives
"Is this about more corporate welfare? Is that why we're seeing this," she said.
Abbott's last-minute windfall came on top of a respectable showing at winning money for his pet programs in the session's final days.
While both chambers zeroed out or skimped most of his high-priority items earlier, in the end, Abbott received $236 million for his "high quality" prekindergarten initiative -- taken out of schools' basic funding. He also won $16 million for his university scholar recruitment program, $86 million for the Texas Enterprise Fund and $22 million for film and music incentives.
The $100 million for economic development was made possible by downward adjustments in Medicaid spending for the next two years, officials said. It's likely that further shorting of Medicaid is how GOP leaders came up with the additional school aid the House wanted - in lieu of spending rainy-day money on that.
Patrick and the Senate did agree to nearly $1 billion of rainy-day spending - mostly on building repairs. The House accepted a partial delay of a fund shift to highways, which the Senate had been promoting.
House members said they won on the principle - not double-booking the same dollars in both the general fund and the highway fund. But senators and Patrick won $1.8 billion more of budget-writing "headroom" with the accounting move. It was first suggested by Comptroller Glenn Hegar.