AUSTIN, Texas, June 2 (UPI) -- Texas legislators Monday put the final touches on a raucous 140-day session that passed a $117.4 billion budget, home insurance reforms and a new ethics bill that some say is the strongest in a decade.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, avoided any tax increases in the two-year budget, as they promised, but the cuts in human and social service programs were too deep for many Democrats.
Despite a four-day walkout in May by 51 maverick House Democrats that killed a GOP-backed congressional redistricting bill, the Legislature addressed nearly all the major issues facing the regular session except school finance.
Overhauling the state's controversial "Robin Hood" school finance law, which takes from property rich districts and gives to poorer ones, was believed to be too complex an issue to be addressed in a general session overwhelmed by hundreds of bills.
Perry is expected to call a special session in the late summer or early fall to focus on that issue. There is talk that he might also attempt to bring up congressional redistricting in a special session, but the governor says it is too early to say what might be on the call of such an emergency session.
In a Monday news conference, Perry called the session a success and praised Texas legislators for doing what many cash-strapped states could not do this year.
"We faced difficult circumstances through a tough national economy, but we set priorities, we funded those priorities, made government more efficient, and did what many states could not do -- balance our budget without raising taxes," he said.
The top issue facing the legislators was the budget and a $9.9 billion shortfall forecast in the next two-year fiscal period. The GOP leadership opposed any taxes increases and Perry proposed a zero-based budget, forcing the lawmakers to begin from scratch.
Of the $117.4 billion budget, about $54.7 billion is state money, the remainder dedicated federal funds allocated to state programs such as Medicaid. The state received an additional $553 million in federal money for Medicaid last week.
Although the lawmakers authorized the state lottery to join the multi-state Powerball lottery, which will bring an additional $101 million into the state's coffers, the $9.9 billion shortfall was largely addressed by cuts in state programs.
The budget will cut 169,000 children from the 513,000 enrolled in the State Children's Health Insurance program, slash payments to Medicaid providers by 5 percent, reduce home services to the elderly and disabled and cut some prison programs.
"I voted against it because we failed to impose a $1 per pack cigarette tax that would have generated an estimated $1.5 billion to fund CHIP and Medicaid," said state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville.
Health and human services were cut by $171.9 million, while higher education was reduced by $173.3 million. Public education will receive $952.8 million less in funding. An estimated 10,000 state employees may lose their jobs over the two years.
A strong ethics and campaign finance bill was passed during the weekend, aimed at forcing legislators, school board members, and city and county politicians to disclose more about their finances.
"This bill is the first real reform bill in many years. It takes 10 big steps forward in ethics and disclosures; 1991 marked a giant leap forward in ethics reform. We have tried unsuccessfully every session since then to take these next steps, and we are pleased that it has occurred," said Suzy Woodford, director of Common Cause of Texas.
The bill requires disclosure of contributions of more than $500, bars legislators from practicing before states agencies, and requires county, city and school officials in larger counties and cities to file financial disclosure statements.
Perry made homeowners insurance reform an emergency issue and new legislation was passed that would give the state insurance commissioner more authority over rates. Texas rates are the highest in the nation and consumer advocates were disappointed that the bill failed to include an immediate rate rollback.
The Independent Insurance Agents of Texas said rates are expected to come down under the reform legislation even without a rollback.
"We believe rates will come down under this new bill for two chief reasons: Marketplace competition will increase and the state will begin implementing a new system of insurance regulation," said President Andre Juneau and Executive Director David VanDelinder.
(Reported by Phil Magers in Dallas)