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Texas House passes budget that would restore some cuts

By Corrie MacLaggan

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The Texas House of Representatives passed a two-year budget proposal on Thursday that would increase state spending by about 7 percent and restore some of the funding that was cut from public education in 2011.

Two years after lawmakers passed a spending plan that made deep cuts in the face of a budget shortfall, the state's financial health and robust economic growth have allowed budget writers to add back a significant amount of that money, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts told his colleagues.

"We have not done so recklessly and we have not replaced every dollar that was removed during last session," said Pitts, a Republican.

Pitts said the proposed budget "will preserve the state's fiscal stability and economic prosperity while protecting the citizens of Texas through vital services and programs."

The Republican-controlled House passed the budget by a vote of 135-12.

Some House Democrats voted against the bill, saying it did not go far enough to return funding cuts to schools or support Medicaid expansion.

"I think the budgets we pass say what kind of values we have as a state, and I don't believe that the budget on the House floor today well represents Texas values," said Democratic Representative Chris Turner.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs projected earlier this year the Legislature would have $101.4 billion available to spend, thanks to higher-than-expected tax collections boosted by economic growth. That included $8.8 billion expected to remain at the end of the current budget cycle.

The House budget proposal for 2014-2015 includes $93.5 billion in state spending, a 7 percent increase over the previous two-year period. The total proposed House budget, including federal funds, is $193.8 billion, a 2.1 percent increase.

The proposal includes an additional $2.5 billion for schools, two years after $4 billion was cut from education.

The proposed budget would not tap the state's rainy-day fund, which is projected to have $11.8 billion by the end of the 2014-2015 budget cycle. There is a separate proposal to use some money from the fund for water infrastructure projects.

Some lawmakers argued that the rainy-day fund, which is generated mostly from oil and gas production taxes, should have been used for schools.

"We're not fully funding public education," Representative Abel Herrero, a Democrat, said during Thursday's debate. "We have billions of dollars in our rainy-day fund."

Herrero successfully added an amendment to the budget proposal that says state money may not go to private-school vouchers. That vote sent a signal to lawmakers who are proposing voucher programs.

The Republican-led Senate passed a budget proposal in March that includes about $1 billion less for schools than the House proposal. The Senate's proposal would spend $94.1 billion in state funds and $195.5 billion in total.

Like the Senate budget, the House budget increases spending on mental health programs.

After various changes made by the House to the Senate version on Thursday, the two chambers must reconcile the differences in their proposals.

(Reporting by Corrie MacLaggan and Karen Brooks; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney)

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