AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Starting the final weekend of a legislative session that may be the last under Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Senate passed a roughly $100 billion state budget Saturday that mostly reverses historic spending cuts to public schools and squeezes most of the revenue spoils of a resurgent Texas economy.
The House delayed a vote on the budget until Sunday. That's the last chance for the Legislature to pass bills before the session adjourns Monday — though lawmakers may not going home.
Perry is widely expected to keep lawmakers working into June, when conservative issues such as gun control and abortion could resurface after faltering during the regular 140-day session.
But a new two-year budget — the only bill the Legislature is constitutionally required to pass — finally appears settled after a rocky two weeks of negotiations with the House. The Senate passed the budget 27-4, and Republicans behind the spending plan took candid shots at conservative pundits and fiscal hawks who panned their decision-making.
"We need to take them back to school and teach them how to count," said Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, the Senate budget chief.
Williams, who described being mocked as a "socialist" and "big spending liberal," did not identify his critics. But among those displeased with the budget's price tag is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group favored by Perry and influential among GOP lawmakers.
Perry, a Republican who says he won't announce whether he'll run for re-election in 2014 until the session is over, has largely kept quiet on a complex budget deal between the House and Senate. He broke his silence Friday, however, when aides spoke out against plans to take $1.75 billion from the state's Rainy Day Fund to settle a debt owed to public schools.
Despite Perry's objections, budget writers are not planning to make changes.
Williams defended the budget as a responsible spending plan that leaves more than $500 million on the table. It increases spending by 8.3 percent from two years ago, when the Republican-controlled Legislature slashed the budget to the bone to close a massive shortfall borne by the Great Recession.
An energy boom and roaring Texas economy, however, handed lawmakers a historic pot of available revenue to spend when they gathered in January. That allowed lawmakers to restore most of the $5.4 billion cuts from public schools in 2011 and embark on an aggressive new state water plan that environmental groups say is among the most ambitious from any U.S. statehouse this year.
The new water fund would be jump-started with $2 billion in rainy day dollars. Both the House and Senate were to vote on the plan Sunday.
The 2014-15 budget gives state employees a 3 percent raise and throws an additional $298 million toward mental health and substance abuse. Public schools would recoup $4 billion, financially shaky state parks remain open and more than $97 million is projected to be saved from closing two privately operated prisons.
"I think it's been very thoughtfully developed. In every session I've been here no one is 100 percent happy, but you have to get the votes to pass it," House Speaker Joe Straus said Saturday. "And that means the support of members from all parties and in both chambers."
HOUSE, SENATE REACH TESTING, CHARTER SCHOOLS DEAL
House and Senate negotiators said Saturday they have reached a deal to overhaul high school standardized testing and curriculum standards while also dramatically increasing the number of charter schools allowed to operate in Texas.
Public Education has dominated the legislative session, with both chambers approving different versions of a charter school expansion bill, and a proposal to slash from a nation-leading 15 to five the number of standardized tests high school students must pass to graduate while overhauling curriculum standards to promote academic flexibility.
Those were reconciled in conference committee — but that compromise must still clear an up-or-down vote expected Sunday in each chamber before it can go to Gov. Rick Perry's desk to be signed into law.
"We're where we wanted to be," said Sen. Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate Education Committee and helped craft the reconciled proposal.
Patrick and Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, head of the House Public Education Committee, said they expect Perry to support the bill — if it can clear both chambers. The compromise could face an especially tough road in the often-fickle House, however, which sometimes bristles at changes to its bills.
Asked if he had enough support, Aycock told reporters, "I think so. Obviously we will lose some votes."
The plan slashes by two-thirds the state-mandated standardized tests students must pass, leaving only exams in Algebra I, Biology, Chemistry and English I and II. It also combines testing on English reading and writing, which had been given in separate exams.
After two years, it requires that the state produce separate tests in Algebra II and English III that will be optional for school districts to administer and won't count toward a school or district's accountability rating scale.
The shakeup comes amid a backlash against what students, parents, teachers and even school administrators say was over-testing. But leading business groups have worried that cutting back on testing requirements too much could ultimately leave Texas students ill-prepared for the demanding jobs of tomorrow.
The reconciled bill is also designed to free high school students from so many curriculum requirements, thus giving them the flexibility to focus on career and technical training for jobs that are well-paid but don't necessarily require going to college.
It replaces the current academic plan requiring students to take four years each of math, science, social studies and English with one that only mandates three years of math, science, and social studies. It also is meant to offer courses in math and science geared more toward career training.
PERRY VETOES 'DARK MONEY' DISCLOSURE BILL
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has vetoed a bill that required some politically active nonprofits to disclose their major donors, saying it would have a "chilling effect" on free speech.
The bill had been seen as a likely target for a veto as influential conservative groups had urged Perry to strike it down.
Perry issued his veto message Saturday.
Supporters said the bill would crack down on "dark money," or contributions secretly made to groups that avoid campaign finance and disclosure laws because of their nonprofit status.
Lawmakers could override Perry's veto before the session adjourns Monday, but that appears unlikely considering the super-majority of lawmakers that would need in the House and Senate that would take.
DRUG TESTS FOR UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS APPROVED
Workers who lose their jobs would have to clear a drug screening to qualify for unemployment compensation under a proposal approved by the Texas Legislature.
Under current law, employers take out insurance policies to help laid-off workers survive on weekly payments of $62 to $440. Those who are fired for cause, including failing an employer-sponsored drug test, do not qualify.
The changes approved Saturday would require laid-off workers to fill out state questionnaires. Answers considered suspicious would lead to drug tests. Workers who fail would lose their benefits.
Republican Sen. Tommy Williams said the program will help maintain a competent workforce.
Democrats have blocked a separate measure that would have required drug testing for welfare recipients. But the bill targeting unemployed workers will now go to the governor.
LAWMAKERS APPROVE CHANGES FOR PRISONERS
Prisoners who have completed their sentences would get help readjusting to society under a measure approved by the Texas Legislature.
A unanimous Senate vote on Saturday sent the governor a comprehensive bill addressing the mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The biggest policy change requires the agency to create a system that evaluates the needs of inmates leaving the system. The agency will assign counselors, educators, vocational trainers and public service volunteers to work with inmates to find employment and stability.
Gov. Rick Perry can veto the measure or let it become law.
Another major change proposed for the prison system would prioritize expensive privately operated facilities for closure. That measure has been shifted to the state budget bill still under debate.
BILL MODIFIES CONCEALED HANDGUN LICENSES
Texas lawmakers have sent to Gov. Rick Perry a bill that allows concealed handgun license holders to carry a revolver or semi-automatic pistol, regardless of what they trained with on the shooting range.
Current law certifies license holders to carry only the type of gun they use to get their license. The bill by Sen. Craig Estes, a Wichita Falls Republican, allows them to carry either model.
Texas has more than 500,000 concealed handgun license holders. Lawmakers have already voted to cut in half the minimum hours of training to get one.
The Legislature is also considering allowing lawmakers to carry concealed handguns wherever they wish. That bill has sparked fierce debate over whether lawmakers should get special privileges other concealed handgun license holders don't have.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"''Families deal with the space left in their lives once filled by loved ones. The empty chairs at holiday dinners, at weddings, at graduations. For them, the effects of losing a hero are felt every day for an entire lifetime." - Gov. Rick Perry, speaking at a Fallen Heroes ceremony held at the Capitol for families who lost a loved one in the military.