AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott, in a break from past practice, signed lawmakers’ budget on Saturday without changing a thing.
Though the Texas Constitution lets him selectively erase portions of spending bills, Abbott refrained from using his line-item veto.
The Republican governor signed the $250.7 billion, two-year budget, defying some staunch conservatives such as Empower Texans’ Michael Quinn Sullivan who’ve called it bloated.
“This is not only a balanced budget, it also limits the growth of spending in the upcoming biennium to less than population and inflation growth, when adjusting for the cost of property tax relief,” Abbott said in a written statement.
The 2020-21 budget’s marquee items are public schools and reducing school property taxes. It increases spending on schools by $6.5 billion, with $2 billion of that increasing teachers’ pay. And it includes $5 billion for buying down school districts’ maintenance and operation tax rates.
House Bill 1 also maintains state efforts to secure the Texas-Mexico border, using $800.6 million of general-purpose revenue in the next cycle.
To reduce waits at driver’s license offices, it increases spending at the Department of Public Safety by $210 million to hire more clerks and reduce turnover, by giving raises to current employees.
And it pays for retired teachers and other school district employees to have a rare cost of living adjustment, known as a “13th check.” The retirees’ average bump will be $2,000.
A booming state economy, especially in the energy-production sector, allowed lawmakers to write a more generous budget. However, they used accounting tricks both new and old, such as underfunding the state-federal Medicaid health insurance program for the poor, to reach for the biggest property-tax cuts possible.
Some Democrats, though in a minority, have voiced worries over whether the much-hyped rewrite of school finance formulas and buy-down of school taxes can be sustained.
But this session, Democrats threw their support to the budget and school efforts, even as the Republican-led House, under new Speaker Dennis Bonnen, got along much better with Abbott and the Senate, led by conservative firebrand Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Break from the past
In 2015, after his first session as governor, Abbott trumpeted that he’d vetoed “almost $295 million” from the budget.
However, to pump up the figure, he imitated former Gov. Rick Perry and claimed credit for about $70 million of spending that already died when separate bills to authorize it failed to pass.
Also in 2015, Abbott went unchallenged in expanding his powers. That year, he vetoed some budget provisions that weren’t strictly dollar figures on one line of the “general appropriations act,” which is the budget’s formal name, but paragraphs of guidance lawmakers gave agencies and universities. That was a break with tradition.
While the House wanted to protest his action as infringement on the Legislature’s power, Patrick sided with Abbott. There was no confrontation or lawsuit filed.
Two years ago, Abbott used the line-item veto to erase about $120 million in planned expenditures —73% of them in the Low-Income Vehicle Repair Assistance Program in metro areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth that are out of compliance with the federal Clean Air Act.
While Abbott splashily pared the budget the past two times, this year, he’s getting along better with lawmakers — and clearly wants to keep the good vibe going.