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87th Texas Legislature opens Tuesday facing budget deficit not as dire as many lawmakers feared

Published: Jan. 12, 2021 at 11:23 PM CST
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AUSTIN, Texas (KBTX) - The 87th Texas Legislature dropped the opening gavel Tuesday with problems both new and old facing lawmakers ahead of their latest session, but they’re relieved knowing they won’t be looking at as tight of a budget as many feared.

While many lawmakers acknowledge COVID-19 and pandemic response will hold most of the legislature’s focus, along with a likely matching budget commitment, they’re still setting goals for the post-pandemic world.

Senator Lois Kolkhorst of Texas’ 18th District says her primary efforts are geared toward knocking out COVID-19 for good.

“I think number one is getting past COVID,” Kolkhorst said. “Seven out of ten deaths from COVID in Texas are of people 65 and older, so that’s why I fought so hard for 1B.”

The legislature elected a new speaker Tuesday, Republican Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont, and learned their budget wasn’t in as bad shape as they’d originally feared.

“Initially, the budgetary deficit, squaring up the budget, was projected to be $4.5 billion, and it’s actually now less than $1 billion,” Sen. Charles Schwertner, who represents Texas’ 5th District, said. “Sales tax has been coming back this year compared to the steep cliff that we saw in March, April, and May.”

Kolkhorst says on top of that, the state still hasn’t spent all its CARES Act money. Despite the fact lawmakers will still have their work cut out for them managing the budget, the carryover from last session will help them tremendously.

”Obviously, Texas has performed better than many of the other states, and some of that has to do with our conservative approach in the last budget cycle,” Kolkhorst said. “We didn’t spend all of the taxpayer’s money, and we have had obviously an economic downturn.”

Kolkhorst says one of her personal goals for the budget is to protect a bill that ensures funding for higher educations. While the senator understands the legislature will have to dedicate a large part to COVID-related investments, she hopes more money will continue to be placed on education to boost growth once the state can reach a post-pandemic world.

It’s a goal she shares with other lawmakers, including Rep. Kyle Kacal of Texas’ 12th District, who hopes to continue funding public education even while so much money will likely be tied up in coronavirus relief.

“Obviously, I know that we have priorities with making sure the budget is balanced,” Kacal said. “But let’s make Texas not only a great economic engine. Let’s make it the safest place to live. I mean, it is the greatest place to live in the country, but let’s make it the safest, the healthiest, and make sure we educate these kids.”

The good news regarding the deficit makes Kacal optimistic they can focus on other issues outside the scope of the pandemic while executing a COVID recovery plan.

”I represent 32 different independent school districts, all from 1A to 5 or 6A schools,” Kacal said. “The better we educate our kids and our communities and our state, the less the government is going to be needed.”

The legislature understands there will be challenges with this session’s budget considering large parts of it must be dedicated to COVID response, but lawmakers are still confident they can improve other issues in Texas even while the pandemic rages on.

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