AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Following a week of wobbly talks over a new Texas budget, House and Senate negotiators met publicly Monday to settle some of the fine print and described making "very positive" progress in private about big-ticket items.
There are two weeks left to strike a deal on those major spending items — education, water, transportation and tax cuts — or else the Republican-controlled Legislature could roll into a special summer session.
House leaders suspended negotiations for multiple days last week over differences not about what to prioritize — or even how much to spend — but instead the methods of finance. The stalemate has raised the possibility of the Legislature being pushed into overtime for the fifth time in seven 140-day sessions under Gov. Rick Perry.
Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner, the No. 2 budget-writer in the House, wouldn't go so far as to predict a compromise, but sounded a hopeful tone following an hour-long public meeting between the 10 negotiators.
"The conversations have been very positive, respectful, and quite frankly I'm optimistic," Turner said.
He added: "Today was a significant step forward. But I would tell you, we are a long way from home."
Those significant steps Monday included agreeing on some of the relatively smaller items in a budget that, on paper, calls for about $100 billion in state spending. It includes a 12 percent pay hike for state judges, as well as closing some prisons and giving widely expected yet tentative approval to re-funding the state's embattled $3 billion cancer-fighting agency.
The money was in jeopardy after a series of controversies within the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, last year. So long as a major reform bill clears final passage, CPRIT would be fully funded for 2014-15 with $595 million for research and business grants.
"I still believe that (CPRIT) is one of the best things the Legislature has done in the past years," said Republican state Sen. Jane Nelson, who sponsored the bill that will mandate the ouster of the agency's entire 11-member oversight board.
Budget negotiators adjourned Monday without taking up spending for education and health care, the two biggest expenses in the state budget. Public schools that were stripped of $5.4 billion in 2011 are poised to win back at least $3 billion under either the House or Senate plan.
Yet how to pay for those rollbacks, plus $2 billion for a state new water fund, is causing an impasse. Perry has also told lawmakers he won't sign a budget without significant tax cuts, and is using $1.8 billion in relief as the bull's-eye.
The Senate wants voters in November to approve tapping the state's Rainy Day Fund to pay for priciest budget items. House leaders, however, see that as punting on the task of governing, and have instead floated the idea of busting the state's spending cap to draw down the rainy day money itself.
"I don't want to go beyond it either," Turner said of the spending cap. "But I want water. And I do believe we need to do more on transportation. And I do believe we need to do more on education. If someone can show us how to get there and stay below the spending cap ... I'm all ears."
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