McALLEN — Texas is currently bracing for a nearly $5 billion budget deficit for the upcoming legislative session, but it can be managed through a combination of agency cuts, payment delays and a dip into the rainy day fund, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa said Thursday.
The vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee outlined some of the priorities and challenges for the 87th Legislative Session during a virtual meeting of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Council, but not before retracting some of the biggest wins during the previous session.
For starters, the legislature injected an additional $11.5 billion into public education, raising teacher pay and the state’s per capita funding share, which went from 37% to 45%, Hinojosa said. That, combined with a cap on property taxes, offered taxpayers some much-needed relief.
Locally, there were also some big wins, he said.
In 2019, the legislature increased funding for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine by $12 million and set aside $2 million for the Cervical Dysplasia and Cancer Stop Center in McAllen. It also increased funding at South Texas College by $3.9 million, pumped another $5 million into the expansion of the South Texas International Airport in Edinburg and allocated $10 million to the Valley’s regional flood control project known as the Raymondville Drain. On top of that, $300 million were secured for the expansion of the Pharr Interchange and another $23.6 million to accommodate commercial traffic at the Anzalduas International Bridge.
“So we really focused on the needs of the Rio Grande Valley,” Hinojosa said. “Then all of a sudden we got hit with a double whammy. That is, the pandemic hit and the price of oil and gas crashed.”
As a result, the $3 billion dollar surplus the state had in its coffers was used, and there is an expected $4.7 billion deficit.
“If the deficit is somewhere around 5 billion dollars, we can manage that with a combination of rainy day fund monies and delaying some of the payments that the state has to make,” Hinojosa said. “If the deficit is in the 10-to-15 billion dollar range, it’s going to be very painful.”
Last session, the legislature took somewhere between $5 billion to $6 billion from the rainy day fund, he said. For this next session, he’s not yet sure how much the state will rely on that fund.
“We still have 8.6 billion dollars in our rainy day fund, so we plan to use some of that,” he said. “We dont want to completely deplete, but we certainly want to take care of the needs of the state and the priorities that we have.”
As such, lawmakers have already asked state agencies to cut their budgets by about 5%, though not all areas will see a reduction, Hinojosa indicated.
“For one, we are committed to continue the funding for public education and not decrease what we committed last session on the additional $11.5 billion dollars, including the state’s share of 45% of funding,” he said, noting the federal government accounts for another 10% of the costs, which means the remaining 45% must come from local property taxes.
Hinojosa also doesn’t foresee a reduction in infrastructure costs.
“We also plan to continue investing in infrastructure and transportation,” he said. “The reason for that is, quite frankly, it creates jobs. It helps the economy. It puts money in people’s pockets.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge that lays ahead is redistricting, Hinojosa added.
Every ten years state lawmakers redraw the state legislative and congressional district lines based on population.
“That’s why the Census is so important because here in Texas we will gain population. The projections are that we will gain three additional congressional districts,” Hinojosa said. “We also might have a chance to add an additional house (seat) that will encompass part of the Valley because the Valley is one of the fastest growing areas in the state and in the nation.”
And though it will likely be “the most partisan issue we’ll deal with,” he said, the Valley will have representation in the matter. Last year, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appointed Hinojosa as the vice chair of the Senate Committee on Redistricting, and state Rep. Oscar Longoria sits on the House committee.
Police reform could also split legislators down party lines.
“The issue of police reform is a very hot topic right now — we hear all the rhetoric. But the reality is, I don’t think anybody wants to defund our police forces,” Hinojosa said. “There will be some reform, but it will be a lot more targeted. And quite frankly, it’s got to be a bipartisan approach.”
Anything other than that will likely not pass.
“In the Senate, if you take a pretty partisan approach, it will not work. There are not enough Republicans or senators for that matter, Democrats, to just run over people,” Hinojosa said. “Now in the House, really it’s a very close line between Republicans and Democrats in terms of numbers, and Democrats might end up taking over the majority of members of the house. But still, every issue we work on is bipartisan. The majority are not partisan.”
Lawmakers are also still trying to contend with COVID-19 and are keeping a close eye on numbers as flu season threatens to combine with a deadly virus. Texas, however, still has about $4 billion in federal recovery money that it can use for a resurgence of the diseases, Hinojosa said.
Healthcare and Medicaid expansion are also some of Hinojosa’s priorities, he added.
Meanwhile, state officials are still trying to figure out the safest way to convene next year. Should they allow the general public? And if not, should lobbyists also be excluded? The questions, for now, remain unanswered, Hinojosa said.
“We have to make some very difficult decisions, but we certainly listen to feedback from the public,” he said. “We don’t make these decisions in a vacuum.”