$6.6B emergency spending bill wins final passage

Texas Legislature passes $6.6B emergency spending bill on brink of Medicaid payment deadline

Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- The Texas Legislature officially began spending money Tuesday with final passage of a $6.6 billion emergency bill to avert a deadline that would have left Medicaid providers unpaid for treating patients.

The House provided no drama or dissent before unanimously approving the measure that also covers $1.7 billion previously owed to public schools.

Budget-slashing lawmakers postponed the schools payment in 2011 as a trick to balance the books. Reversing that gimmick in this spending bill was not imperative — some lawmakers wanted to tackle that separately — but House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts emphasized that the state needed to make good on $4.5 billion in Medicaid obligations now.

"We will not pay our providers the day after tomorrow if we don't pass this bill," said Pitts, R-Waxahachie.

The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.

The massive Medicaid I.O.U. stockpiled up for the same reason lawmakers in 2011 kicked the school payment down the road: to help close a $27 billion shortfall. Passing a balanced budget is the only bill the Legislature is constitutionally required to approve every two years.

Yet as lawmakers approach the halfway point of the current 140-day session, they're still not done spending money on the current two-year budget before hammering out the next one. Other spending bills called supplementals — which add to the price tag of the lean $173.5 billion budget that Legislators carved in 2011 — are expected to be ironed out in the next month.

Among the outstanding debts facing the state are an estimated $155 million spent fighting wildfires that engulfed the state in 2011. Democrats also will likely make one last push to claw back some of the $5.4 billion cut from public schools two years ago.

Last month, the Senate Finance Committee adopted a proposed $1.4 billion hike in school spending in the first clear signal that Legislature may pour money back into financially ailing districts.

A busy budget week in the Legislature is expected to continue Wednesday when that same committee could send its proposed budget for 2014-15 to the full chamber.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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