AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Broken-down talks between the House and Senate over how to pay for billions of dollars in restored public school funding and water projects remained at a standstill Thursday with time running out in the Texas Legislature to reach a deal.
The House's top budget-writer nonetheless predicted a compromise on the state budget would be struck before the session ends May 27, but did so cautiously. Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts acknowledged a stubborn impasse with the Senate and said Thursday that negotiators had yet to find common ground.
Yet, he remained optimistic that a new two-year spending bill would still reach Gov. Rick Perry's desk in time.
"It'll get worked out," Pitts told reporters, crossing his fingers.
Amid the uncertainty, a midnight deadline loomed that would extinguish chances of passage for reams of House bills that had failed to receive a floor vote this 140-day session. The urgency provoked frustrated lawmakers to shout "Vote!" during procedural parliamentary readings, while others plotted stall tactics to run out the clock.
But the biggest drama surrounded the only bill that the Legislature is constitutionally required to pass: a new state budget. Both the House and Senate have already passed spending bills, but differences over how to ultimately pay for public schools and water and road projects have created a stalemate among negotiators.
Pitts and his Senate counterpart, Republican Tommy Williams, suspended talks this week. Upon being asked when they would get back to the bargaining table, Pitts joked, "A judge has ordered mediation."
Perry delivered a fresh warning this week that he won't sign a 2014-15 budget without $1.8 billion in tax cuts and $2 billion to shore up the state's water supply, which has taken on new urgency following a historic Texas drought.
Under the Senate plan, voters would cast a ballot in November on taking $5.7 billion from the state's politically thorny Rainy Day Fund. That money would be divvied to finance a new water fund, highway projects and restoring a sliver of the $5.4 billion cut from public schools two years ago.
But that plan has a dim future in the House. Pitts said there is no appetite in the lower chamber to foist the choice on voters, and House Speaker Joe Straus reiterated that stance Thursday.
"Texans expect their elected leaders to make difficult decisions, and the House will not shy away from those decisions," Straus said.
A $93.5 billion budget passed by the House last month includes no money for water, and Pitts said he does not want to go back and cut spending. That left him scrambling to round up enough votes Thursday to bust the state spending cap, which would then allow the House to draw down from the Rainy Day Fund without voter approval.
That plan, however, is unpopular in the Senate, which does not want the political heat of having voted to exceed the spending limit.
"You cut $2 billion out of the budget, don't do (tax relief bills), don't do a lot things that members want to take back home to their district — it gets pretty slim pickings," Pitts said. "Don't do any tax cuts, then the governor gets mad. That's what we're looking at."