First Senate draft budget promises $4B in tax cuts

By PAUL J. WEBER
Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Tax cuts promises from Republicans began taking firmer shape Tuesday when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick unveiled a draft Senate budget that would deliver $3 billion in property relief to Texas homeowners.

Still missing are the details on how the Senate would pull that off -- and how much it might actually knock off the average property tax bill. When the Legislature last made sweeping tax cuts in 2006, about $7 billion in annual property tax relief was passed, which experts say shaved about 20 percent off the average bill.

Those cuts blew a massive hole in the budget and property taxes in economically booming Texas have kept ballooning. That has made tax relief a priority from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on down, including among some Democrats.

The House didn't include tax relief in its first spending plan, but a surplus of $7.5 billion has left lawmakers with spending flexibility.

"I believe the House wants tax relief. We just spelled it out very clearly," Patrick said.

Despite falling oil prices in a state heavily dependent on energy production, Texas' comptroller has predicted economic growth will continue and offered a relatively sanguine estimate of state revenues over the next two years, which is the basis for both the Senate and House budgets.

Both the Senate and House budgets are mere starting points for negotiations over the next five months. A two-year budget is the only bill that the Texas Legislature is constitutionally required to pass.

Patrick is also running up a big border security tab in his first session presiding over the Senate. His budget calls for $815 million in spending on everything from SWAT team expansions to a $10 million high-altitude plane with infrared cameras.

Conspicuously missing from the Senate budget: money for anti-public corruption prosecutors in the state's Public Integrity Unit. Former Gov. Rick Perry vetoed state funding for the unit in 2013 when Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg refused to resign following a drunken driving arrest.

Perry was indicted on abuse of power charges last summer for carrying out his veto threat. A judge is expected to rule soon whether that criminal case will continue.

The House budget proposed $6 billion for the unit, but that money is contingent on lawmakers passing reforms. That could include uprooting the unit out of Travis County, which Republicans have long sought over accusations that the Austin-based office operates through a partisan lens.

Republican state Sen. Jane Nelson, the Senate's chief budget writer, said the unit could still return but elsewhere.

"I personally don't believe it belongs in Travis County. Too political," Nelson said.

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Associated Press writer Will Weissert contributed to this report.

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