- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Short on cash following a prolonged oil slump, Texas lawmakers on Tuesday began proposing border security cuts and a freeze on classroom funding, which would put no new money into a school finance system that a court has ruled only barely constitutional.

The separate spending plans released by the House and Senate - both overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans, but with two distinctly different agendas - are mere starting points to budget talks that will drag through May. But the first drafts are drawing early battle lines over education and costly trooper patrols along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Still unknown are the spending priorities of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is expected to lay out his legislative agenda at the end of the month.

A budget squeeze is only going to make negotiations tougher. Texas is shy about $6 billion of the money needed just to keep the status quo, according to budget experts and lawmakers, making cuts this spring a near certainty with GOP leaders unwilling to raise taxes or tap billions of dollars socked away in a reserve fund.

The Senate, led by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, is putting no new money on the table for public schools. But House Speaker Joe Straus, starting a record-tying fifth term in his powerful post, is calling for an additional $1.5 billion for classrooms that is contingent on tweaks to the school finance system.

The Texas Supreme Court spared the Legislature from a costly school finance overhaul when it ruled last year that the system was flawed - but not in violation of the law. That ruling came after more than half of Texas school districts sued the state in the wake of $5.4 billion slashed from classrooms in 2011, which came during a far more pronounced budget shortfall.

Justices on the entirely Republican court, however, still urged lawmakers to make improvements.

“We keep overall spending low while making investments in children and our future,” Straus said in a statement.

In all, the Senate plan is about $5 billion lighter than the budget proposed by the House.

One area where the House and Senate are finding early agreement is more money for Texas’ embattled child welfare system. Both plans would commit and additional $260 million to help stabilize the workforce at the state’s Child Protective Services agency, which has been beset by turnover and growing case backlogs.

Additional pressure is also coming from a federal judge ruling in 2014 that the state’s foster care system is unconstitutionally broken. State officials are appealing that ruling and want the chance to install its own reforms with judicial oversight.

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

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