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Dewhurst Says State Budget Nearly Done

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AUSTIN (AP) - A day of escalating tensions over stuck Texas budget talks ended late Thursday with the House and Senate on the apparent brink of a deal that would restore more than $4 billion to public schools gutted by historic spending cuts two years ago.

Dewhurst told The Associated Press late Thursday that the major points of a new two-year spending plan had been resolved following a week of uncertainty and rising political rhetoric in this final sprint of the 140-day session. The Legislature adjourns May 27, but failure to reach a deal would keep lawmakers at the bargaining table into June.

Dewhurst said he expected the House and Senate to finalize the compromise by Friday afternoon.

“We’ve written a good budget, and this makes it better,” said Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, the Senate budget chief.

Dewhurst and Senate negotiators announced the breakthrough shortly after emerging from closed-door talks and walking to the office of Democratic state Rep. Craig Eiland. House Democrats had begun the day fuming at Republicans, accusing them of reneging on an earlier deal and pulling money set aside from education at the last minute.

By the end of night, a three-pronged proposal Senate negotiators laid out would restore more money to Texas classrooms than had been put on the bargaining table at any point over the past five months.

It calls for putting an additional $200 million to education, which Dewhurst and Williams said would raise the total of restored cuts to $4.07 billion. Two years ago, the Legislature slashed public school funding by $5.4 billion to close a massive budget shortfall.

The proposal also spells out at least $1 billion in tax relief and $100 million in proposed cuts to the overall state budget. Negotiators did not say what agencies or programs would absorb those cuts.

“It’s a package deal,” Dewhurst said.

Republicans would also score a political victory in the compromise: Williams said the deal would not bust the state spending cap, which House negotiators were willing to consider but the Senate deemed forbidden.

House budget-writers were scheduled to regroup early Friday.

Dewhurst and Senate negotiators left the Capitol shortly before midnight following a day of faint signs that a deal was in reach. Budget leaders canceled meetings while House Democrats blasted the GOP and Gov. Rick Perry over allegations of sinking a deal behind the scenes and lobbing political threats.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, emerging from a caucus of House Democrats, had blamed Republicans for reneging on a deal that had called for putting an extra $3.9 billion back into public schools, which absorbed historic spending cuts two years ago.

“For anyone to represent that Democrats have changed their position or asked for more is absolutely not true,” Turner said. He went on to accuse Perry of swooping in late and telling Republicans not to vote for an agreed-upon plan because too much was being spent on reversing public school cuts.

Perry wants $1.8 billion in tax cuts and a new $2 billion water fund, but money is running tight and time running out. One $500 million bump the House already approved for classrooms, Turner said, was now being targeted to pay for highway projects instead.

Perry responded by saying he was “not going to participate” with those he described as trying to create conflict in the waning days of what has been — until now — a largely and unexpectedly harmonious session. Aides to Perry also denied that he told GOP members not to vote on an earlier budget proposal.

“I’m sure that there are folks that would like to blow up the session just to see the pieces of the machinery blow up through the air,” Perry said.

Democrats have 55 votes in the 150-person chamber. Without their support, the House cannot reach the two-thirds threshold necessary to draw $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund in order to jump-start an aggressive, bipartisan plan for new water projects across the state.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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