AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Senate on Friday advanced its proposal doling about $16 billion in federal coronavirus relief dollars to help shore up people, industries and state agencies that have been financially strained by the pandemic.
The legislation, Senate Bill 8 authored by state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, would direct money to state hospitals, food banks and the tourism industry.
It appropriates $7.2 billion to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts for the state’s unemployment compensation fund, which was overloaded last year by record claims. The bill would also provide $3.5 billion to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Texas Department of Public Safety for the salaries and benefits of state employees involved in the pandemic response. Another $2.5 billion would go to the Texas Department of State Health Services to fund items such as local and state hospital surge staffing, the purchasing of therapeutic drugs and regional infusion centers.
The spending proposal, passed unanimously in the Senate, now heads to the lower chamber for consideration. Allocating those federal relief dollars, which the state has under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, was among the items on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda for the Legislature’s third overtime round of the year. The $1.9 trillion federal bill, signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this year, sent direct payment to millions of Texans and billions of dollars in aid for state and local governments and schools.
The House’s version of the spending plan, which has not yet passed out of the chamber’s budget-writing committee, largely mirrors the legislation passed by the Senate. State Rep. Greg Bonnen, a Friendswood Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he expected members to vote out a reworked version of the bill sometime next week.
Under SB 8, just over $500 million would head to the comptroller’s office for broadband infrastructure, including $75 million that would go toward the state’s broadband pole replacement program. Another roughly $237 million would go to the state’s Health and Human Services Commission to help complete construction of a state hospital in Dallas, and $300 million would be sent to the Texas Department of Emergency Management to acquire land and construct a state operations center.
About $286 million would head to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas to help cover COVID-related health claims and to ensure that no active or retired teachers face increases in health care premiums because of the pandemic. Another $400 million would go to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which would administer recruitment and retention bonuses for nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, emergency medical services and more.
The legislation would also send $200 million to the Office of the Texas Governor for the implementation of a new tourism, travel and hospitality recovery grant program, along with $100 million to the Texas Department of Agriculture to put toward food banks in Texas. Another roughy $113 million would go to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to support expanding mental health services for kids in the state.
Nelson, who is retiring at the end of her term, was applauded by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for her work on the legislation as chair of the finance committee ahead of Friday’s vote.
“I know you had about $40 [billion] to $50 billion worth of requests for $16 billion — there were a lot of nos, but I think you made a lot of great decisions,” Patrick said. “It’s been one more experience.”