Every legislative session is different. With such a big state, we never know what challenges we will have to address. This past session, addressing the impact the coronavirus pandemic had on our economy, our schools, our healthcare system, and our workforce was a priority. Just as important was addressing the serious shortfalls in the Public Utility Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ management of our electricity grid during Winter Storm Uri. It was equally important that we passed a state budget that takes care of the needs of our state and our communities to help us recover from these challenges.
The state’s $248 billion budget for the next two years fully funds the state’s commitment to the public education investments made by HB 3 during the 2019 session. Coming into this session, there was concern that the pandemic and the declines in tax revenues would require these investments to be scaled back. However, we kept our promise of not only fully funding public education, protecting the salary increases to our teachers and school employees, but also added additional funds. Part of the $2 billion increase for public education funding in the state budget includes $664 million for targeted programs to help students and schools affected by the pandemic. This was made possible in large part to the bipartisan federal COVID-response legislation, including the American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden. Education is the best equalizer and these investments will continue helping our students get an education.
The budget also continues our investments in higher education. We added $486 million to higher education to bring our total investment to $8.6 billion, $1.25 billion of which is for financial aid programs. The budget also increases funding at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley by $29 million for a total of $364.3 million. This increased funding includes our continued support of the School of Medicine which saw an increase of $3.8 million for a total of $72.8 million. We also allocated $1.9 million for the Cervical Dysplasia Cancer Immunology Center and will continue working with UTRGV and UT System leadership to expand cancer care in South Texas.
Additionally, the approved budget bolsters our healthcare workforce by increasing funding for graduate medical education by $48 million to a total of $199 million to maintain a 1.1 to 1.0 ratio for residency slots. This increase in GME funding will also help the recently authorized UTRGV school of podiatry program, which will allow students to pursue careers in the medical and surgical care of the foot and ankle – an important specialization for the Valley due to its high incidence of diabetes and related diseases of the lower extremities.
Mental health continues to be a priority for the legislature. The approved budget strengthens our commitment by including $8.4 billion in behavioral health funding across 25 state agencies. This includes an increase of almost $20 million for the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium which will now be funded at nearly $120 million to provide early intervention for students at risk of suicide, substance abuse, or becoming a danger to themselves or others.
For our retirees, the 2019 legislative session was focused on the Teacher Retirement System. This session, we worked to address issues related to the Employees Retirement System. We passed Senate Bill 321 which will be used to start paying down the $14.7 billion unfunded liability in conjunction with an increase in the state’s investment into this system from $350 million to $510 million annually. These moves not only help shore up the pension fund, but also saves the state $34 billion in interest over 33 years.
Other major statewide funding items we passed include $352.6 million for women’s health programs, which is an increase of $10.2 million from the previous budget. Funding for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was increased by a total of $100.6 million to a total of $316.9 million. This means more funds for our state parks and more available grant funds for our local parks. Transportation funding also remained a priority and $26.5 billion has been approved for highway planning and design, construction, and other purposes.
The budget we approved also includes funding for many of our South Texas priorities including another $5 million for the South Texas International Airport in Edinburg to continue expanding the hangar for emergency and first responders; up to $10 million for the Raymondville Drain project from the Texas Water Development Board; $3.5 million for the Center for Urban Ecology at Quinta Mazatlan; $1 million in grants for the Border Zone Fire Departments; $500,000 for the Texas Transnational Intelligence Center; $500,000 for the Women’s Institute for Technology Employment Training; $500,000 for the Trade Agricultural Inspection Grant Program; and, continued the funding for Border Infrastructure which has led to $60 million per biennium being allocated by the Texas Transportation Commission.
The budget we passed increases access and funding to services needed by our most vulnerable populations — the young, elderly, sick, and poor. We invested in education, healthcare, public safety, and infrastructure. This budget will benefit our state and our South Texas communities by paving the way for an educated and healthy workforce and a successful Texas economy recovering from the pandemic and the winter storm.