AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - As another budget-slashing session in the Texas Legislature potentially looms, aides to the state's chief accountant told lawmakers Wednesday that the Rainy Day Fund is about to be stocked with $8.1 billion and could climb higher next year.
The rising balance in the state's savings account could set off another divisive budget battle in the Capitol, where Republican Gov. Rick Perry and fiscal conservatives generally view the fund as off-limits, and Democrats see the cash stockpile as a means to reverse or blunt spending cuts.
More than $3 billion was taken from the fund - which is essentially the state's emergency piggybank - to close a budget deficit in 2011. It came at the end of a politically bruising legislative session in which $4 billion in cuts to public education were made to help balance a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall.
The state Senate had asked for hundreds of million dollars more to be taken from the fund.
Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts, one of the chief budget-writers in the Legislature, said the Rainy Day Fund could have been maxed out if lawmakers had not reached into it two years ago.
Phillip Ashley, director of the comptroller's fiscal management division, told members of the budget-writing House Appropriations committee that the fund's projected cap is $13.6 billion. By law, the Rainy Day Fund cannot sock away any more money above that cap, which is set based on budget formulas.
The state never has reached fund's ceiling before.
"You'd be approaching that cap," said Ashley, when asked what might have happened if the state hadn't tapped into the account two years ago.
Texas lawmakers are historically reluctant to dip into the savings. The last session was just the sixth time in the fund's 24-year history that lawmakers have flexed the two-thirds vote needed to draw down the money. Nearly $400 million from the fund was used to jumpstart Perry's Texas Enterprise Fund and Emerging Technology Fund.
The fund's balance currently sits near $6.2 billion, and is expected to be infused with another $1.9 billion in oil and gas tax collections next month.
PAUL J. WEBER
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