Agenda Texas: Behind the Scenes of the Budget Debate

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, at the back mike during SB 1 debate in the House on April 4, 2013.
State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, at the back mike during SB 1 debate in the House on April 4, 2013.

The Texas House began its debate on a $193 billion budget bill Thursday morning. And as lead budget writer Jim PittsR-Waxahachie, laid out the bill, he reminded lawmakers of the shaky economic ground the state was on just two years ago, when they had to tackle a $27 billion revenue shortfall.

“You’ll remember it was not an easy process, but we did what we needed to do for the state of Texas. And because of that, Texas is in a stronger fiscal position," Pitts said. "Because of the state’s financial health and robust economic growth, we have been able to restore significant portions of last session’s cuts.”

So with more money to spend, there’s less to fight about, right? Well, not exactly.

Some Democrats are unhappy because not all of the money cut from public education in 2011 is restored under this budget.

And there was the possibility of another prolonged fight over family planning dollars. Last session saw the elimination of much of the state's family planning money, along with cutting Planned Parenthood out of those programs. There had been several amendments filed this time around, from both sides of the debate, which could have led to some heated exchanges on the floor.

But as the debate started, the announcement came that all those amendments had been withdrawn.

"Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating for several days to arrange a truce so that both sides would pull amendments related to abortion services, family planning, anything like that," the Tribune's Aman Batheja said.

Even with those amendments pulled down, there’s plenty left to debate. And plenty of action around the floor. Clumps of lawmakers could be seen meeting to go over debate strategy, which amendments to support, which to kill.

But there’s also plenty of action going on outside the chamber, in the lobby. From the landing between the second and third floors of the Capitol, you can see lobbyists having conversations with lawmakers.

With hundreds of amendments up for debate, there are advocates from almost every special interest you can think of. They’re here to advocate for more money, or protect money already in the budget — or push lawmakers to follow a specific ideological agenda.

And their work won’t end now that the House has finally passes the budget and sent it back to the Senate. Lawmakers there are expected to reject the bill and ask for a conference committee to hammer out differences with the House.

It’s in those meetings, behind closed doors, with five senators and five House members, where the state’s next two-year spending roadmap really gets finalized.

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