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House Members Prepare for Long Budget Debate

Texas House members are expected to debate well into the night Thursday as they take up the lower chamber's budget proposal, which includes 267 amendments.

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The 150-member Texas House and the staffers who support them are bracing for a late night Thursday as the lower chamber takes up the $193.8 billion House budget and its 267 proposed amendments.

The amendments forecast a wide range of discussion topics Thursday, though how much the state should spend on education and health care is likely to dominate the dialogue.

The House budget puts more money into public education and less into health and human services than a Senate proposal that passed the upper chamber last month. 

“No one is or will be entirely happy with this bill, but there is something for everyone this year,” House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said two weeks ago after his committee approved its version of Senate Bill 1.

The House is scheduled to convene at 9 a.m. and is widely expected to go late into the night churning through amendments. Several House members predicted the final vote on the bill would come sometime after midnight.

“It’s going to be a long day,” said state Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson. “The female reps, we were teasing each other that tomorrow’s the time we have to dress ugly but comfortable.”

It will be a strikingly different scene from the Senate, which passed its budget proposal last month after about four hours of discussion. Traditionally, senators do not amend their budget plan from the Senate floor. State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, offered an amendment on the bill related to school finance but then withdrew it.

After the House passes a budget bill, both the House and Senate will appoint conference committees to resolve differences between the two proposals.

Neither budget completely reverses last session's $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools, a goal many Democrats have said is a priority. Several House members have filed amendments attempting to put more money into schools.

Other legislators hope to amend the budget to put more money for uninsured care or specific types of care.

An amendment from state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, aimed at increasing payments to health care providers serving Medicaid patients could spark a protracted discussion over whether Texas should accept federal dollars made available through the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicaid.

House members could also see themselves drawn into debates on hot-button cultural issues. State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, has several amendments aimed at reducing state funding earmarked for “alternatives to abortion” and putting it toward other women’s health services. An amendment from state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, would block funding for “gender and sexuality centers” at higher-education institutions.

A group of Republican freshmen have filed more than three dozen amendments that would take money away from various state programs and agencies and putting the funds into TRS-Care, the group health insurance program for the Teacher Retirement System, which is projected to have a shortfall by 2016.

“We weren’t part of the appropriations process, and we believe that there are some functions of government that don’t need to exist so that’s the role we’re playing leading in tomorrow,” said freshman state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who filed two such amendments. One of his amendments targets $6.4 million allocated each year to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for “air quality assessment & planning,” shifting the money into TRS-Care.

Scheleen Walker, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, came out against Goldman’s amendment Wednesday.

“Public education, our Teacher’s Retirement System, and vital clean air programs in Texas are all drastically underfunded,” Walker said in a statement. “But we won’t solve that problem by forcing Texans to choose between clean air or a more secure retirement.” 

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