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House OKs Budget, Nixes School Vouchers and Medicaid Expansion

Despite tense votes on vouchers and a setback for lawmakers who want to expand Medicaid, the Texas House passed its budget with overwhelming support after 12 hours of remarkably civil debate.

The crowded House floor during debate on SB 1 April 4, 2013.

After roughly 12 hours of debate that included a crushing defeat of school vouchers, a serious setback for Medicaid expansion and far fewer floor fights than expected, the Texas House passed a $193.8 billion budget Thursday on a 135-12 vote.

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, and 11 Democrats voted against the budget.

The next stop will be in a conference committee where House and Senate members will resolve differences.

The day did deliver a few tense moments, most notably on a vote that signaled the House is overwhelmingly opposed to private school vouchers, and a protracted debate over an amendment that was viewed as leaving Texas open to negotiations to expand Medicaid as part of federal health reform.

At the end of the day, Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, did not see the need to sell the budget any further.

His entire closing argument consisted of three words — “I move passage” — that drew cheers from throughout the room.

The Democrats who voted against the measure said the partial restoration of cuts made to education in 2011, additions totaling $2.5 billion, was a key reason for their opposition.

“Although there’s been some money that was put back into education, it’s simply not enough when you realize that there was $5.4 billion that was taken out in the last budget and the reason given was that there was not enough money,” said state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi. “And now we have a Rainy Day Fund that has billions of dollars.”

State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, who oversaw the portion of the budget focused on education, defended the level of education funding in the bill early in the day and kept at it as the debate progressed.

“This is another step towards restoring the public education cuts that had to be made last summer,” he said, adding that “another supplemental bill in the coming weeks” would further address school funding.

Other critics of the education funding in the House budget stressed how those increases were distributed. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, ultimately voted for the budget, but complained that the amounts restored in wealthier schools, such as those in her House district, were smaller than what would go to less-well off schools. She said that there should be a “minimum level of restoration for all districts.”

Pitts replied that equity was a prime concern, but acknowledged that some districts were getting more than others.

Banning the use of public dollars for private schools turned out to be the major vote on public education. That anti-voucher amendment passed 103-43, with bipartisan support. It was a surprisingly lopsided defeat for an issue touted by the governor and the lieutenant governor as a major goal for this session.

The embattled University of Texas System regents were targeted in a handful of amendments, including three sponsored by Pitts that passed with little opposition. His amendments would put new limits on regents’ authority over use of a major source of money, block them from pursuing investigations of administrations at universities within the UT System, and prevent them from using state money to pay for their travel or lodgings.

An amendment related to potential negotiations between the state and federal government on expanding Medicaid passed quietly, apparently catching some legislators off guard.

Some Republicans were spurred to rethink their vote by an email from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, which argued that the amendment from state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, “opens the door to Medicaid expansion by creating a veneer of conservative policy.”

A vote to reconsider the measure won majority support, on partisan lines, prompting Burnam to pull the amendment before the House could hold a debate or an up-or-down vote on the content. Similar language is already attached to the Senate's version of the budget and could be discussed by a conference committee in coming weeks.

Overall, the day turned out far less contentious than it could have been as several potentially bitter debates were defused before they could begin. Democrats and Republicans agreed early in the day to withdraw divisive amendments related to women’s health. State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, pulled an amendment that would have block funding for “gender and sexuality centers” at higher-education institutions.

Dozens of the 267 amendments filed were withdrawn. In other cases, lawmakers sidestepped potentially lengthy discussion by agreeing to move proposed spending amendments to “Article 11” — a portion of the budget that’s commonly called the “wish list” because its provisions don't become law without some further action.

A coordinated group of about 11 freshman Republican members tried but failed to pass any of more than three dozen amendments that would defund various state programs and put the money into TRS-Care, the health insurance fund for retired teachers. They lost momentum when the Texas Retired Teachers Association alerted legislators a day earlier that it would not be endorsing any of those amendments.

The amendments that the freshmen members didn’t withdraw produced some testy exchanges on the House floor.     

“Is this about helping retired teachers or cutting the women’s fund?” state Rep. Bennett Ratliff, R-Coppell, asked state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, of her bill to move funding from a women’s program in the governor’s office to TRS-Care.

“The women’s program is less essential,” she said. Her amendment failed 110-32.

By the end of the day, all of the Republican freshman members who were part of that effort supported the budget.

“We’ve got a lot to learn, we acknowledge that,” state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said in a speech declaring his support for the budget bill. “We thank you for the grace that you’ve shown us today.”

State Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who had advised the group of freshmen on the strategy, said he thought the campaign was a good way for those freshman members to get more involved in the budget process.

“I applaud them. I think it’s been good,” Perry said. “They’ve learned a lot. Some of them are getting some kudos. Some of them are getting beat up, but that’s part of the process. We all have to do it.”

Morgan Smith and Becca Aaronson contributed to this report.

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