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For Budget Vote, House Had a Women's Health Negotiator

One lawmaker is getting much of the credit for restoring family planning funding to the House budget without the usual floor fight: state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place.

Texas State Representative Sarah Davis listens to speaker of the house Joe Straus introducer her at a fundraiser in a private home in Houston Wednesday, October 3, 2012.

The behind-the-scenes, bipartisan negotiations that kept Thursday’s budget battle from devolving into a fight over abortion and Planned Parenthood had a noticeable effect: It preserved more robust family planning and women’s health financing for the 2014-15 biennium. From both sides of the aisle, one lawmaker is largely getting the credit: state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place.

Davis — a breast cancer survivor who describes herself as "pro-life," but has voted against anti-abortion measures she sees as interfering with the doctor-patient relationship — pushed her colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee to restore the family-planning funding slashed from the budget in the last legislative session, arguing that the GOP was alienating women.

As the sole Republican member of the House Women’s Health Caucus, she worked with Reps. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, Donna Howard, D-Austin, and other Democrats to pull down budget amendments to drain funding from the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program.

And she conferred with Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and several of his conservative colleagues to dissuade any efforts to reallocate family planning dollars to other programs. 

“She spent the night before the vote running back and forth between me and the other members," Hughes said. "She worked really hard to get a deal brokered, and it worked.” 

In the course of Thursday’s budget debate, the ubiquitous fights over family planning never materialized.

As a result, the House version of the 2014-15 budget includes an additional $100 million for women’s health funded via a bolstered primary care system — dollars that first made it through the Senate, and should allow the state to serve an additional 170,000 low-income women. Both chambers also funded the Texas Women’s Health Program, making up for the $9-to-$1 match that the federal government pulled over Republican lawmakers’ decision to force Planned Parenthood clinics out of the program. Howard said the House budget also includes a rider that would restore millions of dollars in federal family-planning dollars — called Title X — that the Obama administration recently redirected from the Department of State Health Services to an outside women’s health coalition.

“In terms of the number of dollars, it was a huge win for family planning and women’s health care,” Howard said. “The gains we’ve made I think were worth the compromises we made by not going to the floor to push for certain political stances.”

The stage was set by a deal brokered in the House Appropriations Committee, where lawmakers agreed to specifically ban abortion providers and clinics affiliated with them from participating in taxpayer-funded family planning programs.  

"The 'grand bargain' for this session was: Pro-choice members agreed to bar abortion providers and their affiliates from the programs; pro-life members agreed to increased funding for the programs once it was clear that the taxpayer dollars would not go to abortion entities," Hughes said.

Davis’ role in the Legislature — a staunch fiscal conservative whose stance on abortion rights hinges on keeping politics out of the doctor’s office — made her a good candidate for lead negotiator. She was able to walk the fine line between Democrats angry that Republican lawmakers had gone to such great lengths in the last legislative session to avoid spending taxpayer dollars on Planned Parenthood, and Republicans whose primary voters were increasingly linking contraception and family planning to abortion. Her argument to her Republican colleagues — that slashing fiscally responsible family-planning funding was alienating conservative women — coupled with Democrats’ realization that there was little they could to this session to restore funding to Planned Parenthood, made supporting the expansion of family-planning dollars a win-win.

Davis said that when she was trying to persuade her Republican colleagues to support the family-planning funding, she asked them if they’d heard from women in their districts about last session’s cuts. She said all of them had.

“In even the most conservative districts, the loss of [women’s health] clinics had a significant impact,” she said. “I would say, ‘Making women’s health a political football is not good for the Republican Party.’”

It didn’t hurt, added one Republican lawmaker who asked not to be named, that the House’s GOP women wanted to avoid being forced into painful family-planning votes. “We realize there’s a political cost, too, to having a bunch of angry white guys up there,” the lawmaker said.

"That was her argument with the Republicans, that they can't win on this issue," said Farrar, who worked closely with Davis in the negotiations. "She explained that she was trying to maintain the Republican majority in the House." 

When Davis told the Democrats in the Women's Health Caucus that she was “going to deliver almost no Republican opposition,” she said, they were “pleasantly surprised.” She said they agreed to persuade their Democratic colleagues to pull down their amendments under the rationale that opening the floor for debate might inadvertently lead to Republican-led measures to strip funding.

“Clearly those of us that wanted to see more funding and have an efficient, effective provider like Planned Parenthood be a part of it — that wasn’t going to happen this time,” Howard said. “Our No. 1 priority was to make sure that we did all we could to restore funding so low-income women would have access to care. It was with that goal in mind that we set aside some of our differences in order to secure necessary funding.” 

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Health care State government 83rd Legislative Session Department of State Health Services Health And Human Services Commission Texas Legislature Women's Health Program