Debate over a routine budget bill in the Texas House became unusually topical Friday as lawmakers touched on a fertilizer plant explosion in West, the murder of two Kaufman County prosecutors and the Travis County district attorney's drunken driving arrest.
Lawmakers ultimately voted 129-9 in favor of House Bill 1025, which would add $874.9 million to the state’s current two-year budget. The bill includes $500 million more for public schools and more than $170 million in payments to state and local agencies to cover costs related to wildfires in 2011.
Lawmakers filed 20 amendments to the bill ahead of Friday. Nearly all of them were eventually withdrawn or rejected by the House. Members agreed to an amendment by state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, that allows the governor’s office to “prioritize” the use of $2 million for recovery efforts after this month's disaster in West. Kacal’s district includes the town of West.
The day’s dramatics started almost immediately as state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, gave a personal privilege speech on the future of the Public Integrity Unit, currently housed within the Travis County district attorney’s office.
Following a DWI arrest, District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg is currently serving a 45-day jail sentence. Video has been released of Lehmberg’s belligerent behavior during her arrest.
King said the Legislature needed to consider “whether or not that unit is properly functioning and whether or not it should continue to operate in the venue that it does.”
“People can make mistakes,” he said. “What concerns me is an utter contempt and disrespect for the law and for the office.”
He suggested that one option might be to move the unit out of the Travis County DA’s office.
“I don’t know if that’s necessarily necessary,” King said. “I think there’s things the incumbent can do to avoid that from happening. Resignation is one of those options.”
King filed an amendment to transfer the unit, which investigates state officials for corruption, to the state attorney general’s office but withdrew it instead of letting it come up for a vote. Democratic critics called the proposal a partisan power grab, as it would have moved the unit from an office held by a Democrat to one held by a Republican.
A different debate emerged related to the recent murder of two district attorneys in Kaufman County. State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, offered an amendment giving every district attorney in the state $7,500 to fund “security-related devices and other security expenses.”
The proposal set off a tense exchange as state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, warned that the amendment would fund the proposal by reducing pay for the state’s judges, whom Turner described as underfunded. Hughes said that issue could be settled in the session’s main budget bill, which is currently the subject of negotiations between the House and Senate.
"Our judges in the state of Texas are not going to be pleased,” Turner said. “We’re leaving it up to happenstance that down the road it’s going to be fixed.”
State Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, backed Turner, deriding the amendment as “a one-time go-buy-a-gun, go-and-buy-a-monitoring-system-for-your-house” plan.
Hughes ultimately withdrew the amendment.
State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, set off fireworks with a proposal to remove funding from a food assistance program to make it available for a designated fund that provides assistance to volunteer firefighters.
Many members balked at being asked to take money out of programs that help provide food for needy children.
“This amendment is cruel," said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. "This amendment is amoral. This amendment hurts the very people we are sent here to protect.”
After state Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso, gave a teary speech about growing up on public assistance, the House voted against Simpson’s amendment.
State Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, was more successful with an amendment to allow the Texas Department of Transportation to issue $110 million in bonds to go toward repairing roads and bridges in counties impacted by natural gas drilling. TxDOT has said those communities will need billions of dollars in repairs annually to maintain infrastructure impacted by the drilling boom. Phillips got the amendment added on with little opposition.
The bill's author, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, warned lawmakers early on he needed support of two-thirds of the House because the bill taps the Rainy Day Fund to pay for wildfires. Though some complained about the use of the state's savings account rather than general revenue for the payments, all but a handful of Republicans ultimately backed the bill.