House Budget Debate to Tackle Hot-Button Issues

Planning to follow the House's budget debate today? Better clear your schedule. The chamber is set to debate 354 amendments, which are likely to stir debate on issues like abortion, border security, school vouchers and more.

 Bob Daemmrich

In what’s expected to be a marathon budget debate on the Texas House floor Tuesday, lawmakers are likely to veer into hot-button issues including abortion, gay marriage, illegal immigration, school vouchers, racism and gender equality.

House members filed 354 amendments to House Bill 1 ahead of the debate, which traditionally makes for one of the legislative session’s longest days for the House. Although state law prevents legislators from making law in the budget, changing the funding for state programs can effectively shift state policy on a host of issues. Such moves can also allow lawmakers to spotlight an issue.

“While [the amendments] may not pass because of the political math, this is how we get the thought inside the minds of the majority,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.

HB 1, from House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, includes a $209.8 billion budget that spends $7.7 billion more than the current two-year budget and would leave $8.4 billion on the table, along with billions more in the state’s savings account.

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Lawmakers have room to spend about $2 billion more before hitting the state’s constitutional spending cap. Yet under the House’s rules for Tuesday’s debate, proposed amendments cannot grow the budget’s bottom line. Any increases in funding must be offset by decreases elsewhere.

In the Senate, Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has said her committee will wait to receive HB 1 from the House before voting her budget to the Senate floor.

The amendments filed in the House take aim at nearly every aspect of state government. Members filed amendments to defund or cripple agencies including the Racing Commission and the Lottery Commission, as well as controversial economic incentives programs like the Texas Enterprise Fund.

There are also amendments to boost funding for pre-kindergarten programs, expand mental health treatment for prisoners and create a center for Mexican-American studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. (Last session, then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed funding for such a center at the University of Texas at Austin.)

School Vouchers

Opponents of school voucher programs are hoping the budget debate will mirror the 2013 debate, in which an anti-voucher amendment passed 103-43, with bipartisan support, signaling a broad disinterest in the lower chamber for such proposals.

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This year, a similar amendment from state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, would deliver a blow to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick if it passes. Patrick has thrown his weight behind getting legislation through this session that would provide state financial support to parents who want to send their children to private schools.

Democrats have filed a flurry of amendments that seek to defund the state's Alternatives to Abortion program, which provides "pregnancy and parenting information” to low-income women. Under the program, the state contracts with the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, a nonprofit charity organization with a network of crisis pregnancy resource centers that provide counseling and adoption assistance. Two Republicans also filed measures to boost the program’s funding.

Border Security

House members are also bracing for floor battles on the state’s future role in securing the Texas-Mexico border. The House border security budget is about $565 million. Some Republicans who feel that figure is too low have set their sights on getting more equipment for the Department of Public Safety. State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, will propose taking about $41.5 million from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s Consolidated System Support for more DPS aircraft.

“This is one of the top requests for DPS that was not funded and continuously, my constituents tell me that border security is one of the top priorities,” Dale said. “And I don’t have a lot of them saying that other departments are priorities.”

Dale added that even if his amendment advances, the health commission will still have more funds than were appropriated in the current budget.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, has multiple amendments that seek to add to the Texas Military Forces’ funds.

One amendment would take $450,000 over the biennium from the Commission on the Arts for the Texas Military Forces’ state training missions. Another amendment would take $3 million from the Texas Facilities Commission for the same purposes. Huberty said the money would fund training days and disaster recovery. He specified that it is not money to extend the Texas National Guard’s deployment on the Texas-Mexico border, which the Texas Senate’s budget seeks to do.

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The guard was deployed to the Rio Grande Valley last summer after tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossed into Texas and surrendered to law enforcement there.

Democrats are looking to shift some money from the DPS’s budget request to take home for their districts. State Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, wants to divert $10 million appropriated for DPS recruitment and retention to fund local law enforcement.

“It ensures that the locals will be able to participate and have the resources and funds to do it, and it also ensures that the locals who suffer attrition as a result of this buildup would be able to keep sheriff’s deputies and local police,” he said. Local law enforcement officials have expressed concerns that the ranks of local police and sheriffs’ offices will be depleted when DPS begins a massive recruitment and hiring campaign next year.

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said he has high hopes an amendment that would take $2 million for DPS special operations for crime labs to help identify the remains of people who die on or near the border, specifically migrants who pass through.

Other Amendments

Other amendments that could spark contentious floor debates Tuesday include:

— An amendment from state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, would cut $2.5 million from the state's HIV and STD prevention initiative and put that money toward an abstinence education program.

— An amendment from state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, would bar Texas school districts from offering benefits to the same-sex partners of employees.

— An amendment from Martinez Fischer requires public universities to report instances of gender, ethnicity or racial discrimination to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board if it involved a university's students. Student groups including "fraternal or sorority organizations or athletic teams" would have to be reported as well.

— Similarly, school districts would have to collect and report instances of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students or employees under an amendment from state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.

 — The state comptroller would have to produce an annual report “comparing the salaries of men and women employed under the same job classification system at all Texas state agencies” under an amendment filed by state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint. The issue of a gender wage gap in state government drew attention during last year’s gubernatorial race.

— The future of a school finance lawsuit could also pop up in Tuesday's budget debate as lawmakers consider an amendment from Martinez Fischer that would allocate $50,000 to the attorney general to “strategize, mediate, and discuss settlement” of the suit.

— An amendment by Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia, would take away $13.6 million in funding from the University of Houston and give it to Prairie View A&M University instead. 

— Several amendments filed would block the Texas Department of Transportation from pursuing future toll road projects.

Julián Aguilar, Bobby Blanchard, Morgan Smith, Alexa Ura and Edgar Walters contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The University of Houston was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2012 and 2013.  A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.