School Funding, Incentive Programs Are Hot Topics in House Budget Debate

With more than 350 proposed amendments before then, the Texas House is likely to go well into the evening before getting to a final vote on the $210 billion budget. Early discussions addressed school funding and incentives programs.

State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, carries literature laying out House Bill 1 as he prepares to discuss the appropriations bill on the House floor March 31, 2015.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

As the Texas House continued its lengthy debate Tuesday on the 2016-17 state budget, Democrats concentrated efforts on directing more funding toward public education, while Tea Party Republicans tried to defund economic incentive fund programs.

With more than 350 proposed amendments before them, members of the House are likely to go well into the evening before getting to a final vote on the $210 billion budget authored by House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton.

In the morning, many House members were privately guessing how late the day’s proceedings might go, with several predicting the House Bill 1 debate would extend well after midnight.

After the House and the Senate have each voted out proposed budget, a conference committee made up of members of both chambers will hash out a compromise version. The Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote out its budget after getting HB 1 from the House.

“This is just another step in the process,” Otto told the House while explaining the budget to the House. “It is not the final product.”

Lawmakers spent nearly an hour debating the first amendment, from Otto, the lead budget writer, that added language to allow for a boost in funding for public schools by $800 million if related legislation from House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, passed. Even if that bill passes, the conference committee would still have to approve spending $800 million that way in crafting a budget that a majority in both chambers can support.

House Democrats have said they prefer their chamber’s budget to that in the Senate, particularly given the extra funding House budget writers are putting into public education. But they have also expressed frustration that the House budget leaves more than $8 billion on the table, including $2 billion below the state’s constitutional spending cap.

Otto defended his budget, noting that money must be left over for planned tax cuts. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he would veto any budget that doesn’t include tax cuts for businesses.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, proposed amending Otto’s amendment to double the amount set aside for public schools.

“If this amendment’s going to take $800 million to say education is a priority, I’d like to make it $1.6” billion, Martinez Fischer said. “This chamber is going to take seriously our mission to fix our schools.”

The chamber voted down Martinez Fischer’s proposal, 103 to 44.

State Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, succeeded — with Otto’s endorsement — in adding an extra $1.6 billion in funding for pre-kindergarten programs. Like the original $800 million for public schools, Davis’ extra funding is contingent on related legislation passing.

Davis said that the money being discussed for pre-K programs was far short of adequate, particularly given that Abbott has identified the issue as a priority. She noted that working parents can’t take proper advantage of pre-K programs unless they are full-day programs.

“Just kicking it down the road with a half-day program is a plan designed to fail,” Davis said.

Lead education budget writer Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, said discussion over how much money would go to early education was “still evolving.” Lawmakers had previously estimated about $130 million would go to a pre-kindergarten program outlined in House Bill 4, which would provide additional funding for school districts that adopt certain pre-kindergarten curriculum and teacher quality requirements.

The House also considered multiple efforts to defund economic incentive programs, which have been under a harsh spotlight over the last year following a state audit that described the state’s Texas Enterprise Fund as being run with lax oversight. 

While proposals to end the incentive funds were touted by Republicans on the campaign trail last year, they gained little support in the House. Amendments from state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, to defund the film incentive program and the Enterprise Fund each gained fewer than 35 votes of support.

“The Texas Enterprise Fund is a welfare fund that’s antithetical to free markets,” Rinaldi said.

Supporters said the programs are needed to make the state competitive with other states that offer similar incentives.

“If y’all don’t want it, I hope you don’t encourage any of your companies to apply,” state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, said to members who supported defunding the Enterprise program.

A proposal to examine whether women are underpaid in state government also found few supporters, despite the issue drawing attention during last year’s gubernatorial race. State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, offered an amendment that would require the comptroller to publish an annual report comparing the salaries of men and women working holding the same position in all Texas state agencies. Such a report could be produced at a minimal cost, she added, as it would merely be compiling existing data.

“This isn't just about fairness; it's about families,” González said. “When Texas women are paid unequally, their families suffer, too.”

The amendment failed 83-63.

Earlier Tuesday, Martinez Fischer attempted to kick-start another discussion on school funding — this time with an amendment that would dedicate $100,000 in funding for the attorney general’s office to finding a strategy to settle the ongoing school finance lawsuit against the state.

Brought by more than two-thirds of Texas school districts after the Legislature cut almost $5.4 billion from public education in 2011, the case is pending before the state Supreme Court.

“I’m just asking for $100,000. That is budget dust,” Martinez Fischer told his colleagues. “Let’s get out of the courthouse.”

The measure failed, after a fellow Democrat, Sylvester Turner of Houston, spoke against it.

“Why spend money when we aren’t going to get any results from it?” asked Turner, noting that the amendment would not require the state the settle the lawsuit. "I am going to respectfully, and painfully, move to table."

Eva Hershaw contributed to this report.