After 18-Hour Debate, House Gives Early OK to Budget

State Rep. Chris Turner, left, on the House floor during a budget debate on March 31, 2015.
State Rep. Chris Turner, left, on the House floor during a budget debate on March 31, 2015.

After 18 hours of debate that veered from polite disagreements to an angry outburst, the Texas House tentatively passed a $210 billion two-year budget early Wednesday morning with a 141 to 5 vote

With more than 350 proposed amendments before them, members of the House began at noon Tuesday and ended at nearly 6 a.m. Wednesday. After both the House and the Senate have passed a 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 to the full Senate next week.

"This is just another step in the process,” said House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, the chamber's lead budget writer. “It is not the final product.” 

The five "no" votes on the budget were Republican state Reps. Matt Rinaldi, Matt Schaefer, David Simpson, Tony Tinderholt and Molly White.

"While it may have taken longer than usual, I am proud of the way members worked together on this budget and stayed focused on the needs of their constituents," House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement. "Wednesday's overwhelming vote is a testament to the leadership of Chairman Otto and his team." 


Democrats concentrated their efforts on directing more funding toward public education, while Tea Party Republicans tried to defund economic incentive fund programs. Yet three areas expected to draw hot debate — abortion, vouchers and in-state tuition for the children of immigrants who entered the country illegally — were largely sidestepped as members pulled down their amendments.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, withdrew an amendment that would have reduced state funding for a public college or university by the same amount that it awarded in grants or financial aid to undocumented students. He said he was convinced to scrap the amendment after he was told anti-abortion programs would get more funding. 

"We did some negotiations," he said. Stickland was among several Republicans who pulled amendments that would have likely prompted debates on the state’s illegal immigration policies.

Democrats also withdrew more than a dozen amendments seeking to reduce or eliminate funding for the state's Alternatives to Abortion program, which provides counseling and adoption assistance, after Republicans pulled theirs. The outcome mirrored a similar arrangement during a House budget debate in 2013.

“From our perspective, there are some good things in this budget, and we don’t want to file amendments just to make a point,” state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said.

Yet state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said efforts to boost the program’s funding were ongoing while Republicans considered options for where the extra funding should come from.

“The majority of the members agree that this is a good program,” Hughes said. “The question is where to get the money.”

House members were widely expected to take up an anti-voucher amendment Tuesday that would have prohibited the use of state dollars to fund private education for students in elementary through high schools. Yet amid a flurry of last-minute opposition, state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, withdrew his amendment. Voucher opponents were hoping the vote would pass as resoundingly as a similar budget amendment did two years earlier and send a signal that such proposals remained dead on arrival in the House even as they are gaining traction in the Senate. 


Under the House’s rules for the budget debate, proposed amendments couldn’t grow the budget’s bottom line, even though lawmakers have room to spend $2 billion more before hitting the state’s constitutional spending cap. Any increases in funding had to be offset by decreases elsewhere.

That dynamic led to dozens of amendments proposing a shift in funds from one program to another. Perhaps the strangest moment of the debate came during an intense exchange between state Reps. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, and Harold Dutton, D-Houston, over Spitzer’s amendment to shift $3 million from HIV and STD prevention programs to pay for abstinence education. Dutton asked Spitzer if he had benefited from abstinence education. Spitzer said he had only ever had sex with his wife.

"And since you brought it up, is that the first woman you asked?" Dutton asked, drawing some gasps from the House floor.

"I'm not sure that's an appropriate question," Spitzer responded.

Spitzer's amendment ultimately passed 97 to 47. 

Another tense moment came at around 2:30 a.m., when state Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, took issue with an amendment from state Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, to reduce funding to the Lottery Commission. Miles accused Sanford of being hypocritical for claiming to oppose the lottery because of its impact on poor people while rejecting amendments from Democrats that aimed to help poor people.

“Now you have the indecency and disrespect that your lottery bill is about helping poor people?” Miles asked. “You’re full of shit!”

Sanford’s amendment was adopted on a 91 to 52 vote.

House Democrats have said they prefer their chamber’s budget to the one proposed 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.

Early in the day's debate, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, proposed doubling a plan from Otto to add $800 million to 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.

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 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 program.

A proposal to examine whether women are underpaid in state government also failed to find enough supporters, despite the issue drawing attention during last year’s gubernatorial race. State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, offered an amendment to require the comptroller to publish an annual report comparing the salaries of men and women 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.

Throughout the afternoon and into the night, lawmakers pulled dozens of amendments and agreed to send other proposals to “Article XI,” the section of the budget sometimes referred to as the “wish list” but viewed by most lawmakers as the place where proposals go to die.

Early in the day, state Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, managed to get $1.6 billion in extra funding for pre-kindergarten programs added to Article XI. House leaders have talked about boosting funding by at least $130 million to school districts that adopt certain pre-kindergarten curriculum and teacher quality requirements. Davis said she viewed her amendment as signaling a significant interest in the House to increase funding by much more than that to address a statewide need for more full-day pre-kindergarten programs.

“Article 11, while it feels good and sounds good, I’m not naïve enough to think it’s a commitment,” Davis said. 

Julián Aguilar and Eva Hershaw contributed to this story. 

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