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Three things to know as the Texas House kicks off a marathon budget debate

If history is any guide, the Texas House is poised for a long day with its fair share of drama as the chamber takes up a $218 billion budget that has drawn 400 proposed amendments.

With less than a week before lawmakers convene, preparations are underway to welcome members of the state House of Representatives for the 85th session of the Texas Legislature.

The Texas House will likely debate its $218 billion budget late into Thursday night, marking the last chance for the full chamber to make changes to the document before it begins private negotiations with the Senate on a final version.

The Senate unanimously passed its proposed budget last week with little drama and at a reasonable hour of the afternoon. The House, with more than 400 proposed amendments to churn through, is expected to be much rowdier.

Here are three things you should know before the debate:

1. Lawmakers will try to force votes on pet issues

Technically speaking, the budget is the only piece of legislation that lawmakers must pass before they leave Austin. It takes priority over the thousands of other bills yearning for passage each session in the Capitol chambers.

But for lawmakers who doubt they can get their preferred bills passed the traditional way — usually because their legislation is likely to die in committee or from some other technical holdup — Thursday presents an opportunity to force a vote on issues that wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day.

For example, state Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, wants the House to vote on a provision that would bar state government agencies from “allow[ing] or enabl[ing] a man to enter a women’s restroom facility.” Her proposed amendment mirrors the spirit of the Senate’s controversial “bathroom bill,” a proposal that House Speaker Joe Straus has said he’s no fan of — and has yet to even assign to a House committee. If Swanson has her way, the amendment would force House Republicans to take a side on the bathroom issue even if the Senate’s bill languishes.

Private school choice is a similar case. Even though the House’s public education committee chair, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, has said that proposals to subsidize private school tuition with public dollars are almost certainly dead in the lower chamber, several lawmakers filed amendments to bring the issue to the floor of the House. 

2. Many amendments will not be voted on

Before some amendments can be voted on, some House members are certain to employ a parliamentary procedure called a point of order, charging that a given amendment violates the House rules. The House parliamentarian advises the speaker on questions raised by points of order such as whether an amendment is relevant to actually merit a vote on budget night. House lawmakers also voted last week to abide by a “put and take” rule during the budget debate, which means lawmakers can only add spending into a section of the budget if they cut a similar amount of funding elsewhere.

Though House lawmakers filed more than 400 amendments ahead of Thursday's debate, you can expect fewer than that to actually pass the smell test.

And other amendments are likely to be pulled by their authors before they come up for a vote. Last session, members filed controversial amendments on abortion and vouchers, only to choose to avoid forcing the House to vote on them.

3. A very late night, with a high chance of drama

That said, 400 amendments is a lot of amendments.

Last session, House members filed around 350 amendments to the budget, and the debate lasted 18 hours. No matter how the math works out, it’s almost certain to be a late night that drags on into Friday morning.

And if history is any indication, budget night is a time for fireworks. The House is the larger and more raucous of the two chambers. Their debates are generally more spontaneous and off-the-cuff. And that leads to weird moments, such as when one House member in 2015 asked a colleague if he had willfully abstained from sex before marriage, or when another House member accused a colleague of being “full of shit.”

Once the House’s final vote is tallied, assuming a majority vote in favor of the budget, the two chambers will begin the arduous process of reconciling their differences over how much money Texas should spend, what programs should get funding and what should lose it.

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State government 85th Legislative Session Budget Texas Legislature