The Texas House loudly voiced its opposition to state support for private school vouchers and scholarships during a daylong budget session, signaling deep disagreement with Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders over diverting public money to private schools.
The House’s $193.8 billion version of the two-year state budget cleared the lower chamber Thursday night on a vote of 135-12 after less than 12 hours of debate, brief by historical standards. During the day, the House approved, then retracted, a small step toward expanding Medicaid, and it voted decisively to trim the sails of the University of Texas System Board of Regents in its power struggle with UT-Austin President Bill Powers.
On a bipartisan vote of 103-43, the House approved an amendment precluding the use of state dollars for a private school voucher or scholarship program.
“That was a pretty clear message today,” said House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen.
That message was that the House wouldn’t embrace the private school scholarship concept being pushed by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Perry. Patrick’s bill would allow for state tax credits to offset donations from businesses to a private school scholarship program for students who attend low-performing public schools.
Aycock’s committee would appear to be an insurmountable obstacle for Patrick’s legislation, since only one committee member voted against the amendment from state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown.
“The House has traditionally been very hesitant to spend taxpayer money to send kids to private schools, and I think this reflected that long-standing opinion in the House of Representatives,” Aycock said. “It’s widespread: R’s and D’s, minority groups. It’s just a strongly held position in the House.”
State Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, voted against the amendment along with fellow Central Texas GOP members Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs, Tony Dale of Cedar Park and Tim Kleinschmidt of Lexington.
“I believe in the individual child, that every child learns differently, and every child should be put in a learning environment that is best suited for them, and sometimes that’s not a public school,” Gonzales said.
Two other Republicans, Paul Workman of Austin and Marsha Farney of Georgetown, joined all the area Democrats in favor of the measure.
Among amendments adopted early in the day, several would dramatically constrain the ability of the UT System Board of Regents to spend money, including a ban on paying for investigations of campuses and their executive management.
The amendments, approved with no discussion and little dissent, signal heavy support in the House for Powers. Many lawmakers contend that the regents’ decision to commission an outside investigation of UT Law School funds is a pretext for ousting Powers, who was previously law dean.
Tea party Republicans who targeted spending they deemed unnecessary gained little traction Thursday for amendments that would divert $215 million from a variety of programs to funds that serve retired teachers.
State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, for example, targeted a pot of state money used to attract film productions and digital gaming companies to Texas.
“I believe that our teachers are more important than supporting Hollywood and the video game industry. Period,” Leach said.
But critics questioned the motives of the tea party freshmen because they hadn’t signed on to legislation that would help retired teachers. The Texas Retired Teachers Association informed members Wednesday that the group didn’t support the tea party efforts.
Representatives initially voted 86-57, with little discussion, to approve an amendment by Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, to set parameters for Medicaid expansion – if Texas chooses to pursue that option – including requirements for health savings accounts and cost-saving strategies such as co-pays, deductibles and premiums.
Burnam said his amendment was intended to “keep the conversation going to see if there is something we can accomplish, because it is insane, it is fiscally irresponsible not to figure out how we can get this money.”
Republicans grew increasingly uneasy about seeming to support the health care overhaul many call Obamacare, and several hours later the House voted 93-54 to reconsider the amendment, prompting Burnam to withdraw it from further consideration.
“I think there was lot of confusion,” said Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, who requested the new vote. “I just want to rewind and go over.”