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Texas House leadership controls state budget debate


House adopts a $106.8 billion budget, ending hours of debate with a deal that avoided bathroom controversy.

House Speaker Joe Straus and his allies easily defeated maneuvers by tea-party aligned representatives.

The Senate and House budgets have similar price tags but different funding methods and spending priorities.

After 16 hours of debate and one near fistfight, the Texas House approved a $106.8 billion, two-year state budget early Friday after brokering a deal to avoid a showdown over transgender bathroom access — and swept aside about 200 other amendments — in exchange for another priority for social conservatives: cutting money for Planned Parenthood.

The final 131-16 vote was well above the two-thirds threshold required to use money from the state’s rainy day fund, allowing the House to withdraw $2.5 billion as lawmakers tried to make ends meet with less money than was available in the 2015 legislative session.

Whether to tap the rainy day fund will be the main sticking point between the House and Senate when a conference committee works out the budget differences.

Two weeks ago, the Senate declined to tap the rainy day fund when it approved a $106.3 billion budget. Instead, the upper chamber, dominated by conservatives who view the savings account as sacrosanct, employed an accounting maneuver that would delay a $2.5 billion payment to the state highway fund.

Both chambers’ budgets would slightly increase overall spending from the current two-year budget. But, after factoring in population growth and inflation, the plans amount to a roughly 7 percent cut from current spending levels, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

Throughout the marathon budget debate, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and his allies defeated several amendments from more conservative GOP members of the House, including an attempt to prevent unauthorized immigrants from being able to pay in-state rates for tuition at public universities.

On another hot-button issue, prohibiting transgender Texans from using the bathrooms of their choice, there was never a debate.

The bathroom showdown was avoided when Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, agreed to drop her amendment on the issue in exchange for minimal opposition from Democrats and House leadership on banning state money from going to entities, like Planned Parenthood, that provide abortions, even if the money wasn’t directly paying for abortion services.

The deal also ended debate hours ahead of schedule by sweeping hundreds of remaining budget amendments, including Swanson’s, into Article XI of the state budget, known as the “wish list” or the “graveyard.”

Planned Parenthood received $3.6 million in 2016 as a Texas Medicaid health care provider, about $360,000 of which was state money, with the rest coming from the federal government. (Planned Parenthood also received about $820,000 in HIV and breast and cervical cancer programs that the organization no longer participates in, state health officials said.)

A federal judge, however, recently blocked Texas from ousting Planned Parenthood from Medicaid, and the organization’s lawyers were looking into whether the ruling, which Texas has appealed, could affect the amendment.

Testy exchanges

Although the marathon debate ended earlier than expected, it went long enough for some House members to get goofy, and others testy.

A proposal by Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, to cut funding for feral hog abatement drew a sharp response from a fellow Republican, Rep. Drew Springer of Muenster, who said the hogs were a major problem in rural Texas.

To attack the amendment and make a point, Springer proposed amending the amendment to eliminate transportation money to Stickland’s hometown.

Stickland, a combative conservative, is a favorite of tea party-aligned groups that attack establishment GOP leaders and he has made enemies on both sides of the aisle. After Springer’s proposal was adopted 99-26, Stickland was forced to pull his amendment.

Meanwhile, during the back-and-forth between Springer and Stickland, another representative jokingly raised a point of order against a bright red blazer being worn by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble.

Stickland wasn’t pleased with the tenor of the conversation.

“Because someone else has chosen to make a mockery of this system and play gotcha politics,” Stickland began to say before being interrupted by laughter from other representatives. “It’s funny until it happens to you.”

After the amendment fight, Stickland and Springer confronted each other on the House floor and, with their faces inches apart, had to be pulled away by other representatives.

House-Senate split

While the House and Senate budgets have similar price tags, there are significant differences between how they get the money and what they do with it.

Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, have been critical of each other’s approaches to the budget.

Patrick has said the state must “live within its means” and avoid tapping the rainy day fund, which comes primarily from oil and gas production taxes and is the largest reserve of its kind in the country.

Straus has said the Senate’s budget is “Enron-esque” and amounts to “cooking the books” because of the transportation funding delay.

The House, however, employed its own accounting tricks to balance its budget by delaying a $1.9 billion payment to the school finance system and by assuming $1 billion in Medicaid savings due to unspecified action by the federal government that would give Texas more flexibility.

On the spending side, the House budget added $1.5 billion in public school funding, while the Senate budget left school funding formulas untouched — a strategy that allows the Senate to spend $1.4 billion less on education while increasing the share paid by local school districts due to rising property tax valuations.

The Senate maintained the current $800 million in spending for the state’s border security campaign despite calls by Democrats to eliminate the program in light of the expected increase in border spending by the Trump administration. The House lowered border funding to just under $670 million.

Both chambers added more than $430 million to Child Protective Services, but the House went a step further by voting to cut $43 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund, which is controlled by Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and provides subsidies to lure companies to Texas, splitting that money between CPS and Medicaid therapy services, which were severely cut in 2015.

The House also parted ways with the Senate by voting to bar state money from being diverted to private school tuition.

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