The Texas Budget Is Up For Debate In The House. Here Are Four Things To Know.

Mar 27, 2019

The Texas House is scheduled to debate its $250 billion budget Wednesday — and possibly into Thursday morning. It marks the full chamber’s last chance to change House Bill 1 before House leaders begin private negotiations with the Senate on 2020-21 funding priorities.

House members have proposed more than 300 amendments that would shake up the spending plan, which the Legislature is required to pass before lawmakers return home after the regular session ends May 27. The proposed changes could have major implications for public education, health care access, the environment and hundreds of other issues regulated by the state — if those amendments survive the long road ahead.

The Senate will pass its own version of a budget later; the upper chamber is expected to vote its spending plan out of committee Thursday morning.

Here are four things you should know before Wednesday’s potentially raucous House debate.

Lawmakers could try to force votes on inflammatory, pet issues

If you’re hoping school finance and property tax reform — the Legislature’s two defining issues this session — will dominate Wednesday’s debate, you’re likely to be disappointed. House lawmakers agreed last week to abide by a “put and take” rule during the budget debate, which means they can only add spending if they cut a similar amount of funding elsewhere. The result is that most amendments would merely nibble away at smaller line items in the budget, while very few touch the House’s “bread and butter” priorities.

Many pre-filed amendments protest government spending on ideological grounds. Conservative members are eyeing cuts to the state lottery, environmental programs and economic incentives to businesses from the Texas Enterprise Fund. Progressive members have zeroed in on the state’s “alternatives to abortion” program, funding for a surge of state troopers along the Texas-Mexico border and parts of the governor’s office funding.

A unifying theme across party lines is pork. Lawmakers of all ideological stripes have filed amendments that would benefit specific programs in their districts: public universities, state hospitals, highways and nonprofits with government contracts.

Other amendments carry more political direction than obvious fiscal impact. One proposal, by state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, would prohibit disaster recovery dollars from benefiting noncitizens and “illegal aliens.” Another, by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, would prohibit state funds from paying for “elective” surgeries, including sex reassignment surgery, for prison inmates. State Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, filed an amendment that would require Gov. Greg Abbott’s office to prepare a report on domestic terrorist threats posed by white supremacists.

A test for the new House speaker

Is the Texas House as united in its spending priorities as Speaker Dennis Bonnen has signaled? Wednesday will offer a closer look at the lower chamber’s politics, where disputes could erupt on the House floor rather than behind closed doors.

One group to watch is the right-wing Freedom Caucus. State Rep. Matt Schaefer, a Tyler Republican and former caucus chair, was the House Appropriations Committee’s lone no vote last week on the budget. Conservative members may suggest that the House budget, which includes a $9 billion increase in state funds for public schools and property tax reform, spends too liberally.

Democrats, as the minority party, will also have to decide the extent to which they want to stand behind Bonnen or push for big budgetary changes. For example, one amendment from state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, could offer members a chance to vote on across-the-board pay raises for public school teachers — an issue that has divided the House and Senate.

And then there are questions about how much control Bonnen and his lieutenants will be able to exert over a potentially chaotic chamber. Last session, a fight nearly broke out between state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, and state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, over Stickland’s attempt to defund a feral hog abatement program favored by rural lawmakers. Stickland filed a similar amendment this year, leading the two lawmakers to spar publicly on Twitter this week.

A vote on an amendment isn’t guaranteed

Before some amendments can be voted on, House members are likely 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 enough to merit a vote on budget night.

Other amendments are likely to be pulled by their authors before they come up for a vote. Last session, the budget’s lead author, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, reached a compromise with lawmakers shortly before 2 a.m., allowing members to avoid voting on dozens of pre-filed amendments in return for putting the amendments on a spending wish list.

Even amendments that pass face an uncertain future

Even if an amendment survives the House floor, there are plenty of opportunities for it to be killed before making it into the final version of the budget that Abbott signs.

Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget expert with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, predicted that most of the amendments that pass the House will nonetheless fail to make it into the final bill signed by Abbott, despite the chaotic effort of House budget night.

“You can actually change the budget if you get enough support,” she said. “For the most part, though, it’s a lot of theater, and it’s a lot of people trying to understand what’s happening, including the members themselves.”

Still, Castro said there have been historical examples of major amendments, such as ones that stripped funding from Texas’ women’s health programs, making their way from the House floor into the final budget.

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From The Texas Tribune