House adopts $93B budget after marathon debate

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Associated Press

Posted on April 5, 2013 at 2:32 AM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A new Texas budget won approval late Thursday in the House, where Republicans and Democrats brokered deals to diffuse volatile ideological battles but could not sidestep clashes over Medicaid expansion and a school voucher push now rendered potentially dead in the Legislature.

A marathon debate over a two-year, $93.5 billion state spending plan ended after nightfall with leaders in the Republican-controlled House boasting additional money for public schools, college campuses and mental health. Critics say the bill doesn't spend enough to cover the needs of a rapidly growing Texas population, but a major spending battle never erupted on the House floor.

The budget overwhelmingly passed 135-12 after nearly 12 hours of debate.

The House plan boosts state spending across the board by 7 percent. State employees would see small raises and financially shaky state parks would be spared from closure, symbolic of the Legislature's spending power made possible by a roaring Texas economy.

Voting out the House budget is a significant milestone in a 140-day session that has enjoyed relatively feel-good bipartisanship — at least compared to the acrimony in 2011, when the Republican-controlled Legislature cut the budget to the bone.

"We've been able to restore significant portions of last session's cuts," said Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts, the House's chief budget writer. "We've not done so recklessly, and we have not replaced every dollar removed from last session."

But dollars didn't set off the most intense clashes.

Nearly 270 amendments were filed for debate, and none flared emotions more than add-ons related to Medicaid and school vouchers. As the floor session approached its 10th hour, conservatives scrambled to make a fresh stand on Medicaid — after the Republican-controlled House initially adopted an outline of how the state might expand health care to the working poor.

Gov. Rick Perry has vowed not to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. Approval of an amendment to merely open the door to Medicaid expansion negotiations drew instant criticism from conservative activists outside the Capitol, and Republicans later pulled the vote back.

But one defeat that will stick with social conservatives was passage of an anti-school voucher amendment. The measure passed the House 103-43 and dealt a potential knockout punch to a priority item of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and other Senate leaders.

Unlike in the Senate, many House members are uneasy about vouchers, arguing that giving parents state funds to let them pull their children out of underperforming public schools and enroll them in private campuses siphons money from cash-strapped school districts.

Republican state Rep. Debbie Riddle of Tomball blasted the Democrat behind the proposal, Rep. Abel Herrero of Robstown, for denying parents the choice she said his own family could afford.

"You have the wealth to make that choice, yet you want to keep poor families from making it," Riddle said.

Backroom deals doused other potential fireworks. A bipartisan pact led to the withdrawal of amendments related to women's health and abortion, averting the rehash of another intense political feud in 2011 when the Legislature cut state funding to Planned Parenthood.

Rep. Bryan Hughes, among the leading tea party members in the House, said both sides backed down since funding for women's health would increase and taxpayer dollars are already off-limits to health providers linked to abortion services.

"We were able to get that done without having some divisive debates on the floor," Hughes said.

Combined with federal dollars, the total price tag of the bill is $193.8 billion. The budget plan doesn't restore about $15 billion lawmakers slashed in 2011 — which included about $5.4 billion cut from public schools. The House budget restores about $2.5 billion to school districts, $1 billion more than the budget passed by the Senate last month.

Sneaking more money into schools emerged early Thursday as one of the Democrats' major concerns.

"It's a huge chunk of money to restore what was cut," Democratic state. Rep. Donna Howard said of the school spending. "Not what we wanted to be, obviously, but it did restore."

Republican state. Rep. John Otto, who led the school finance negotiations in the House, said the budget covers enrollment growth for an estimated 85,000 new pupils in 2014-15 and bolsters per-pupil spending for many school districts.

But the extra dollars won't be evenly spread: Otto said that while some property-poor districts would receive $100 to $200 more per student, wealthier ones would get an additional $6 to $8.

Even though nearly every state agency is in line for additional funding under the House budget, there are some exceptions. Neither of Perry's two signature economic development programs, the Emerging Technology Fund and the deal-closing Texas Enterprise Fund, would receive new taxpayer dollars for private businesses.

Replenishing the scandal-wracked Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas is also on hold until sweeping reforms pass both chambers. The $3 billion cancer-fighting agency, known as CPRIT, is under criminal investigation and a spending freeze following the revelation of grants that bypassed the review process.

About $594 million is on the table for CPRIT if reforms are passed. The most significant reform bill cleared the Senate this week.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber .

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