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House votes to ban school vouchers, cap attorney general spending as part of its proposed $246 billion state budget

House members filed nearly 240 proposed tweaks to the massive spending plan and spent hours taking votes on controversial issues.

(Texas Tribune) The Texas House on Thursday night unanimously passed its proposed two-year, $246 billion state budget after members spent hours deliberating which tweaks to make to the massive spending plan.

The House’s proposed budget includes measures that would ban school vouchers, empty the governor's economic development fund and cap some attorney general spending. But such amendments are not guaranteed to remain in the final spending plan. The proposal now heads back to the Senate, where the legislation will all but certainly then head to a conference committee for the two chambers to hash out their differences before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.

In a statement after Thursday's vote, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said the chamber passed "a balanced budget that keeps spending in check while addressing the multitude of challenges that our state experiences, especially those experienced over the past year."

One of the more notable votes happened Thursday afternoon when state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, introduced an amendment that aimed to expand state and federal health care coverage for uninsured Texans. After a brief debate though, the amendment failed 68-80, with one Republican — state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio — voting for it.

Later Thursday, House members also tackled another point of contention that’s emerged in recent weeks at the Legislature: What to do with tens of billions of dollars in federal funding for coronavirus relief. The chamber unanimously adopted an amendment by state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, to require a special legislative session to appropriate billions in funds that may come in after the Legislature adjourns from its regular session in May.

Before the vote, Morrison said “it is clear … that our founding fathers intended for appropriations to be handled by the Texas Legislature.”

House members also signed off Thursday on a supplemental budget to cover expenses from the current budget. The vote on that legislation, House Bill 2, was also unanimous.

House votes overwhelmingly to ban school vouchers

The Texas House voted overwhelmingly around 5 p.m. Thursday in favor of an amendment to the state budget that would bar state dollars from being used on school voucher programs, which let parents use public money for private school education. The vote was 115-29.

State Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, who proposed the amendment, said it would not prohibit funds from going to public charter schools.

“This ensures that the funds we appropriate stay with our public schools,” he said.

Republicans also spoke in favor of the amendment.

"The reality is we have plenty of options and choice within our public schools,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

The vote again signaled that the House does not approve of school voucher programs. Like other amendments adopted Thursday, though, it’s unclear whether it will be included in the Legislature’s final spending plan after the two chambers hash out differences in a conference committee. On the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who heads the chamber, has been a vocal supporter of subsidizing private school tuition with vouchers in past legislative sessions.

Amendment that could have expanded Medicaid in Texas is voted down

One of the most anticipated amendments in the budget debate — an expansion of state and federal health care coverage for uninsured Texans — was defeated Thursday afternoon on a vote of 80-68.

The proposal would have directed the governor and state health officials to use billions in federal dollars to expand health care coverage for uninsured Texans, including those who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid yet too little to afford private health insurance. Its proponents were hopeful, since a majority of House members had signed on as co-sponsors to a separate bill that would expand Medicaid in Texas. But it was doomed after only one Republican, state Rep. Lyle Larson, voted in favor of the amendment.

Republican state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, the only House member to speak against the bill during Thursday’s debate, said that creating a new health care program — Medicaid or otherwise — is far too complicated an endeavor to tackle in a two-page amendment and cautioned that it in fact looked like a way to expand Medicaid without a public hearing or extended floor debate.

“This topic is incredibly important, it’s complex, and frankly, it’s not appropriately handled in this amendment,” Capriglione said.

House approves amendment to empty governor's Texas Enterprise Fund

House members adopted an amendment to the budget by state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, that would defund the Texas Enterprise Fund and shift those $100 million dollars to the property tax relief fund. The enterprise fund, a controversial economic development program, is often referred to as a “deal-closing fund” that allows the governor’s office to offer financial incentives for companies considering expanding or relocating in Texas.

Slaton acknowledged that the $100 million is not a significant figure but said Texas taxpayers need any property tax relief they can get.

After the amendment was adopted, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat and longest-serving woman in the history of the Texas Legislature, asked from the back mic whether the House had just OK’d a Slaton tweak. Slaton, a freshman member, had already proposed several amendments by midday Thursday, most of which had either been withdrawn or defeated on a point of order.

“God bless America,” Thompson said as members laughed in the chamber.

Amendments adopted to the budget are not guaranteed to remain in the final spending plan lawmakers send to the governor’s desk for a signature. Once the House gives the final OK on its proposed budget, lawmakers from both chambers will meet in a conference committee to hash out differences.

Lawmakers go after Attorney General Ken Paxton

House members this afternoon adopted an amendment by state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, that would cap what the Texas attorney general’s office can spend on outside legal counsel to $500 per hour.

González said the amendment, which passed 73-64, was filed in response to the state’s major — and costly — lawsuit against Google, which the attorney general’s office has hired outside lawyers to handle. The most senior attorneys could net as much as $3,780 per hour.

Other Democrats also filed amendments taking aim at embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is facing bribery and abuse of office allegations from former agency employees. Paxton has also been under indictment for felony securities fraud charges since 2015.

State Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton offered an amendment that would require the attorney general’s office to submit a quarterly report to the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees detailing the amount of money the agency spent on election- and voting-related litigation. That amendment was adopted.

One amendment by state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie would have barred the agency from using funds appropriated to it “to pay for or support a lawsuit to contest election results outside of the state of Texas,” but Turner withdrew the proposed tweak. The amendment was filed in response to a failed Texas lawsuit after the November 2020 election that contested Joe Biden’s victory as president.

Lawmakers still haven’t figured out what to do with federal coronavirus aid

As The Tribune’s Ross Ramsey noted this morning, questions remain about how tens of billions of dollars in coronavirus relief aid should be used — and whether it will arrive in time for state lawmakers to use this legislative session.

A proposal by House Appropriations Chair Greg Bonnen, a Friendswood Republican, would create a board that includes the lieutenant governor, House speaker and budget leaders in the two chambers to oversee how that aid is doled out during the legislative interim. That legislation, House Bill 2021, was voted out of committee earlier this week. But it’s unclear whether it will make it to the full House for consideration in the coming weeks.

Even after House approval, a lot will still have to be worked out

Earlier this month, the Senate unanimously approved its own proposed 2022-2023 budget, which included $117.9 billion in general revenue but did not factor in tens of billions of dollars in federal funding for coronavirus aid.

Once the House gives a final sign off to Senate Bill 1, the legislation will head to a conference committee for the two chambers to iron out differences before the Legislature adjourns at the end of May.

Both budget proposals are billions over what Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar in January projected lawmakers would have to work with. That means the two chambers will have to cut down their spending plans or rely on accounting maneuvers to help offset some of those expenses.

Lawmakers also have a shortfall to fill in this year’s budget

On top of passing a 2022-2023 state budget, the Legislature will also have to shore up a shortfall the coronavirus pandemic’s accompanying recession left in the current budget. Hegar, the state’s comptroller, delivered rosier-than-expected news in January, when he estimated the Legislature would face an almost $1 billion deficit for the current budget instead of a $4.6 billion projection he made in July 2020. Hegar cautioned though that his projection, which he could modify again before lawmakers gavel out, was “clouded in uncertainty” due to the pandemic.

House members are also set to debate their proposed spending plan for the current budget on that Thursday, though that conversation is expected to be shorter and less controversial.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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