Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

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April 5, 2013

Texas House overwhelmingly approves $93B budget

AUSTIN — There's a new Texas budget on the table, and with barely any drama this time. A marathon debate over a new two-year, $93.5 billion state spending plan ended late Thursday with overwhelming passage in the Texas House, where Republicans and Democrats brokered deals to diffuse volatile ideological battles and trumpeted a new air of bipartisanship afterward.

Clashes over Medicaid expansion could not be averted, and social conservatives fumed after the House slapped down a school voucher push that is now rendered potentially dead in the Legislature. Yet even those scrapes never escalated into full-on battles, and most House members left satisfied over more money for public schools, college campuses and mental health.

The budget bill passed 135-12 and now goes to a conference committee with the Senate.

"Even when you fundamentally believe that more should be added, there comes a time when you have to recognize that positive steps are taken," Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston said. "I will vote proudly yes on this bill, because there are major accomplishments in this bill."

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 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.

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."

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.

___

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

 

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