AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Backroom deals doused potential political fireworks early Thursday in the Texas House where Republicans and Democrats dug in for a lengthy debate over a $93.5 billion state spending plan that was widely expected to slog well into the night.
Majority GOP leaders spoke proudly while laying out details of a new two-year Texas budget that throws additional dollars at public schools and mental health. Even financially shaky state parks are spared from closure, symbolic of the Legislature's spending power because of a roaring Texas economy.
The House budget bill boosts state spending by 7 percent and is among the most significant votes in a 140-day session that has enjoyed two months of relatively feel-good bipartisanship — at least compared to the acrimony in 2011, when the Republican-controlled Legislature cut the budget to the bone.
Contentious amendments about women's health and abortion threatened to sour that harmony Thursday, but a bipartisan pact led to both sides pulling a handful of volatile proposals, averting the rehash of another intense political feud in 2011 when the Legislature cut state funding to Planned Parenthood.
That alone promised that the House would more quickly reach an up-or-down vote — relatively speaking. Nearly 270 amendments were filed for debate Thursday, ranging from library funding to who must register as lobbyists.
Rep. Bryan Hughes, among the leading tea party members in the House, said both sides backed down since funding for women's health funding is increased 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.
But the most closely watched issue is the state's bottom line.
"We've been able to restore significant portions of last session's cuts," said state Republican 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."
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 Texas 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.
"Everybody is getting some restoration. Granted, property wealthy (districts) is minimal," Otto said. "I'm not going to tell you they're getting restored. They're not."
Even though nearly every state agency is in line for additional funding under the House budget, there are some exceptions, including research and economic development programs championed by Gov. Rick Perry. Neither his Emerging Technology Fund nor 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 reviewed process.
About $594 million is on the table for CPRIT if reforms are passed. The most significant reform bill cleared the Senate on Wednesday.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber
- State Budget & Tax
- Politics & Government
- Texas House