House Defies Abbott's Agenda, Votes 138-0 to Restore Funds for Disabled Kids

House Defies Abbott's Agenda, Votes 138-0 to Restore Funds for Disabled Kids
Abbott Photo by World Travel & Tourism Council/Flickr, Straus Photo by David Martin Davies/Flickr, , Patrick Photo by David Martin Davies/Flickr
Defying Governor Greg Abbott's special session agenda, the House voted unanimously Thursday to restore millions in Medicaid funding to disabled children's therapy programs that have been floundering for the past several years because of repeated cuts.

The bill, HB25 by Representative Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), would reverse steep cuts to Medicaid reimbursement rates for children's physical, occupational and speech therapy providers by $70 million, money that would come out of the governor's disaster relief fund. This potential relief comes after lawmakers ordered $350 million in cuts to these therapy programs in 2015, and after lawmakers, recognizing the mistake, agreed to restore those cuts by 25 percent during the 2017 regular session. Many providers, some of whom have been forced to shut down because of the cuts, have said this was simply not enough.

"If the governor is going to bring us back here to talk about what bathrooms people can use or what we can do with our trees, then surely the disabled kids should take priority," Davis said.

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That's when Davis stepped up. She had told the Houston Chronicle last week that she didn't care if disabled kids' therapy was not on Abbott's special session agenda, and that she felt it was among the most pressing issues affecting Texas's most vulnerable kids.

"If the governor is going to bring us back here to talk about what bathrooms people can use or what we can do with our trees, then surely the disabled kids should take priority and hopefully we add this to the call,” she said.

But Abbott has remained relatively mum on this issue and whether he would agree to add it, and so as HB25 heads over to the Senate, its members will be faced with a test: Are they, too, willing to defy Abbott's agenda and pass this bill in the name of disabled kids? Or are they going to continue following the governor's instructions, zipping through his list of 20 priorities and sticking to the rules?

In special sessions, the rules are that legislators can't put forth bills that fall outside the governor's agenda. But the rules doesn't necessarily lay out consequences if legislators decide to flout the governor and forge ahead anyway. The official Senate rules state that, if one of those bills not on Abbott's agenda somehow makes it through both chambers and lands Abbott's signature, it still becomes a law.

So that leaves the onus on Abbott — if, and that's a big if, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick's Senate is so inclined to leave it with him. Should the Senate follow the House's lead and pass HB25, then is Abbott really willing to veto that bill? Is he really willing to face the wrath of Texas children's advocates and the parents of autistic children, who have been hounding the Legislature for years to fix this children's therapy mess?

We're unsure, because Abbott's press office did not return a request for comment on HB25's passage and whether Abbott will consider adding this to the special session agenda.

The governor's office has already made clear that Abbott would not be adding any additional items to his list until both chambers passed all 20 of his priorities, which, as Davis points out, include bills to regulate both transgender bathroom usage and local tree-removal rules. While the Senate quickly passed 18 items in just two weeks, the House has passed only a few. The lower chamber is taking its sweet time and keeping divisive politics surrounding legislation like the bathroom bill out of the conversation.

Yesterday, Davis and a bipartisan group of House lawmakers again challenged Abbott's agenda, calling on him to add ethics reform to the list, which he had made an emergency item both in 2015 and the 2017 regular session but which failed both times. (The bathroom bill and the tree-removal regulation bill were not emergency items.) The ethics bill would prevent Abbott and lawmakers from raking in campaign donations during the special session, which Abbott is currently doing, and would also stop him from appointing people who donate more than $2,500 to him to top jobs in government agencies — which the governor has done dozens of times.

Yet remarkably, despite his early enthusiasm for ethics reform, Abbott's office called this "showboating." Spokesman John Wittman said the lawmakers' constituents "deserve better," and said legislators just need to focus on those 20 priorities, which also include school-choice vouchers, property tax reform and increased abortion reporting requirements.

Unanimous support to fund essential services for kids with disabilities, however, could hardly be called showboating, and at this point, the pressure is on for senators and for the governor.

“I can tell you one thing that’s crystal clear,” Texas Cares for Children CEO Stephanie Rubin said in a statement. “Legislators, parents, advocates and other Texans are going to keep fighting until these cuts are reversed and kids have the support they need to learn to walk, communicate with their families, prepare for school and meet other goals.”

The Senate has less than two weeks to get HB25 to the floor.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn