5 Highlights From the 15-Hour Debate Over the Lege's $218 Billion Budget

House Speaker Joe Straus
House Speaker Joe Straus Screenshot/Texas Legislature live stream
It took more than 15 hours for the Texas House of Representatives to pass a $218 billion budget, by a vote of 131 to 16 — but not until after lawmakers debated nearly 400 amendments.

They argued about funding for the arts (and didn't vote to slash it by $13 million); about whether undocumented immigrants should get in-state tuition (they still will); about whether to move money for border security to pre-K education (that failed). Traditionally, the marathon debate has allowed lawmakers to force votes on hot-button items like school choice vouchers and anti-abortion programs, some of the key items last night.

From foster-care boosts to anti-abortion programs, here are the highlights:

1. The House resoundingly rejects Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick's pet issue: school choice.

Dan Patrick asked the House to put school choice vouchers up for a vote. But he may as well be kicking himself at this point: The House passed an amendment prohibiting school choice vouchers by a vote of 103-44, keeping the state's education money exclusively within public education. The vouchers have remained a controversial issue because they would subsidize some students' private educations with public funds. When another lawmaker proposed only allowing those subsidies for poor students, the House still booted the measure by a vote of 117-27.

2. "Save the Children" may as well have been the Lege's motto for the day.

Governor Greg Abbott made reforming the state's woefully underfunded and broken foster-care system an emergency item for this year's legislative session. And on Thursday the House came up big, throwing millions of dollars into the Department of Family Protective Services — at the expense of the state's top GOP leaders. Disabled kids also got a boost after enduring hundreds of millions in cuts to acute therapy Medicaid services.

Putting a leash on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's obsession with suing the federal government, Representative Ina Minjarez took away $21.5 million from Paxton's lawsuit budget to give to Child Protective Services. Then, Representative Sergio Munoz took $43 million from Abbott's most prized Texas Enterprise Fund — a pool of money Texas uses to lure big business to the state and boost the economy — and gave all of it to the kids. CPS got an additional $21.5 million, and another $21.5 million went toward disabled children's therapy. The $350 million in Medicaid therapy cuts, which went through last fall, were highly controversial after lawmakers ignored concerns from therapy providers that, if lawmakers slashed reimbursement rates for therapists by up to 20 percent, a shortage of therapists would cause kids would lose access to care.

Munoz's move to pilfer the Texas Enterprise Fund for the children drew ire from Tea Partiers in the room, who didn't have a chance to object to Munoz's amendment because they were too busy objecting to the passage of the school-choice prohibition.

3. The House took $20 million away from air quality to go toward an anti-abortion program.

In the House's eyes, counseling poor women to not go through with an abortion is more important than the air we breathe. State reps voted 93 to 52 to strip $20 million from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and give it to the program called "Alternatives to Abortion." Republican Representatives Mike Schofield of Katy and Matt Krause of Fort Worth pushed the measure by arguing the state's environmental agency had been given more money than it really needed.

4. Lawmakers punished the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission for partying at industry conferences on taxpayers' dime.

After the Texas Tribune unveiled that bigwigs at the TABC were spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to travel to Cali and Hawaii and other warm, sunny places for industry conferences, the House unanimously voted to completely slash the agency's travel budget. The Tribune reported members of the TABC were also taking travel reimbursements from people within the alcohol industry — which TABC regulates. And of the conferences the TABC itself hosted, the conferences were financed in large part by the alcohol industry as well. To top it off, the agency created a flyer depicting executive staff chugging Lone Star while on a plane to a national conference, with the caption, "Here we come California! Woo hoo!!!"

As the Tribune reported, Representative Sarah Davis asked Representative Jason Isaac, who filed the amendment, “Are you aware of any other agencies that have created these types of flyers depicting themselves partying?”

“No," Isaac responded, "I have not seen one that depicts people partying and celebrating using taxpayer dollars.”

5. Debate over wild hogs gets personal.

The biggest drama of the night came after Representative Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) filed an amendment to nix funds for a $900,000 agriculture program intended to mass exterminate wild hogs in order to stop the "hogapocalypse," as it's been called. Stickland called the "feral hog abatement" program a total waste of taxpayer dollars — which had rural lawmaker Drew Springer (R-Muenster) rattled. To retaliate against Stickland, Springer tacked on an amendment to Stickland's hog proposal that would eliminate $900,0000 of the Texas Department of Transportation's road maintenance funds specifically for Bedford, Stickland's hometown. Springer's vindictive amendment actually passed, officially making Stickland the most despised dude on the floor and forcing Stickland to withdraw his feral hog amendment. The two lawmakers nearly got into a physical fight on the House 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