Hundreds of amendments set for ‘Budget Night’ in Texas House

Christmas in the Texas House comes not in the winter, but at the beginning of spring when the body considers the next biennium’s budget. “Budget night,” as it’s colloquially known, falls this Thursday when the lower chamber will debate the Legislature’s only constitutional requirement: passing a 2024-2025 budget.

That original proposal outlined $289 billion in spending over the next two years but the House Appropriations Committee substitute now eclipses $300 billion.

The process is long, not only because the draft is almost 1,000 pages long but because of the hundreds of amendments filed by members — the purposes for which are as numerous as the number filed. Some are riders for pending legislation with effectiveness contingent upon those bills’ passage; others an attempt to move money from one part of government to another in some prime examples of legislative pork; and more still are meant to make a statement, setting a tone for legislation to come.

Nearly 400 amendments were pre-filed for House Bill (HB) 1, the budget, and 17 others were filed for Senate Bill (SB) 30, the supplemental appropriations bill.

The House will gavel in at 9 a.m. Thursday to consider the two bills and all the barnacles hoping to cling on. Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) told the chamber on Wednesday to “get your sleep — you’re going to need it.”

The headliner, other than the budget itself, is a likely test vote on school choice. Rep. Abel Herrero’s (D-Robstown) proposed amendment would prohibit any state dollars in the budget from being used to pay for school vouchers or education savings accounts (ESA). It’s a retread from last session — when only about 30 House members opposed it — and is more symbolic than anything, as the current budget appropriates funding for no such thing.

However, with school choice reform — this iteration in the form of ESAs — having more momentum this year than in the last couple of sessions, this symbolic vote will hold real implications for Gov. Greg Abbott’s top issue.

Additionally, Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), author of the Senate school choice priority bill, said on Wednesday that he will bring that legislation to the floor on Thursday — the same time the lower chamber considers its budget.

This means two votes on school choice, one real material and the other symbolic, are likely to occur in the Texas Legislature Thursday unless pro-school choice House members are able to kill the Herrero amendment before a vote is held.

While these test votes are a minority, they are not uncommon.

In addition to Herrero’s 2021 school choice amendment, the body shot down a quasi-Medicaid expansion amendment by former Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston). Though it was more substantive than Herrero’s language, it was viewed as a symbolic referendum in the lower chamber; only one Republican voted for it despite the days-long public relations campaign leading up to the vote.

It didn’t appear by Thursday morning that a similar proposal had been filed this time around.

A frequent theme within this mountain of amendments is Alternatives to Abortion (AA), as is common during these budget debates. That program was created in the mid-aughts by the Legislature to provide counseling and other support services for new and expectant mothers.

The Legislature appropriated $100 million last session to AA, which has become quite the political football. During these debates, Republicans often try and move money into the program from elsewhere while Democrats opt for the reverse.

There are numerous amendments pining for one of these two routes; Rep. Venton Jones (D-Dallas) proposes removing $2 million from AA to the City of Dallas for “health disparity” programs, while Rep. Mihaela Plesa (D-Plano) proposes moving $60 million from the program to another part of the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC).

On the flip side, Rep. Cody Vasut (R-Angleton) has a proposal to move $40 million from another section of the HHSC budget to AA, and one of Rep. Bryan Slaton’s (R-Royse City) would appropriate $2 million from the state’s Arts and Culture Tourism grant program to AA.

The program is currently facing a $25 million shortfall due to increased traffic stemming from the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade, allowing Texas’ then-recently passed abortion trigger ban to become effective. According to the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, the program saw a 43 percent demand increase after the court’s ruling and participating health care providers may not be reimbursed for services beginning next month.

Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) has an amendment to SB 30 that would move $25 million from the rest of the HHSC budget to AA, providing that supplemental funding to close the shortfall for the current biennium.

Going into the debate, Texas Democrats will try to slide in their own priorities such as increasing teacher and school faculty pay by reappropriating money from the Property Tax Relief Fund (PTRF), a sum that exists outside the general revenue fund for the purposes of compressing local rates.

For his part, Cain has a host of amendments intended to move millions into the PTRF from entities like the Texas Lottery Commission and the Texas Commission on the Arts.

Another redirection target by Democrats is the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), especially after Republican Ken Paxton’s $3.3 million settlement agreement related to the long-running “whistleblower” lawsuit with former OAG staffers — a settlement that is now in doubt.

Multiple proposals would move funding from the OAG to other agencies or require disclosure of the agency’s payments for outside counsel services; one of Rep. James Talarico’s (D-Austin) proposals would require the OAG to pay $300,000 of the “whistleblower” settlement.

Another interesting note from Democrats’ proposals is targeting the Civitas Institute — a right-leaning think tank at the University of Texas at Austin. Formerly the Liberty Institute, the think tank was a pet project of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick approved last session that has since faced a tumultuous liftoff. An amendment by Rep. John Bryant (D-Dallas) would strike the Civitas Institute’s $3 million per year funding entirely.

Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco) has two proposed amendments: a $2 million rider for his “READER Act” to purchase library books and another that would prohibit state dollars from going to any school districts that contract with the Texas Association of School Boards.

Rep. Cody Harris (R-Palestine) has a proposal to move nearly $130 million from the HHSC’s Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program’s contracts section to a variety of purposes at Texas A&M University — an amendment that has 40 members signed on.

These and many more will be debated in the marathon session Thursday when the body convenes. Most will die either, explicitly by point of order or opposition from the bill’s author — who will frequently say “this bill is not for policy making” — or they’ll perish tacitly in the budgetary graveyard known as “Article XI,” the budget section for miscellaneous provisions and expenditures.

In the end, anything successfully tacked on can be stripped when the budget reaches the conference committee. But that doesn’t take away from the spectacle that is “budget night.”
Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher is the editor and publisher of High Plains Pundit. Dan is also the host of the popular High Plains Pundit Podcast.

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