Texas House approves $300 billion budget draft

The lone constitutional requirement of the Legislature, to pass its biennial budget, is a lengthy, often drawn-out process in the Texas House that frequently ends after midnight. But this time around, the House approved its $300 billion budget draft before 9:00 p.m — finishing the entire calendar before 9:30 p.m.

By a final vote of 136 to 10, the body passed House Bill (HB) 1 which includes $10.5 billion to reduce school district property tax rates by 25 cents; $9.6 billion for various mental health services; $6.8 billion to lower Foundation School program payments, also known as “Robin Hood”; $4.6 billion for continued border security financing; and $3.5 billion to provide a cost-of-living adjustment to retired teachers.

“From property tax relief to public education, House Bill 1 prioritizes Texans by dedicating dollars to a wide range of issues while also keeping spending in check,” Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) said in a statement. “House Bill 1 goes beyond maintaining our commitment to Texas children and educators by increasing the state’s share of public education to over 50 percent for the first time in more than a decade, fully funding schools, funneling additional dollars toward school safety measures and supporting retired teachers through a cost-of-living adjustment.”

“House Bill 1 also allocates what would amount to the largest property tax cut in Texas history, while also expanding mental health resources, supporting institutions of higher education, fostering continued border security efforts and earmarking funds for critical infrastructure projects across the state.”

The adopted budget is about $13 billion larger than the one originally proposed back in January, having grown with additions made to the line item for property tax relief and various other sections.

Of the 10 who voted against, two were Republicans: Reps. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) and Brian Harrison (R-Midlothian). Afterward, Tinderholt stated his vote against was because, in his opinion, not enough funding was put toward property tax relief, and Harrison voted against it due to the body’s adoption of an amendment that’d prohibit budget dollars from funding any kind of school choice program.

Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands), who along with Harrison said he’d vote against the budget if the school choice prohibition was adopted, ended up voting in favor — but Toth said afterward that if the amendment remains in the final version, which is unlikely to happen, he will vote “no.”

That amendment was proposed by Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown) and it passed with a vote of 86 to 52 — the “Nos” gaining about 20 votes since the 2021 version of the amendment, but still not enough to defeat the proposal. Before the Herrero amendment was voted on, an effort to table it and prevent the school choice test vote failed by seven votes, while 12 members’ votes did not register.

Twenty-four Republicans voted against the Herrero amendment while 10 members “white lighted,” the colloquial term for voting “present.” That vote was the feature of the House’s “budget day,” which this year was expedited compared to years past.

Going into Thursday, 388 budget amendments had been pre-filed with the House; the amendments ranged from as high-profile as the school choice test to as under-the-radar as funding increases to the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program and riders addressing the ongoing “whistleblower” lawsuit against Attorney General Ken Paxton.

As the process to adopt a budget began — which usually concludes near or past midnight — Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth) moved to shift more than half of those 388 amendments into “Article XI,” the section of the budget dedicated to miscellaneous directives and spending. Article XI is known as the budgetary graveyard for amendments, a section whose contents are usually stripped and tossed aside from the final version.

This maneuver by Goldman has not been used in recent memory, but sped up the process significantly. As other amendments were considered, many were summarily thrown into Article XI as well. Others were withdrawn outright or killed by points of order.

Before Goldman’s motion, Tinderholt attempted a point of order against the bill over a rider pertaining to the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) system, alleging it violated general law — trying to kill the entire budget for the moment. The maneuver was overruled by the speaker and deliberations carried on.

One of the bigger instances of actual debate on the House floor during “budget day” occurred on an amendment by Rep. Cody Vasut (R-Angleton) that would increase funding for the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program program by $80 million. The program is meant to dissuade individuals from choosing abortion by providing counseling and information for other options. For the current 2023-2024 biennium, the Legislature appropriated $120 million. But after Roe v. Wade was overturned, the program saw an unexpected 43 percent increase in demand for its services, necessitating a funding increase, according to Vasut.

Five Democrats, including Herrero, voted for the increase along with all Republicans. A later amendment from Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) on Senate Bill 30 — the supplemental appropriations bill for the current biennium — added $25 million to the program to compensate for the demand increase. That amendment passed by a vote of 86 to 62.

During consideration of Leach’s amendment, Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie) proposed his own that would have expanded Medicaid coverage in the State of Texas. Last session, House Democrats tried to expand Medicaid during the budget debate — but after gaining some bipartisan momentum, the eventual vote failed with only one Republican in support.

This year’s version faced a similar fate; it failed with only one Republican voting in support, Rep. Ryan Guillen (R-Rio Grande City), a former Democrat who flipped in 2021, according to the House’s unofficial tally.

House Democrats also tried to move funds out of the Property Tax Relief Fund and the Alternatives to Abortion program for their own preferred line items, none of which passed. Rep. John Bryant’s (D-Dallas) proposal to move $4.6 billion from the Property Tax Relief Fund to the Teachers Retirement System was killed by Vasut’s point of order. A similar attempt by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) would have moved $4 billion from property tax relief to the Texas Education Agency for a $10,000 teacher pay increase; it was voted down 66 to 79.

Another strategy Democrats deployed, however, was taking fiscal aim at the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and its head, Ken Paxton.

An amendment by Rep. Jolanda Jones (D-Houston) directed $3.8 million from the OAG to an aid fund for domestic violence victims, and another by Martinez Fischer required a report on dollars spent by the office on litigation against the federal government. Both were adopted.

A third by Rep. James Talarico (D-Austin) would reduce Paxton’s $153,000 salary down to $1 and put the rest toward payment of the $3.3 million “whistleblower” lawsuit settlement — an agreement that is now in question. Talarico’s amendment was placed in Article XI.

Democrats did get some payback against Republicans when Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) killed by point of order Rep. Briscoe Cain’s (R-Deer Park) amendment that would prohibit budget dollars from being used by the Department of Criminal Justice for gender modification procedures.

Notably, Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City), often the proverbial thorn in the side of House leadership, was entirely absent. He had 27 amendments proposed to the budget, but all were bypassed as the author wasn’t there to lay them out.

Due to the Article XI process, House “budget day” is rife with bluster as most amendments are presented to make statements and provide test votes. But the 2023 version was finished far more quickly than to which the members of the Texas House are accustomed.

Now that the budget has moved over to the Senate, the lower chamber has its biggest endeavor off its plate, free to take up all the other issues and pressure points in front of it this session.
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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