House takes up state budget for debate


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on April 4, 2013 at 6:41 PM

Updated Thursday, Apr 4 at 6:48 PM

AUSTIN -- With the crack of the gavel, the Texas House of Representatives convened an hour earlier than normal Thursday morning in order to tackle the biggest single piece of legislation this session -- the state budget. 

"Today is the one day where every issue we wrestle with comes to the floor," said state Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin). "A lot of the debate that you hear today will actually be a harbinger of the debate that is coming on the bills that would spend the money that is being appropriated here."
Thursday marked the fifth and final budget debate for Strama, who has announced his retirement from the Texas House after the 83rd Texas Legislature concludes. Despite the efforts of many members to create a bipartisan spirit this session, Strama says budget debates have been known to be brutal.
"It's an excruciating, long process. Sometimes we're here until 2, 3, 4 in the morning," said Strama. "This is an important part of the process, but it's not the part that I will reflect most fondly upon in my retirement."
The packet on lawmakers' desks Thursday morning contained 267 amendments prioritizing funding for state programs. Issues awaiting debate included everything from stem cell research and women's health to health insurance for children and Medicaid, a veritable bullet list of potential hot button items.
One of the biggest political footballs Thursday dealt with public education. While the House budget adds $2.5 billion over enrollment growth to public schools, Democrats made an early push to increase the amount of funding made available.
"I'm having a hard time figuring out how we get to the point where we restore the $5 billion that we took from our school children last session," state Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) prodded House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) Thursday morning.
"Most school districts will get back to the 2010-2011 school year funding levels," Pitts countered. 
Late Thursday, the conservative chamber voted 103-43 in approval of an amendment offered by state Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) banning the use of public funds for private schools, effectively tabling the subject of school vouchers this session.
"We know we still have some money on the table that we could appropriate toward public education and I think a lot of us would like to see more of a restoration put in place," said state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. 
"I think the majority of it will probably be accomplished later in the session through some of the bills that are still before us, through the conference committee work," said Howard. 
"A lot of us are waiting to see what the comptroller's going to do when she revises her revenue estimate. We assume that there's going to be more money available for us to work with," said Howard, adding, "We have to see what's going to happen with the Economic Stabilization Fund, otherwise known as the rainy day fund."
"Not every school district is going to see huge increases," said House Appropriations Committee colleague Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock). "If you are on the lower end of funding you will see a much more significant increase. If you are at the higher end of funding you may see a pretty minimal increase, actually."
"This budget, like with the session overall, is going relatively very smoothly," Gonzales told KVUE. "A lot of cooperation, a lot of collaboration and we're doing a pretty good job." 
The House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the $193.8 billion budget two weeks ago. Compared to his freshman debut in the 82nd Texas Legislature two years ago, Gonzales says the current session is moving at blistering speed.
"We've done the education overhaul, we've done water and we've done the budget," said Gonzales. "Those are three major items for this session that we would have knocked out in the first week of April. The one that's kind of lingering out there is going to be transportation, that will be the next big one."
Yet on budget day, this session's new found collegial spirit will face its toughest trial.
"This is where it's tested," said Strama, noting that the budget will certainly leave interests for both parties wanting.
"I do think there is a sense of a good faith effort being made to undo some of the harm that was done two years ago, that today might not be the day where it all melts down," he said.