Texas House OKs $210B budget after 17 hour floor debate

Texas Capitol

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — New Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to lower taxes in Texas and send hundreds more armed troopers to the Texas-Mexico border is within reach after Republicans muscled a $210 billion budget through the House early Wednesday.

A pre-dawn vote of 141-5 sent the spending blueprint to the Senate, where the biggest question might be whether the plan is far enough to the right for new Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a staunch tea party favorite.

Not that there isn’t plenty for Republicans to like.

Social conservatives cut $3 million out of programs to prevent HIV and sexual transmitted diseases and piled that money into expanding abstinence education in schools. Abortion opponents — having already won restrictions that have plunged the number of Texas abortion facilities into single digits — tucked into the budget new bans that prohibit abortion providers from putting sex education materials in classrooms.

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Democrats, outnumbered 2-to-1 in the House, angrily opposed both measures but left little mark on the GOP budget after 17 hours of debate, failing to divert spending elsewhere, particularly to schools.

With two months left in the first legislative session under Abbott, the biggest tax cuts in Texas in a decade are in the pipeline and some measure of relief for congested highways has wide support. A trough of taxpayer dollars for risky corporate startups and funding to test high school athletes for steroids — both fixtures of former Gov. Rick Perry’s 14 years in office — were quickly dismantled.

Calls to abolish film incentives that subsidized a reality show of Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and efforts to research equal pay at state agencies fizzled as the House churned through 350 proposed budget amendments. Collecting school data on bullying in Texas schools, including against gay and transgendered students, also failed.

Republicans muscled past proposed changes from outnumbered Democrats and easily passed their own, including the extra funding for abstinence education at the expense of HIV prevention programs.

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“What’s good for me is good for a lot of people,” said Republican state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, a doctor who defended his proposal by recounting his own abstinence until marriage.

Research projects that destroy human embryos also became ineligible for state funds despite protests from other Republicans that doing so would cost scientific jobs.

What stayed intact: ramping up patrols on the border. Republicans swatted down attempts to even slightly nibble at a half-billion dollars earmarked for Abbott’s border security plan, which has already passed the House.

Abbott wants to put his stamp on education by improving prekindergarten in Texas public schools, but school districts have been underwhelmed by his $130 million plan, which wouldn’t extend programs to a full day or reduce student-to-teacher ratios. The price tag is less than what Texas had offered through a grant program eliminated in 2011 during steep budget cuts.

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House leaders left additional pre-K funding out of the budget, but vowed to return to it later.

Democratic proposals to double an extra $800 million in classroom funding also faltered.

“Why wouldn’t you put public education on the wish list?” Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said.

The House and Senate have outlined tax cut packages — another priority for Abbott — that top $4 billion. But there is disagreement on how to get there, with Patrick’s plan in the Senate calling for a property tax break that would save the average homeowner about $200 a year. The House could favor a lower sales tax instead.

The Senate has yet to pass its budget, and spending differences between the chambers will consume much of the final weeks of the Legislature before the budget reaches Abbott’s desk.