The first day of debate over the House Appropriations bill is typically one of the most consequential events of a legislative session. Last Thursday’s debate was no exception. The highlight was a school vouchers amendment by Democrat Abel Herrero, of Corpus Christi: The language of Herrero’s amendment read, “Use of Appropriated Funds for School Vouchers or to Support Tax-Credit Scholarships Prohibited. Money appropriated to the Texas Education Agency by the Act may not be used to pay for or support school vouchers or scholarships for private primary or secondary education using donations received from entities using donations received from entities that receive tax credits as a result of the donations.” This immediately led to a heated discussion between Herrero and Scott Turner, a freshman Republican whose district includes Rockwall County and parts of Collin County. Turner spoke with considerable emotion about the fate of children who grow up in gang-infested neighborhoods, including his own nephew.

The debate was a victory for Democrats and pro-school Republicans, but it could easily have turned into a catastrophe for the anti-vouchers forces. I don’t think Herrero or any other Democrat had a clue about whether the vouchers amendment would pass. For that matter, a lobbyist for the schools told me he didn’t have a count either. As it happened, Herrero won 103 votes, but if he had lost, the Democrats would have been in the position of having empowered Senate education chair and vouchers advocate Dan Patrick. The Democrats did not have good floor leadership when they needed it.

The Republican freshmen were very much in evidence during the budget debate. They seemed to have come up with a plan that would enable them to claim that they had slowed the growth of government. Here’s how it worked: A floor amendment by Steve Toth, of The Woodlands, called for increasing appropriations from the general revenue fund by $12.5 million and giving that amount to the Teacher Retirement System for each of the next two fiscal years. At the same time, the amendment called for cutting $12.5 million for each of the next two fiscal years that had been ticketed for the Texas Education Agency’s strategy of “School Improvement & Support Programs.” Obviously, this was a wash. What did this achieve? Well, the effect was to take money from a state agency (TEA) and give it to a pension fund. Therefore, because a state agency’s budget was cut, so was the size of government, and conservatives could plausibly claim to have reduced it. The trouble was, nobody bothered to check with Teacher Retirement to see if TRS wanted the money. In fact, TRS did not want the money, and put out a statement saying so. In other words, the freshmen were just playing games.

The GOP freshmen did the same thing with the Governor’s Commission on Women: shifted money from the commission to TRS. And if indeed the process can be said to have reduced the size of government, it did so by cutting a program in the office of the state’s Republican governor.

For the most part, the hours after the vouchers vote passed with very little drama  The floor managers of the budget accepted many of the amendments without debate, particularly those that members requested be sent to Article XI. (Article XI is a “wish list” where amendments that members hope will be plucked from bowels of the budget and brought back to life are sent to a kind of purgatory, though few emerge unscathed from that unholy place.) But many lawmakers roamed the aisles for hours, remaining on their feet, huddling with if in anticipation that something was going to happen. And, sure enough, something did.

It was called Amendment 51, and its author was Lon Burnam. The amendment had been voted on earlier in the day without drawing much attention, but it alarmed leaders of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who saw it as a trojan horse that could provide a path for Medicaid expansion. Geanie Morrison, of Victoria, led the move to reconsider the vote by which the earlier version of amendment 51 had passed. Because Burnam, a partisan Democrat, had sponsored the first version of the amendment with John Zerwas, Republican suspicions ran high. The amendment contained provisions similar to language in the Senate bill that set out parameters for expanding Medicaid–the most contentious issue facing the Legislature as the clock works its way toward sine die.

It would have been wiser for Burnam to have gone to the sidelines and let Zerwas take the lead in assuring Republicans that no tricks were intended. But the damage, such as it was, was done. (Even then, the uproar over amendment 51 was overdone. The language was already in the Senate version of the budget, and that was sufficient to provide a pathway to expansion in a conference committee. The TPPF issued a statement saying that the House began a “long walk to capitulation.” I would say the TPPF’s biases are showing. What is the difference, I might ask, between what the Senate did, and what the House did? It was the Senate that “capitulated” first. It was their language that opened the door to Medicaid expansion, not the House’s. I’m not criticizing the language; I’m criticizing TPPF. You cannot trust that group to be honest brokers. It is ridiculous to say that the House began the “long walk to capitulation.” No legitimate think tank would show such obvious bias.)

And so the evening wound down, and members congratulated themselves for the quickest conclusion to a budget debate in memory.

(Photo Credit: Bob Daemmrich)