December 6, 2022

House votes to defund Texas Enterprise Fund, cap Attorney General spending in ongoing debate of the $246 billion state budget

The Texas House on Thursday is slated to consider its two-year, $246 billion budget proposal in what could be the chamber’s most animated debate yet this legislative session.

House members have filed nearly 240 proposed tweaks to the massive spending plan and are expected to spend hours taking votes on controversial issues ranging from Medicaid expansion to border security.

Another potential point of contention: What to do with tens of billions of dollars in federal funding for coronavirus relief.

Any amendments adopted Thursday are not guaranteed to remain in the final spending plan lawmakers send to the governor’s desk for a signature. Once the House gives the final OK on its proposed budget, lawmakers from both chambers will meet in a conference committee to hash out differences — a process that will happen largely behind closed doors.

The House gavels in at 10 a.m. We’ll update this page throughout the day. And we’re also providing a livestream of the debate.

Watch live as the House debates its proposed two-year state budget

The House gavels in at 10 a.m. Thursday, though debate on the proposed budget may not begin until after that.View a livestream of the Texas House

House approves amendment to empty governor’s Texas Enterprise Fund

House members adopted an amendment to the budget by state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, that would defund the Texas Enterprise Fund and shift those $100 million dollars to the property tax relief fund. The enterprise fund, a controversial economic development program, is often referred to as a “deal-closing fund” that allows the governor’s office to offer financial incentives for companies considering expanding or relocating in Texas.

Slaton acknowledged that the $100 million is not a significant figure but said Texas taxpayers need any property tax relief they can get.

After the amendment was adopted, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat and longest-serving woman in the history of the Texas Legislature, asked from the back mic whether the House had just OK’d a Slaton tweak. Slaton, a freshman member, had already proposed several amendments by midday Thursday, most of which had either been withdrawn or defeated on a point of order.

“God bless America,” Thompson said as members laughed in the chamber.

Amendments adopted to the budget are not guaranteed to remain in the final spending plan lawmakers send to the governor’s desk for a signature. Once the House gives the final OK on its proposed budget, lawmakers from both chambers will meet in a conference committee to hash out differences.

Lawmakers go after Attorney General Ken Paxton

House members this afternoon adopted an amendment by state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, that would cap what the Texas attorney general’s office can spend on outside legal counsel to $500 per hour.

González said the amendment, which passed 73-64, was filed in response to the state’s major — and costly — lawsuit against Google, which the attorney general’s office has hired outside lawyers to handle. The most senior attorneys could net as much as $3,780 per hour.

Other Democrats also filed amendments taking aim at embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is facing bribery and abuse of office allegations from former agency employees. Paxton has also been under indictment for felony securities fraud charges since 2015.

State Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton offered an amendment that would require the attorney general’s office to submit a quarterly report to the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees detailing the amount of money the agency spent on election- and voting-related litigation. That amendment was adopted.

One amendment by state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie would have barred the agency from using funds appropriated to it “to pay for or support a lawsuit to contest election results outside of the state of Texas,” but Turner withdrew the proposed tweak. The amendment was filed in response to a failed Texas lawsuit after the November 2020 election that contested Joe Biden’s victory as president.

Democrat lawmakers rally ahead of Medicaid expansion effort

As Texas House lawmakers prepared for a long day debating the state budget, three Democratic lawmakers on Thursday morning called for support of a proposed budget amendment that would force a vote on Medicaid expansion.

“I’m calling on [lawmakers] today to support this amendment, and really demonstrate to the other Republican leaders in the state that it is the will of the house to see that this happens,” said Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Carollton.

The floor amendment filed by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, is a nod to House Bill 3871 filed by Johnson. The amendment directs the governor and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to create a government-funded health care plan — whether it is expansion of Medicaid or a new program unique to Texas — that includes adults who earn up to 138% of the federal poverty level.

HB 3871 has garnered bipartisan support and would expand Medicaid using increased federal funds. It has 76 lawmakers publicly signed on to the bill — all House Democrats and nine House Republicans.

But, it has not yet had a committee hearing — a necessary step before the bill could come to a vote before the chamber.

Lawmakers often use budget amendments as a way to force votes on issues that have not gotten committee hearings. However, even if the amendment passes the House, it could be stripped off in the conference committee. Any effort to expand Medicaid would likely face an icier reception in the Senate, which typically is considered more ideologically conservative than the House.

If Texas expanded Medicaid, the federal government would bump its reimbursement to the state from 62% of Medicaid expenditures to 67% — and it would pay 90% of the costs for the estimated 1.4 million adults who would become newly eligible for the program.

Texas had twice the national average of people without health insurance, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exasperated the problem, causing many to lose their insurance supplied by employers, Coleman said. He pointed to Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma as states that have leveraged federal funds to reduce the number of uninsured people in their states.

“In the midst of the pandemic we kept asking communities to be resilient,” Johnson said. “But the reality of it is the state needs to provide the foundational investments that have so long been underfunded, investing in public health and access to health care are essential in keeping Texans back to work, and supporting our recovering economy.” — Reese Oxner

With hundreds of amendments, heated debate is almost certain

House members have pre-filed nearly 240 amendments ahead of Thursday’s debate, which will likely make for contentious moments in the chamber as controversial proposals are all but certain to be brought up.

One issue that’s gained attention in recent days is Medicaid coverage expansion, particularly on the heels of news last week that the state may lose a funding agreement, known as a 1115 waiver, that would have extended Texas’ health care safety net for uninsured residents.

Texas leaders for years have fought to keep the waiver — which doesn’t provide comprehensive health care coverage, drug coverage or other services covered by Medicaid — while resisting expanding Medicaid. A bill authored by state Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Carrollton, this session has gained bipartisan support from a majority of House members. And state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, is expected to push an amendment during Thursday’s budget debate that would “reduce the number of uninsured Texans.”

Lawmakers still haven’t figured out what to do with federal coronavirus aid

As The Tribune’s Ross Ramsey noted this morning, questions remain about how tens of billions of dollars in coronavirus relief aid should be used — and whether it will arrive in time for state lawmakers to use this legislative session.

A proposal by House Appropriations Chair Greg Bonnen, a Friendswood Republican, would create a board that includes the lieutenant governor, House speaker and budget leaders in the two chambers to oversee how that aid is doled out during the legislative interim. That legislation, House Bill 2021, was voted out of committee earlier this week. But it’s unclear whether it will make it to the full House for consideration in the coming weeks.

Even after House approval, a lot will still have to be worked out

Earlier this month, the Senate unanimously approved its own proposed 2022-2023 budget, which included $117.9 billion in general revenue but did not factor in tens of billions of dollars in federal funding for coronavirus aid.

Once the House gives a final sign off to Senate Bill 1, the legislation will head to a conference committee for the two chambers to iron out differences before the Legislature adjourns at the end of May.

Both budget proposals are billions over what Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar in January projected lawmakers would have to work with. That means the two chambers will have to cut down their spending plans or rely on accounting maneuvers to help offset some of those expenses.

Lawmakers also have a shortfall to fill in this year’s budget

On top of passing a 2022-2023 state budget, the Legislature will also have to shore up a shortfall the coronavirus pandemic’s accompanying recession left in the current budget. Hegar, the state’s comptroller, delivered rosier-than-expected news in January, when he estimated the Legislature would face an almost $1 billion deficit for the current budget instead of a $4.6 billion projection he made in July 2020. Hegar cautioned though that his projection, which he could modify again before lawmakers gavel out, was “clouded in uncertainty” due to the pandemic.

House members are also set to debate their proposed spending plan for the current budget on that Thursday, though that conversation is expected to be shorter and less controversial.

This article was originally posted on House votes to defund Texas Enterprise Fund, cap Attorney General spending in ongoing debate of the $246 billion state budget

Sydney Boles