By Paul J. Weber
AUSTIN — The first state budget under Republican Gov. Greg Abbott slogged toward a major vote Tuesday that inched him closer to sending hundreds more armed troopers to the Texas-Mexico border but muddled his proposed prekindergarten makeover that has underwhelmed educators.
Debate over the $210 billion spending plan was on track to extend well into Tuesday night before its expected passage by the GOP-controlled Texas House.
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. Gone is a trough of taxpayer dollars for risky corporate startups and money to test high school athletes for steroids — both quickly dismantled fixtures of former Gov. Rick Perry’s 14 years in office.
Calls to abolish film incentives that subsidized a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader reality show and efforts by Democrats to mandate reports on equal pay fizzled early as the House churned through 350 amendments tethered to the budget. Partisan battles over anti-abortion programs and school voucher plans still potentially loomed.
In the hallway outside, lobbyists hovered near the House doors and waited for lawmakers to exit, while Republicans inside defended leaving $8 billion in available funds on the sideline.
“This allows us plenty of room to negotiate with the Senate, and for tax cuts,” said Republican state Rep. John Otto, the House’s lead budget writer.
The budget is Abbott’s biggest canvass to start leaving his own mark, but there’s a long way to go.
Abbott has made improving prekindergarten in Texas public schools his signature education proposal, but school districts have largely shrugged at his plan that wouldn’t extend programs to a full day or reduce student-to-teacher ratios. The original price tag on his plan — $130 million a year — is also less than what Texas had offered through a grant program eliminated in 2011 during steep budget cuts.
The House printed up this the budget without funding the pre-K plan, with Republican budget writers saying the proposal was still “evolving.”
Education went on to emerge as an early budget battleground, with Democratic proposals to double an extra $800 million in classroom funding faltering.
“Why wouldn’t you put public education on the wish list?” Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said. “All we’re doing is wishing that more money would go into public education.”
Bigger flare-ups between Republicans are likely ahead.
Both 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 Lt. Gov. Dan 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.