By Matthew D. Geske, Fort Worth Chamber’s Executive Vice President of Governmental Affairs

Texas House members took up Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) on Thursday, better known as the “budget bill.”  Unlike the Senate where amendments are agreed to beforehand, the House debates all number of amendments from the chamber’s 149 house members (Speaker Straus does not offer amendments).  This year, over 400 amendments were filed and all anticipated the debate to go into the early morning hours.  And it did: 1:30 a.m., in fact.  All told, they accepted 65 of those amendments and the state budget sits at $106.8 billion.

Although I was on paternity leave with my first child, I was able to track most of the debate.  Below are a few highlights (and lowlights) of Thursday’s affair.

For years, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has been advocating for what is commonly known as “school vouchers.”  Essentially, parents would receive savings accounts from public dollars to use towards private school tuition.  The House has historically been against vouchers, arguing it dilutes the impact of dollars on public schools.

Last week, Lt. Gov. Patrick asked for an up or down vote on his priority and he got it.  House members voted to block any public dollars for savings accounts by a margin of 103-44.  The Chamber has not taken an official position on this issue, but we believe that a strong public school system is the best bet for a strong workforce.

As a Chamber, we operate as a marketing arm for companies looking to relocate to our area and one of the tools we utilize is the Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF).  In a shocking move, the House stripped all dollars out of the TEF and placed half into the faltering CPS and the other in Health and Human Services.  While this move is a major setback, we believe that when the Senate and House go into conference committee to iron out differences, funding will be restored to this vital program.

On a more positive note, efforts to block high-speed rail in Texas were unsuccessful, leaving the door open for future development.  Although, there are a number of Senate bills targeting high-speed rail that the Chamber is lobbying against.

Also, representatives voted to tap about $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to offset funding losses to transportation.  While the main source of transportation funding comes from oil and gas severance taxes, with the drop in the price of oil, the fund is running low.  After voters twice approved measures to guarantee tax dollars to cover transportation needs, the House took this approach, differing from the Senate which is advocating for taking those dollars to offset costs elsewhere.

Finally, there were some efforts add “bathroom bill” language onto the state budget.  House leaders fought back with “points of order,” which means that either the language is not germane or the amendment has technical flaws.

Visit our website here for more information on the Chamber’s advocacy efforts, including our official agenda, committee members and list of local, state and federal elected officials.