House budget amendments seek to ignite controversial topics

AUSTIN, Texas (TRIBUNE) -- Setting the stage for a protracted and likely heated debate over the state budget this week, Texas House lawmakers on Monday filed more than 400 amendments that touch on some of the most incendiary political issues of the day.

Those topics include border security and immigration; regulations targeting bathroom use and the rights of transgender people; and restrictions on abortion and the use of fetal tissue for research. Below, we take a look at some of amendments expected to keep House lawmakers up late Thursday night when they debate their budget.

Bathroom use and transgender rights

The budget debate offers an opportunity for some House Republicans to force a vote on bathroom restrictions similar to those put forth in the Senate’s controversial “bathroom bill.”

An amendment by state Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, would cut off funding to state agencies or governmental units that use public funds to "construct, renovate, or reclassify" a restroom to "allow or enable a man to enter a women's restroom facility."

That language reflects similar rhetoric used by Senate Republicans, who have pushed their bathroom legislation as a way to keep men out of women’s bathrooms. But advocates say the legislation is aimed at discriminating against transgender people and will not solve any perceived problems with public safety. Businesses are lobbying strongly against the bill’s passage, and House Speaker Joe Straus has said he is not a fan of the legislation. He recently blocked three bathroom-related amendments from being considered by the chamber.

Another budget amendment, by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, targets transgender prisoners. It would ban the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from using its funding to pay for gender transitioning or sexual reassignment surgery.

Border security and immigration

A slew of amendments from Democrats seeks to defund some of the controversial border surge that lawmakers approved in 2015 as a way of combating illegal immigration. Critics say the $800 million pot of two-year funding has been ineffective and poorly monitored, and several amendments would require independent government agencies to review the cost-effectiveness of the border spending.

Proposals by state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, would cut funding for the border surge, which primarily pays for Department of Public Safety officers stationed near the Texas-Mexico border, and offer it up for veterans’ programs. $19 million would pay for deferred maintenance costs at the Texas Military Department. $145.6 million would fund a program that pays university tuition costs for veterans and their children.

An amendment by state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, would cut $7.5 million from the Department of Public Safety budget to pay for public schools. And several amendments by state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, would use portions of the border surge budget to pay for financial aid programs for public universities. None of the amendments is expected to pass, but they could force Republicans to take votes that could later be used in political campaigns.

Abortion and fetal tissue

Anti-abortion regulations made a predictable appearance in the state budget amendments, with several lawmakers seeking to boost funding for a controversial anti-abortion counseling program by cutting funds elsewhere.

State Rep. Mike Lang, R-Granbury, would cut about $16 million from the Texas Lottery Commission; state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, would cut $35 million from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; and state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, would cut $16 million from the Texas Department of Agriculture. All of those cuts would provide additional funding to the Alternatives to Abortion program, which provides "pregnancy and parenting information” to low-income women.

Other lawmakers focused their amendments on restricting the use of fetal tissue for medical and scientific research. Two amendments by Cain would bar state funding from subsidizing fetal tissue research or any other research “which involves the destruction of a human embryo.” That would have a similar effect as a bill passed by the Senate, which seeks to ban abortion providers from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers.

Private school subsidies

House leaders on education policy have said a controversial plan, endorsed by Senate Republicans, to subsidize private school tuition with public dollars is likely dead.

But several amendments would force House Republicans to take a vote on “school choice” issues. A proposal by state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, would take $20 million intended for the House’s public school finance reform bill and put it toward education savings accounts for children with disabilities. Another proposal by Cain would create an education savings account program at the Texas Education Agency if private school choice legislation passes.

Still other amendments take a hardline stance against subsidizing private schools. One, by state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, would bar public funds for “nonpublic education,” including school vouchers, education savings accounts or tax credit scholarship programs. State Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, authored a similar amendment.

Other amendments

Still other proposals authored by state lawmakers seek to stir up controversy on topics too far-ranging to easily categorize. One, by state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, would ban all state travel to California. Another by Cain would cut funding from the Center for Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities, which seeks to improve health outcomes for Texans of color. And a proposal by state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, would ban any state funding for the construction or maintenance of a border wall — such as the kind championed by President Donald Trump — in Big Bend National Park.

Julián Aguilar, Aliyya Swaby and Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

The Texas Tribune


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