AUSTIN -- The Republican-dominated Texas House worked into the night Friday on a proposed $164.5 billion two-year budget that would shrink state services, make deep cuts in education and healthcare, and pare 7,500 jobs from the state workforce.
Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, House Appropriations Committee chairman, said the no-tax spending plan would address the "economic realities facing our state" after a prolonged drop in tax revenue during the recession.
But Democrats contended that the proposal would send Texas in the wrong direction by slashing programs that help the state's most vulnerable residents. Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, called the deliberations a "charade."
Overall, the plan would reduce spending by $23 billion, or 12.3 percent, over the current budget, passed in 2009. It would cut state assistance to schools by $7.8 billion and roll back Medicaid as the program sees surging growth.
It would have repercussions in Tarrant County by whittling funds for area schools and universities. County and municipal officials are also worried about reductions in funding for parks, indigent-defense programs, libraries and other services.
As they began working on more than 370 amendments, House members voted to cut much of the funding for a state arts commission that provides substantial support for cultural projects in Fort Worth. By midevening, scores of amendments were still awaiting action. Lawmakers prepared to work long past midnight and possibly well into the weekend.
Lawmakers in both parties spent much of the day pushing amendments to shift funds to pet priorities, but Republicans, with a two-thirds majority, easily held the upper hand.
Over fierce objections from Democrats, Republicans added amendments that would move more than $40 million from family planning services into programs that promote alternatives to abortion, fund autism research, help children with special needs, and support emergency responders and trauma centers.
Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, won passage of an amendment that would transfer $1.7 million from family planning to help provide community-based care for deaf and blind Texans with multiple disabilities. House members also approved a Zedler amendment that would require public disclosure of monthly financial reports that state health services already provide to the governor and Legislative Budget Board.
Democrats showed their disdain for some of the Republican proposals by registering "present and not voting," known as casting a "white light." Forty-four of the 49 Democrats effectively boycotted a vote on a proposal to transfer $14 million from family planning to mental care for children.
"We're being asked to make a lot of false and unnecessary choices because of lack of leadership," said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who planned to vote against the budget.
Arts agency targeted
House members approved an amendment by Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, to shift $3.5 million from the Texas Commission on the Arts to a state agency that cares for the elderly and for people with developmental and physical disabilities.
Opponents of the amendment, while acknowledging the need to shore up funding for the Department of Aging and Disability Services, said the measure would effectively gut the small arts commission, which provides grants for cultural activities statewide.
Nearly a half-million dollars in grants have been approved this year for Fort Worth organizations, including the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Fort Worth Opera, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, the Van Cliburn Foundation, Hip Pocket Theatre and Imagination Celebration Fort Worth.
House members approved Simpson's amendment 67-61. Seventeen registered "present and not voting."
The arts commission is trying to determine how the amendment would affect it, said Gaye McElwain, director of marketing and communication. She said the measure would eliminate most of the general revenue provided by the state and would undercut the agency's ability to continue receiving federal funds.
On Thursday, House members tentatively agreed to eradicate a $4 billion deficit by making additional cuts for the current year and taking some money from the state's rainy-day fund. Pitts told lawmakers that the actions free up $4.3 billion for education and Medicaid.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294