- Associated Press - Thursday, April 6, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - As a budget shortfall in Texas threatens cuts to colleges and Medicaid, a costly border security operation is proving largely untouchable despite President Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall and the plunging number of people caught illegally entering the U.S.

A prolonged oil slump has left lawmakers about $6 billion short of the money needed to keep the status quo in Texas, which attracts about a million new residents every two years. But border security is one area where Republicans - who control state government - have all but refused to search for savings.

During a key budget vote on Thursday, House Democrats proposed taking dollars earmarked for hundreds of state troopers on the Texas-Mexico border and National Guard patrols, and putting that money instead toward other programs they say are underfunded. One even proposed tacking onto a $218 billion spending bill a prohibition against using state funds on Trump’s border wall.

But the proposals to scale back Texas’ $800 million border operation appeared largely symbolic during a marathon debate in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Illegal border crossings have plummeted in recent months. In March, authorities caught 12,193 people at the southern border - the lowest monthly figure in at least 17 years, and the second straight month that border arrests sharply dropped. Still, Republican officials from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on down embrace Trump’s plans to build a wall, and the state is committing more money to border security efforts.

“At the federal level, the money hasn’t been turned loose to apply the new resources that are needed to do what President Trump has said needs to be done, and what I agree needs to be done,” said Republican Rep. Matt Schaefer, a U.S. Navy reserve lieutenant from East Texas who is among the most far-right lawmakers in the Texas House. “This is going to take time. I don’t believe that we can stand down while the federal government steps up. And that’s going to be awhile.”

The state is set to pass a new budget by June, and just about every part of Texas government is in line to take hit: Public universities are fighting a proposed $300 million cut, and one of Abbott’s biggest initiatives - bolstering pre-kindergarten - is also getting short shrift. More than $2 billion in proposed cost cuts to Medicaid is also on the table, and many state agencies are under a hiring freeze.

The Senate spared border security from any cuts, and the House plan would also keep funding 50-hour workweeks on the border for nearly two dozen Texas Rangers and 250 troopers. The House only stopped short of purchasing new big-ticket defense items, such as more spy planes or armored boats to patrol the Rio Grande.



The Texas House has voted to oppose taxpayer dollars going to private and religious schools - expressly forbidding state funding for vouchers.

Thursday’s 103-44 vote came during the House’s larger budget debate and could kill a sweeping “school choice” bill approved by the state Senate last week.

Republicans control both chambers but while many senators see vouchers as a civil rights issue that helps poor children leave failing public schools, the House has repeatedly defeated any proposal that could hurt funding for traditional classrooms.

House Democrats opposing vouchers typically team with Republicans from rural communities, where schools are top employers as well as social centers offering football and other popular activities.

Anticipating opposition, the Senate voucher bill exempted communities with fewer than 285,000 residents. But overwhelming House opposition didn’t wavier.



The Texas House has voted to take $20 million from the state’s environmental agency and funnel it toward an “Alternative to Abortion” program that counsels low-income, pregnant women.

Thursday’s 93-52 vote came after Republicans said the program had sought $35 million but was set to get less than $19 million. They argued that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had received extra funding it wouldn’t miss.

Democratic Rep. Rafael Anchia said the move wasn’t anti-abortion but instead “pro-birth” because “after that, you’re on your own. You’re going to have to breathe dirty air.”

Lawmakers have spent hours lumbering through the House version of the 2017-2018 Texas budget.

The proposal may not survive since the final House budget still has to be reconciled with a previously approved state Senate spending plan.



The House has voted to restore some funding to a Texas Medicaid program providing therapy for disabled children, softening $350 million in cuts that sparked uproar last session.

Thursday’s move came during debate on the state budget. The funding could still be removed since the final House budget will have to be reconciled with the Senate’s budget.

The original cuts reduced state reimbursement rates for therapy providers, leaving some children without speech and other therapies.

Lawmakers got the extra funding by removing $43 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund, which is overseen by the governor and lures job-creating firms to Texas.

Seeking to roll back last session’s cuts occurred as Texas’ health department mulls new cuts. These would reduce Medicaid reimbursements to therapy providers for Texans with intellectual and developmental disabilities.



The House is slogging through hundreds of remaining amendments before the expected approval of its version of the Texas budget and should go well past midnight. The Senate is adjourned until Monday.



“What happened today is one of the most offensive things and disgusting things that I have ever seen in this body,” Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who took to the floor t oppose the proposal redirecting money from the Texas Enterprise Fund to cover rollbacks of Medicaid funding cuts the Legislature approved in 2015.

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