- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The legislative session is just getting started, but tough budget choices could eventually pit Texas kid against Texas kid for increased state funding.

As they scramble to impose belt-tightening amid slumping oil prices, lawmakers appear willing to spend to fix a flawed foster care system, but may do so while forgoing additional money for public education, which is far more expensive.

Republicans and Democrats agree that foster care needs improving - a federal judge is already ordering her own fixes after declaring in 2015 that the state’s system violated youngsters’ constitutional rights.

The initial state Senate version of the budget has proposed an additional $260 million for foster care, and the House offered a bit more. But those numbers could climb since the Department of Family and Protective Services previously asked for $500-plus million for emergency improvements alone.

Meanwhile, the Texas Supreme Court ruled last summer that Texas’ school finance system, while deeply flawed, is minimally constitutional - ensuing lawmakers dodged a bullet and won’t have to devise a costly overhaul for how the state funds public education.

The House’s draft budget included $2.2 billion extra to cover the average annual increase in public school students statewide amid Texas’ population boom, and an additional $1.5 billion in funding on top of that - but only with the potentially major caveat that the Legislature hammer out a new school finance system.

The draft Senate budget has an outlay for rising enrollment costs, but not extra public education funding beyond that.

The budget isn’t always a zero-sum game where dollars flowing to one area neatly deplete spending elsewhere. Still, it’s possible to envision public schools not getting funding beyond enrollment growth while more money flows to long-neglected foster care once the Legislature settles on a final budget.

Here are other, more-immediate things likely to make news in the coming week in Texas politics:

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FETAL REMAINS RULING

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks plans to rule by Friday on whether Texas can enforce health department rules mandating burial or cremation of fetal remains from abortions or miscarriages.

The rules seek to ban hospitals and abortion clinics from disposing of fetal remains as biological medical waste, usually meaning they are incinerated and placed in sanitary landfills. They would have taken effect last month, but advocacy groups sued, arguing they had no health benefit and could unduly burden women seeking abortions.

In temporarily blocking the regulations while he mulls a more permanent ruling, Sparks has already said they serve no medical purpose and are purely political. Even as the case continues, though, GOP-backed bills in the Legislature seek to codify them into state law.

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ABBOTT, PATRICK TEAM UP FOR ‘SCHOOL CHOICE’

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are planning a relatively rare joint public appearance Tuesday at a state Capitol rally slated to feature thousands of parents, teachers and students clamoring for “school choice” in Texas.

Patrick has long been the state’s top advocate for school voucher programs that seek to provide public money who choose to send their children to private and religious schools. Those proposals have stalled, but Patrick did successfully oversee a major expansion of charter schools statewide while heading the Senate Education Committee in 2013.

The lieutenant governor has vowed not to challenge fellow Republican Abbott in the 2018 GOP primary - despite being far more vocal than the governor on many key issues that energize social conservatives, from school vouchers to an anti-LGBT rights bathroom bill filed in the Legislature to fully embracing Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.

Abbott has so far said little about a possible primary challenge from Patrick or anyone else - though he could change that Tuesday.

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SENATE FINANCE COMMITTEE

The upper chamber’s chief budget writer, Republican Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, is convening Finance Committee meetings every weekday for the next three weeks. After an organizational gathering Monday, the first order of business will be a deeper discussion on public education funding the following day.

Answers to how much the state decides to spend on foster care and public schools - and on everything else in Texas’ 2018-2019 budget - will begin being answered during these hearings.

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