AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas House approved a supplemental spending bill Thursday to close a $4 billion budget deficit for Medicaid.
The move was an important step toward balancing the current budget after lawmakers in 2011 failed to set aside enough money to pay for the program, which provides health care for the poor and disabled. The state will run out of money for Medicaid in March, and the measure now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, introduced House Bill 10 and urged fellow lawmakers to pass it without any significant changes. The bill provides enough money to solve the shortfall and inject $630 million into the permanent school fund, which is also urgently needed.
"By voting for this, we are asking that over 3 million people receive medical aid after the middle of March, that we are going to pay 225,000 providers to care for our constituents," said Pitts, the House Appropriations chairman.
Democrats, who hold 55 out of 150 seats, had planned to offer amendments to add additional money for public schools, after the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 cut $5.4 billion in funding for education. But Republicans passed a rule last week making that impossible.
The state collected higher-than-expected tax revenue over the last two years and restoring some school funding has become a Democratic priority.
On Thursday, Democrats proposed amendments intended to embarrass Republicans on the question of school funding, but Rep. Troy Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, withdrew them after Pitts acknowledged talks were under way on another supplemental spending bill.
"There is a bipartisan group to work on school finance to see what we can do for our children ... for this school year, and the next biennium," Pitts explained in asking lawmakers to vote for the emergency Medicaid bill.
A senior Democrat, Rep. Rene Oliveira of Brownsville, confirmed that the group had held a lengthy meeting to discuss a new supplemental bill.
"We are working together in a bipartisan way trying to get that done and the dialogue continues to go on," he said. He added that the group would meet again Thursday afternoon.
Conservative Republicans adamantly oppose spending more money on education, but other Republicans who represent suburban areas don't want to appear indifferent to the issue. House Speaker Joe Straus said over the summer that the Legislature should consider restoring some funding for public schools and provide additional funds in the 2014-2015 budget for school growth.
Lawmakers can spend up to $965 million in the current budget without breaking a constitutional spending cap, and the state has the money available.
House Bill 10 passed Thursday 148-0.
House Bill 10: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=HB10