House lawmakers deserted their leadership Thursday, voting overwhelmingly to drain teacher incentive programs championed by GOP Gov. Rick Perry and funnel the money to an across-the-board $800 pay raise for educators before they backed a two-year, $150.1 billion state budget.
``Bottom line, members, do we want to give teachers a pay raise?'' asked Rep. Rick Noriega. He offered the proposal to shift $583 million in funding from the incentive programs to the raise for teachers and other school personnel.
The Houston Democrat's proposal passed 90-56 in the Republican-dominated House, which gave approval to the overall budget with a vote of 129-14 after 3 a.m. today. Now it goes to the Senate for consideration.
Defenders of the incentive programs - including top GOP budget-writers - worked hard to try to ward off the provision. They argued the switch could work against deserving teachers, provide a raise that's less than intended and cost deserving campuses money.
Perry earlier Thursday, before the incentives were cut, had singled them out for praise: ``I think the performance pay that is in this budget will put Texas at the top of the heap from the standpoint of a really strong, powerful message about competition in our public schools."
Those who supported the pay raise said money for the incentive programs could be restored later. But, said Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, "This is the only time this session you will be able to vote for a pay raise for your teachers back home."
Although the move still could be changed as the budget goes through the process in the House and Senate, it was a dramatic stand against the position of GOP budget writers on House Speaker Tom Craddick's leadership team, including Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, Appropriations Committee chairman.
The vote comes after a number of House lawmakers lost in the November election to candidates backed by education interests.
Another amendment adopted 129-8 by the House also was in line with public education interests and at odds with some strong elements in the GOP: It would ban spending any money allocated to the Texas Education Agency on a program in which state tax dollars pay for private-school vouchers.
"Clearly, House members got the message last year that Texas voters are tired of efforts to undermine our neighborhood schools," said Kathy Miller, president of the anti-voucher Texas Freedom Network.
Although he voted against the pay raise, Chisum noted as he laid out the budget that the majority of spending in the proposed budget goes to public and higher education.
``Our children, who are our most precious asset, deserve our attention,'' he said.
Democrats argued the overall budget as presented to the House, with its 5.4 percent spending increase, would not properly serve the needs of children and other Texans who use many state services.
``The state of Texas is a stalled car in terms of dealing with the issues that affect Texans, whether its preventing a child from becoming a criminal or making sure a child can get health care from the neighborhood doctor,'' Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said in an interview. He wanted to see more money go toward health and human services.
Rep. Joaquin Castro said that Texas, facing problems and inadequate funding in key programs, must do more in areas including preventing family violence.
``We have literally become the shame of the nation,'' said Castro, D-San Antonio, who unsuccessfully sought to shift $1.5 million a year from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund overseen by Perry to a program serving at-risk youth in the Department of Family and Protective Services. The budget includes increases for dropout prevention, college student financial aid, programs meant to divert offenders from prison and border security. In Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, it would allow for spending to cover growth, some cost increases and higher reimbursement rates for doctors and dentists. Higher reimbursement rates are meant to spur more doctors to accept such patients.
If another bill passes to allow it, the budget also would pay for adding more youngsters to CHIP, which covers children in families who aren't poor enough to qualify for Medicaid but still can't afford private insurance. ``This budget meets Texas' priorities and leaves no one behind,'' said Rep. Frank Corte of San Antonio, the House Republican Caucus chairman. He called it a ``sound balance of justified government spending and fiscal responsibility.''
The budget leaves more than $8.5 billion on the table, including new general revenue and money in the state's rainy day fund.
But House rules governing Thursday's debate didn't allow lawmakers to add any of that to the budget for the items they deem important. Instead, the rules required lawmakers who wanted to add money to one part of the budget to shift it from another part, leaving its bottom line at $150.1 billion.
Among Democrats' priorities, besides more pay for teachers, was more spending on programs including pre-kindergarten, at-risk youth services and health care for the needy.
Of the billions of dollars left on the table, GOP leaders want to save part of it to make sure they have enough to subsidize future local school property tax relief. The House already has approved a separate bill - not included in the House Bill 1 budget tally - that would send $14.2 billion to school districts over two years to pay for that local tax relief.
Leaders also note they will need to address other key issues, including any extra funding that will be needed to improve the troubled Texas Youth Commission. Budget writers are waiting for a firm plan for TYC before allocating additional money.
Lawmakers will have plenty of time to tinker with the spending plan. After the House approves its version of the budget, the Senate will approve its own plan, and negotiators will work out differences.