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Texas House approves $210B budget, but talks with Senate could drag before Abbott gets bill

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AUSTIN, Texas — The budget plan bursts with big wins for Texas Republicans: more border security dollars, room for tax cuts and new jabs at abortion providers.

But a $210 billion spending bill that the House approved Wednesday after a grueling all-nighter still has a far-from-easy path to the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — because the next stop in the Senate could grind the plan to a halt over whether that blueprint is conservative enough.

GOP House leaders, weary after 18 consecutive hours of debate that began at noon Tuesday, nonetheless sounded hopeful after sending the most important bill in the Texas Legislature across the hall to the Senate.

"There's nothing that's non-negotiable," said Republican state Rep. John Otto, the lead House budget writer. "I have a lot of money at this time until I see what the tax cuts are."

Otto said a package of tax cuts could total as much as $4.8 billion — the biggest cuts Texas lawmakers have put on the table in a decade. Both Abbott and the Senate have set similar targets, but the House and Senate could clash over how to hit that number, particularly over whether homeowners should get a break.

With two months left in the first legislative session under Abbott, the focus is quickly shifting from what bills the GOP-controlled Legislature might pass to whether the Senate and House will work together toward the finish line. Tensions have already flickered with new Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a tea party favorite, setting a far more conservative tone in the Senate.

Not that the House budget is without victories for the far right.

Social conservatives cut $3 million out of programs to prevent HIV and sexually transmitted diseases and piled that money into expanding abstinence education in schools. Abortion opponents — having already won restrictions that have reduced the number of Texas abortion facilities into single digits — tucked into the budget new bans that prohibit abortion providers from putting sex education materials in classrooms.

Democrats, outnumbered 2-to-1 in the House, angrily opposed both measures but left little mark on the GOP budget, failing to divert spending elsewhere, particularly to schools. Their attempts to require tracking of bullying in Texas schools, including against gay and transgendered students, and funding a report on equal pay in state agencies also failed.

Yet Democrats still went along in the end, with all of them voting for the bill that passed 141-5. Only a handful of tea party insurgents voted no.

PHOTO: State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, House Appropriations Chairman and author of House Bill 1, raises a finger to vote to table an amendment as debate for the appropriations bill began on the House floor of the State Capitol at the state Capitol, Tuesday, March 31, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Rodolfo Gonzalez)  AUSTIN CHRONICLE OUT, COMMUNITY IMPACT OUT, INTERNET AND TV MUST CREDIT PHOTOGRAPHER AND STATESMAN.COM, MAGS OUT
State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, House Appropriations Chairman and author of House Bill 1, raises a finger to vote to table an amendment as debate for the appropriations bill began on the House floor of the State Capitol at the state Capitol, Tuesday, March 31, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Rodolfo Gonzalez) AUSTIN CHRONICLE OUT, COMMUNITY IMPACT OUT, INTERNET AND TV MUST CREDIT PHOTOGRAPHER AND STATESMAN.COM, MAGS OUT

Democratic state Rep. Donna Howard said the things she opposed weren't "going to prevent me from voting for an overall budget that was good in a lot of ways."

Republicans easily passed their own proposals.

"What's good for me is good for a lot of people," said Republican state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, a doctor who defended his plan for extra funding for abstinence education by recounting his own abstinence until marriage.

Research projects that destroy human embryos also became ineligible for state funds despite protests from other Republicans that doing so would cost scientific jobs.

What stayed intact: ramping up patrols on the border. Republicans swatted down attempts to even slightly nibble at a half-billion dollars earmarked for Abbott's border security plan, which has already passed the House.

Abbott wants to put his stamp on education by improving prekindergarten in Texas public schools, but school districts have been underwhelmed by his $130 million plan, which wouldn't extend programs to a full day or reduce student-to-teacher ratios. The price tag is less than what Texas had offered through a grant program eliminated in 2011 during steep budget cuts.

House leaders left additional pre-K funding out of the budget, but vowed to return to it later.


Associated Press Writer Eva Ruth Moravec contributed to this report.


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Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, front, House Appropriations Chairman and author of House Bill 1, introduces the appropriation bill to the House floor as House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, above, looks on, at the state Capitol, Tuesday, March 31, 2015,  in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Rodolfo Gonzalez)  AUSTIN CHRONICLE OUT, COMMUNITY IMPACT OUT, INTERNET AND TV MUST CREDIT PHOTOGRAPHER AND STATESMAN.COM, MAGS OUT
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