Texas House OKs Emergency Spending for Schools, Fires

By PAUL J. WEBER | April 29, 2013

Firefighter training following a deadly explosion in West, money to arm Texas prosecutors and an extra $500 million for public schools were ways that House lawmakers Friday considered spending the final dollars in the current state budget.

Not all the proposals survived. But the House eventually gave overwhelming approval to an $875 million spending bill that includes an immediate half-billion dollar payout to classrooms and settles the costs from fighting wildfires that ravaged the state in 2011.

Lawmakers also approved $2 million for disaster recovery effort in West, where dozens of families in the small town of 2,800 people remain displaced following the blast at the West Fertilizer Co. plant last week.

Fourteen people were killed in the explosion, most of whom were volunteer firefighters and emergency medics.

But that fresh tragedy did not compel House members to push through a $60 million proposal for more training and resources for volunteer firefighter departments statewide. Ground rules of the budget debate demanded that lawmakers find money to cut if they wanted to spend, and Democrats balked at the training coming at the expense of a program to help feed low-income children.

“We’ve been sent here to make tough choices,” Republican state Rep. David Simpsons said.

The proposal was soundly defeated moments after Democratic state Rep. Naomi Gonzalez cried while describing growing up in a struggling family that would have benefited from programs to make sure schoolchildren don’t go hungry on weekends.

“(This) does an injustice to children like me who, growing up, did not have food at the table,” Gonzalez said. “Who had parents that are working hard who don’t want to be part of the system, who want to give their children something to eat at night.”

Gov. Rick Perry still must sign the spending bill. But with the spending for the current two-year budget now out of the way, lawmakers can devote their full attention in the final month of the 140-day session to hammering out a final budget for 2014-15.

Earlier this month, the House approved a $93.5 billion budget for the next biennium that boosts spending across the board by 7 percent. The Senate this week, meanwhile, approved taking $5.7 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund for water and roads projects, as well as public schools.

Under the Senate plan, nearly 70 percent of the $5.4 billion that lawmakers slashed from classrooms in 2011 would be restored starting this fall.

Republican state Rep. Bryan Hughes tried squeezing in an amendment Friday to give district attorneys in Texas a one-time $7,500 payout for security, following the killing of two Kaufman County prosecutors earlier this year. He withdrew the effort after lawmakers questioned cutting money earmarked for judges to pay for his idea.

“It’s just a one-time ‘Go buy a gun, go buy a monitoring system for your house,”‘ Democratic state Rep. Craig Eiland said. “But it’s not going to be there the next session, the next session, the next session. I just really think you’re putting us in a very bad position.”

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