Politics

A bill to spend $16.3 billion in COVID-19 relief funds has advanced to the Texas House

The committee substitute for the bill includes hundreds of millions of dollars to retain frontline health care workers and to support the tourism and hospitality industry.

The Texas State Capitol.

Updated 2:36 p.m. CT Oct. 8

The Texas Senate on Friday voted 31-0 on a third reading to pass a bill allocating $16.3 billion worth of COVID relief funds. The measure now moves to the Texas House, where it will likely undergo additional revisions.

Senate Bill 8 — one of Gov. Greg Abbott's original priorities for the third special legislative session — was a committee substitute that incorporated 12 hours of public testimony from 70 individuals on Monday. Members of the Senate submitted almost 200 additional requests for funding priorities.

"Many of the items in the filed version of Senate Bill 8 remain unchanged," said committee chairwoman Senator Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound — the bill's author. "It provides $7.2 billion to replenish the unemployment compensation fund, ensuring that businesses are not faced with an increase in unemployment taxes due to pandemic related layoffs."

Other spending items retained from the original bill included, but were not limited to:

  • $500.5 million for broadband expansion, including $75 million for broadband pole replacement
  • $300 million to pay for a state operations center to aid the state in disaster response
  • $286.3 million would go to the Teacher Retirement System to cover COVID-related healthcare claims
  • $237.8 million to expand access to mental health care by completing construction of a new state psychiatric hospital in Dallas
  • $200 million would go to cybersecurity projects
  • $113 million would go to the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium to combat the surge in young Texans struggling with depression and the risk of suicide
  • $100 million would go to the Department of Agriculture for foodbanks

"New additions to the substitute include several items to reinforce our frontline workers across the health care industry, including $400 million for one-time retention bonuses to retain critical staffing for nursing facilities, assisted living centers, home health services, community attendants, and emergency medical services," Nelson said.

The substitute bill also included $200 million to provide grants to support Texas’ tourism and hospitality industry, which has been hard hit by the pandemic. Several representatives of the industry testified to request aid on Monday.

Other new items in the bill included:

  • $75 million in one-time grants for rural hospitals
  • $25 million to streamline the Medicaid Children's Health Insurance Program enrollment process and modernize the state's eligibility system
  • $35 million to upgrade filtration and ventilation systems at Texas veterans' homes
  • $15 million to expand a mental health facility in West Texas
  • $16.7 million to increase lab capacity in South Texas
  • $5 million for the Texas federally qualified health center incubator program to increase access to health care services statewide
  • $1.2 million for a new IT system for child advocacy centers

The original bill included $500 million in construction funding for higher education. The revised bill tinkered with allocations and added $40 million in funding for the Texas Epidemic Public Health Institute.

Not included in the bill were funds for affordable housing or eviction relief, both of which were raised by several witnesses during Monday’s testimony.

The hearing marked something of a milestone, in that it is likely to be the last committee hearing to be chaired by Senator Nelson, who is retiring at the end of the current legislative session.

"I want to tell you all thank you," Nelson said as she gaveled out the hearing. "It's been a fabulous Finance Committee. I love you guys to death."

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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