AUSTIN Mandatory random steroid testing of Texas public school athletes got a boost Monday when the state House of Representatives tentatively approved a plan to start before next football season.

The Senate has already passed a similar version and once the House takes an expected final vote Tuesday, the only obstacle will be deciding who pays for it: the state or the ticket-buying public.

If approved, Texas would have the largest high school steroid testing program in the country, targeting at least 22,000 students a year at a cost of about $4 million per year. Athletes in every sport would be subject to testing.

The Senate version calls for the state to pay for the program. The House version would apply a fee to the cost of high school football and basketball games, a method some critics have called a "ticket tax."

Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, the House sponsor of the measure, said he's determined to get the bill passed and to Gov. Rick Perry and expects to meet soon with senators to negotiate a final version. The legislative session ends May 28. "This is an opportunity to go in and do something for our kids," Flynn said.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has made steroid testing one of his top priorities since his campaign last fall. Flynn said he's been pursuing the issue since a House investigation into steroid use in 2005.

But the House version could make school districts dig deep into their budgets to cover costs up front before they start collecting the ticket fee once the 2007 football season begins.

Texas has about 733,000 athletes at about 1,300 public schools, and both the House and Senate bills would require mandatory testing.

The House bill leaves most testing program details to be developed by the University Interscholastic League, which governs high school sports in Texas.

The Senate bill lays out specific penalties for positive tests, including a 30-day suspension for a first offense. A second would bring a one-year suspension, followed by a permanent ban for the third.