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Budget yes, UI not yet

The conference committee on the budget finished its work yesterday.

While final details are still emerging, the 10 conferees worked out a last minute plan for spending $700 million of federal stimulus money for state fiscal stabilization. They hope that it will avert a special session, even if Perry vetoes some or all of the money. It appeared to go to school textbooks in part. And there were other things funded that are near and dear to the Perry family, such as preservation of a couple more county courthouses ($7 million) and restoring the fire-gutted Governor’s Mansion.

Burkablog and Floor Pass, which notes that the committee will vote out the budget on Tuesday, fill in a few more details. The first obstacle is making sure Governor Perry will sign it, but so far there’s no evidence that he wants to force a do-over. Not dipping into the Rainy Day Fund, for which we can all thank President Obama and the stimulus package, likely helps out there.

Unclear at this time is the fate of the Davis/Walle amendment, which would drain money from the Texas Enterprise Fund in the event that SB1569 gets vetoed. And speaking of SB1569, it took a few steps forward in the House, but ultimately was not brought to a vote. The best writeup I’ve seen about what went on during this comes from Ed Sills’ TxAFLCIOENews; I’ve reproduced it beneath the fold.

According to Brandi Grissom on Twitter, the House has recessed for the night due to its computers being down, without having passed any bills today. They’re scheduled to work Saturday and Sunday, and according to Gardner Selby, voter ID is supposedly atop the calendar for Saturday. That’s assuming they actually get to it – as we’ve seen multiple times this session, being on the calendar is no guarantee of anything. The Democrats will surely do what they can to run out the clock if they feel they must. We’ll see how far down the agenda the House gets tomorrow.

The Texas House started debating SB 1569, the unemployment insurance bill, and it was going well until lawmakers breathed invisible gas, postponed action, started debating the top 10 percent rule, breathed more invisible gas and quit for the evening.

That’s as good an explanation as any for a day in which not a single new bill was completed on the House floor. Mind you, this is not a complaint or a criticism; it’s just weird as the House marches towards next week’s doomsday deadlines on all legislation. One theory making the rounds is that lawmakers are trying to avoid consideration of the “voter ID” bill, but no first-hand knowledge is to be found here.

The debate on SB 1569 began on a positive note for labor’s position as the bill sponsor, Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, maintained control of the issues and won a key vote to fend off an amendment that might have derailed the bill.

Strama stressed that the bill would bring in $555 million (plus up to $450 million in federal extension funds) and that amendments that had drawn a consensus would reduce the cost to employers, keeping them ahead of the game until 2021. He said the bill would deliver relief to laid-off workers and employers “while we are in pain”.

The Austin lawmaker noted that at present, 295,000 Texans are drawing Unemployment Insurance benefits. (That number is about one-fifth of the total number of unemployed workers here.)

Among the amendments added to the bill:

–An amendment by Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, that bars transfer of funds from the UI system to the Texas Enterprise Fund, a governor-controlled economic development fund, if the UI fund hits a specific floor. This amendment was accepted without debate.

–An amendment by Rep. Carol Kent, D-Dallas, that implements extended benefits for some 80,000 Texas workers. The provision will bring in up to $450 million in additional federal funds. The amendment was added to the bill on a record vote of 100-44. Amazingly, 44 Republicans voted simply not to take the federal unemployment extension money at no additional cost to Texas or employers.

–An amendment by Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, that allows the Texas Workforce Commission to collect overpayments made to claimants because of agency errors. The United Labor Legislative Committee has opposed a different version of the amendment in the past because the proposals lacked due process. But Harless noted she worked with the Texas AFL-CIO and the Center for Public Policy Priorities to include safeguards: no interest; a one-year statute of limitations for collecting incorrectly dispensed funds; and the availability of payment plans for return of the money. Following that explanation, the measure was added by consensus.

–An amendment by Rep. Todd Smith, R-Bedford, that holds employers harmless when the cost of expanded UI coverage eventually exceeds the benefit of the federal funds. Smith said he had opposed the bill outright until hearing from Bell Helicopter and a local chamber of commerce, both of which calculated that not passing the bill would be more expensive than passing it. The amendment offers employers a cut in the franchise tax at the point when the state determines the law would have a net cost to employers. Smith conceded the amendment only applies to companies that pay the franchise tax (not, generally, small businesses), but he said the bill is better with the amendment than without it. The amendment was accepted.

–An amendment by Strama that clarifies the new coverage for part-time workers will apply to part-time workers who lose their jobs and seek continued part-time work (and not to full-time workers who seek part-time work). Strama said that clarification saves $5 million.

Lawmakers fended off a proposal by Rep. Ken Legler, R-Pasadena, that would have subjected unemployed workers to a drug test before they could collect benefits.

After some heated debate involving several lawmakers, Strama managed to morph the proposal to include the issue in the interim study of the UI system proposed under the bill. That occurred on a key 74-67 vote that had been preceded by two procedural votes that were close enough to require member-by-member verifications.

After some procedural wrangling, Strama postponed the bill until 5 p.m. The House never touched the bill again today.

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