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Jim Pitts

Senate passes non-abortion bills, committee passes HB2

The decks are cleared on the Senate side for the main event.

In a speedy Thursday morning meeting with little debate, the upper chamber passed Senate Bill 2 with a 30-1 vote, allowing Texas judges and juries to sentence 17-year-olds convicted of capital murderers to life in prison with parole after 40 years. It also passed Senate Joint Resolution 1 unanimously, a measure to ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to spend money from the Rainy Day Fund on transportation initiatives.

SB 2, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, alters Texas law to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eliminated mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles last year. The Senate debated the bill for about 20 minutes before voting to suspend the rules and pass it. The measure now heads to the House.

The transportation bill, by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would move nearly $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to the Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT has said it needs about $4 billion to deal with growth and congestion on state roads. The House, meanwhile, is working on a different version of the transportation bill, raising questions about whether the two chambers can agree before the session ends.

Both bills then went to the House, which wasted no time in passing SB2. It now goes to Rick Perry, though some people think SB2 is unconstitutional as written – Sen. Jose Rodriguez released a statement saying so after SB2 passed; Texpatriate disagrees with him. There was also some separate action on transportation and an issue that isn’t on the session agenda at this time.

The House Appropriations Committee met on Thursday afternoon and passed House Bill 5, a major “TRB” measure by House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

The bill would issue bonds for 62 campus construction projects, though House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, made it clear that it will not be sent to the House chamber for a vote until Perry adds the issue to the special session call.

At Thursday’s meeting, the committee also unanimously passed House Joint Resolution 2, a transportation bill by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, which would give the Texas Department of Transportation additional funding from the state’s gas revenues. TxDOT officials have indicated that the department needs roughly $4 billion a year to maintain current traffic congestion in the state.

No clue if Perry will let the campus construction bill move forward. In the meantime, the Senate moved forward on the abortion bill as well.

As the news conference was going on, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee met and approved House Bill 2, which would ban abortions at 20 weeks of gestation and tighten regulations on abortion facilities and providers. Dewhurst said that the full Senate would approve the bill on Friday — and that the gallery would be cleared if protesters mounted any demonstrations to impede the process.

In a likely preview of the debate to come Friday, the committee voted down two amendments offered by state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, that would have created exemptions for victims of rape or incest and abortion facilities more than 50 miles from an ambulatory surgical center.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she plans to offer additional amendments on the Senate floor and that the debate could last eight hours.

The news conference in question was held by David Dewhurst, who beat his chest and clung to outside agitator Rick Santorum in a pathetic attempt to look like he was in charge of something. While it had originally looked like the Senate vote on HB2 would wait till Monday, it’s clear that Dewhurst wants to get it over with as quickly as possible so he can minimize the odds of his screwing something up.

Elsewhere in the House

No action on transportation yet.

House budget writers on Tuesday ended a hearing on transportation funding with no clear decision about how to raise money for Texas roads.

The House Appropriations Committee is considering several proposals to see which has the most support, even if that means trying to pass a combination of bills in the remaining days of the 30-day special session, said Aaron Greg, chief of staff for state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the chamber’s lead budget writer.

The House committee was expected to pass House Joint Resolution 1, which would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment to divert half of the oil and gas severance taxes that fill the Economic Stabilization Fund — or Rainy Day Fund — to transportation funding.

Instead, the hearing revealed lawmakers’ concerns about whether that bill would provide enough funding for roads in the long term. Lawmakers expressed more interest in other proposals to raise money for transportation.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he worried about a safeguard in the bill that was intended to keep the balance in the Rainy Day Fund from falling too low.

Turner said that the minimum amount of money the fund must maintain would start at more than $4 billion, would rise to more than $5 billion in 2015 and would continue to increase over time. At some point in the future, the minimum amount needed in the fund would rise so high, Turner said, that no money from it would be allocated to roads.

“I am very uncomfortable with that because you have a perpetual savings account that becomes very, very difficult to touch,” Turner said in an interview.


Five other transportation proposals were discussed at the committee hearing. Lawmakers seemed most interested in HJR 2, by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso.

Currently, transportation is funded largely through a 20-cent tax on gasoline, and a quarter of that amount goes into public education. HJR 2 would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to allocate the tax on fuel solely to transportation needs and then use the Rainy Day Fund to replace the lost education funds.

“Pickett’s bill has some attraction for several of us. It’ a lot cleaner,” Turner said. “We simply want to make sure education doesn’t miss out at all.”

HJR 2 would generate slightly less money than HJR 1, but both would produce about $800 million for transportation.

Have I mentioned lately that raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation would generate more revenue, and it would leave the Rainy Day Fund alone? I’m just saying.

Meanwhile, there was progress on the third issue of the session.

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee has once again recommended a bill that would close a sentencing loophole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.

Members passed House Bill 4 with a 5-1 vote Tuesday morning following public testimony Monday.

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburgh, cast the dissenting vote. Canales has been pushing his own version of a new sentencing structure that would allow for life with parole and life without parole. But House Bill 10 also included a lengthy list of mitigating circumstances to be used during sentencing.

Canales’ bill was left pending in committee.


Prosecutors have asked that state legislatures move 17-year-old capital murder defendants in with the criminal code that covers juveniles, ages 14-16, who receive mandatory life with parole eligibility at 40 years.

The Senate repeatedly has approved a bill that would do just that, but representatives have gone back and forth on what is appropriate punishment for a juvenile.

Senate Bill 2 also has passed out of committee and is waiting on a full hearing.

If either of these bills fails to pass this time around, it won’t be because of a filibuster, that’s all I know.

Public Integrity Unit employees get layoff notices

What is to come if nothing changes.

Rosemary Lehmberg

Travis County commissioners are still holding out hope the state will fund the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, but took an early step to let employees know their jobs are on the line.

Voting unanimously Tuesday, commissioners are giving layoff notices to more than 30 employees whose jobs will end Sept. 30. Still, if the state ends up funding the unit — either through the Legislature or department grants — or if the county ends up paying the $3.7 million to keep the unit going, those staffers will come back.


State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, filed a bill on Monday to override the governor’s veto, after filing a similar bill in the last special session to do the same thing. That bill was left pending in committee after a hearing. Deece Eckstein, Travis County Intergovernmental Relations Coordinator, said it’s not clear if such a bill can override the governor’s veto: “It’s a new parliamentary issue. … We won’t know until it gets to the House floor.”

[PIU Chief Gregg] Cox said the state’s Department of Insurance, which refers cases to the unit in Travis County, pays the salaries of attorneys in the District Attorney’s offices of Dallas, Harris and Bexar counties.

Commissioners discussed having other counties help pay for the unit, but did not get into details.

“A lot of these options we can deliberate in the future,” County Judge Sam Biscoe said.

Rep. Turner tried to override Perry’s veto in the first special session, but it did not get a vote, having come up late in the session. He had the support of Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts and at least the tacit support of Speaker Straus, so this effort does have a chance. I don’t know if he;ll be able to find enough votes, however, and as noted nobody knows if what he’s doing is legal, as it’s never been tried before. No time like the present, I say. If the Lege doesn’t override the veto, then Travis County will have to consider its options. Laying off all the employees is not a viable option, that much I know.

No override of Public Integrity Unit funding veto


State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

A legislative move to restore state funding for the ethics-enforcing Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office died Friday afternoon.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said no vote is expected on House Concurrent Resolution 6 — the attempt by state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, to override Gov. Rick Perry’s veto of more than $7 million in state funding to the unit over two years.


Turner insisted that he had the votes for the committee to approve the resolution, but he said members were eager to leave Austin on Friday and did not want to stick around and vote.

He told reporters he won’t ask for a vote before the special legislative session ends Tuesday.

See here, here, and here for the background. I didn’t really think this was possible – Rep. Turner may have had the tacit support of Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts and Speaker Straus, but getting to a two-thirds majority in each chamber to override seems like a pretty big stretch. The legality of this unprecedented move – normally, veto overrides happen in the same session as the vetoes themselves – was not established, either. It would have been a fascinating exercise in government theory to pursue it, but it’s hardly a surprise that it went nowhere. Attention now turns back to Travis County Commissioners Court, which will likely consider the matter of filling in the funding gap in the next couple of weeks, and to the TPJ complaint against Rick Perry for the veto threat, for which I have not seen any updates as yet.

Even Rick Perry thinks the slash and burn crowd is nuts

Insert pithy quote about reaping and sowing here.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Our corndog spending is under control

Gov. Rick Perry shot back Monday at conservative critics who say the state budget is growing too fast, offering the clearest signal yet that he plans to sign the two-year, $197 billion appropriations bill into law.

The governor noted that he is still analyzing the legislation and wouldn’t commit to officially approving it, but he said the Legislature is meeting the challenges of a growing state in a fiscally responsible way.

“I did read some of the criticism, and I’m not sure that those who were making that criticism have a really good handle on the Texas budgeting process,” Perry told reporters. “Frankly I don’t understand their math.”


The budget plan, which passed a Legislature firmly in the hands of the GOP, has drawn fire from conservative voices in recent days. The director of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, former state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, called the budget “an unwelcome departure from the guiding principles of fiscal responsibility.”

And The Wall Street Journal, in a weekend editorial titled “Texas Goes Sacramento,” called the budget reckless and urged Perry to veto most or all of it — or risk being compared to profligate California and Washington, D.C. Perry has line-item veto authority, so he still has time to pare down the spending before his weekend deadline to sign or reject legislation.

“Now Austin is borrowing from Washington’s playbook as the Lone Star State embarks on its biggest spending spree in memory,” the newspaper said.

Perry said detractors should not be counting the supplemental spending bill as part of the budgetary growth, because that legislation paid for billions of dollars in health care costs that had not been taken care of in the 2011 session.

Several Texas Republicans also defend one-time expenditures from the Rainy Day Fund. Legislators voted to take $4 billion from the account, largely to pay for water infrastructure upgrades and to phase out accounting tricks used in previous budgets.

“This state is growing and we’re growing fast, and we’re putting great pressure on infrastructure, both transportation, water, schools, and we have been meeting that challenge rather well,” Perry said.

The anti-spending zealots don’t care what the spending is on. There is only one budget category as far as they’re concerned, and that category is Spending. They want less of it, full stop. Rick Perry is well aware of this, and has freely used that language when the purpose has suited him. The fact that he is now at cross purposes with these marauders just shows how far out they are.

Also outraged, and with much greater justification since they did much of the heavy lifting, were Rep. Jim Pitts and Sen. Tommy Williams, the chairs of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees. I love this bit:

Williams said he and House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, sent a letter to the Journal disputing the facts behind the paper’s editorial. The Journal is expected to publish the letter in the coming days, according to Williams’ spokesman, Gary Scharrer.

The editorial claimed lawmakers increased spending 26 percent from the previous session, citing figures from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative group. Lawmakers have described TPPF’s figures as misleading and manipulative.

“I’ve got a bellyful of people that are using their organization to criticize the work that we do here so they can raise money to pay their own salaries,” Williams said, referring to TPPF.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board, lawmakers approved a two-year budget that increases total spending by $7 billion, or 3.7 percent. State spending would increase $7.2 billion, or 8.3 percent.

Yes, the TPPF are a bunch of lying hacks – film at 11. Williams’ zinger is dead on. There’s no other organization in the state that funnels so much money to so many people with so little talent and so few useful skills. (Marc Levin, who does criminal justice policy for the TPPF, is an honorable exception.) You have to wonder how many of them could survive in the real world.

And then there’s this:

“We stand by our numbers, and are happy to explain them in-depth to anyone who wishes,” TPPF spokesman Joshua Treviño said Wednesday.

Josh, old buddy. How are things in Malaysia these days. If he tells you that two plus two is four, I’d advise asking him who’s paying him to say that.

Anyway. It’s hilarious seeing Perry getting slapped by these clowns, who are usually his bros – it’s basically the wingnut version of “Heathers”. It’s just a shame anyone takes them seriously in the first place. Texas Politics and EoW have more.

Who will be on the Ten Best and Ten Worst lists?

The Trib starts the speculation.

Texas Monthly‘s list of the best and worst legislators of the 83rd session doesn’t come out until June 12, but why should Paul Burka and his colleagues have all the fun? Use this interactive to select your own personal best and worst list. Click or drag to put up to 10 House and/or Senate members in each column, then hit the button at the bottom of the page to submit your choices. You’ll be able to share your picks on Facebook and Twitter, and our leaderboard will aggregate everyone’s selections so you can see how yours stack up against theirs. We’ll have the final results after voting ends at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Voting for their list is now over, and a look at the leaderboard suggests to me that most of it was based on who the voters themselves like or dislike. The way Burka operates is pretty straightforward: He favors those who get things done and disfavors those who fail to get things done or get in the way of getting things done. He prefers good policy, to be sure, but ultimately this is about effectiveness and collaboration. I think after all these years I have a decent idea of the qualities he looks for in a Best or Worst member, and so here are my predictions about who will appear on his lists. Note that these are not necessarily the choices I would make if I were in charge of compiling these lists – I’d be much more about who worked the hardest for and against the greater good as I see it – but merely my guesses as to what Burka will say. By all means, feel free to chime in with your own prognostications, it’s more fun that way.

My guesses for the Ten Worst list

I will be shocked if Rep. Van Taylor, possibly the least popular member of either chamber, is not on the Worst list. He’s everything the Worst list is about – petty, rigid, obstructive, and so forth. Basically, he Does Not Play Well With Others, and that’s a sterling qualification for Worstness.

I will also be shocked if Sen. Joan Huffman is not on the list. Patricia Kilday Hart, who used to be Burka’s wingwoman on the Best & Worst lists, could easily be writing the entry for Huffman here:

* When exonerated inmates and their families appealed to the Texas Legislature to create an Innocence Commission, the last thing they expected was a lecture. But that’s what they got, courtesy of Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. Huffman, a former judge and prosecutor, hijacked a committee hearing for a 10-minute peevish denunciation of the proposal as “second-guessing” prosecutors. Then she announced there was nothing anyone could say to change her mind. Waiting to testify was Cory Sessions, whose brother, Tim Cole, spent 14 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, before dying of an asthma attack. According to the Innocence Project, Texas has had more total exonerations (117) and DNA exonerations (48) than any other state in the country.

* Then, late Friday, Huffman chaired a conference committee that gutted a tough ethics bill that would have required lawmakers’ personal financial statements to be available online, and include disclosures of any family members’ income received from doing business with government entities. Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, called the conference committee’s decisions “a strategic assault on transparency.”

Again, these are textbook examples of Worstness in action. If Huffman isn’t on the list, the list has no meaning.

Those two are crystal clear. After that it gets murky. I’m guessing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for being generally ineffective at his job since at least 2007 and for trying to compensate for his ineptness by trying to channel Ted Cruz; Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who has every right to be aggrieved by Sen. Huffman’s treatment of the Innocence Commission bill but whose vengeance spree against Huffman resulted in the death of some non-controversial legislation; Rep. Drew Springer, for being obsessively meddlesome; Rep. Tom Craddick for his conflict of interest defense of the status quo at the Railroad Commission; and Rep. David Simpson, who was completely ineffective in his attempts to be obstructive. While I think there’s a case for their inclusion, and I say this as someone who likes Rep. McClendon and shares her frustration with Sen. Huffman, I will not be surprised by the inclusion or omission of any of them. Obviously, there will be others, as I’ve only suggested six names. These are the ones that stand out to me; I suspect there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that may affect the list that I’m not advised about.

My guesses for the Ten Best list

I think the strongest case can be made for the three key players in the budget deal – Sen. Tommy Williams, Rep. Jim Pitts, and Rep. Sylvester Turner. Williams and Pitts had a Herculean task navigating the budget through a minefield of competing interests and outside saboteurs. Budgeting is never easy, but in some ways it was more challenging this year with a surplus than last year with a deficit, since the ideologues who didn’t want to restore any of the cuts had to be beaten back, and some of the things that needed doing such as the SWIFT fund, required supermajorities. They did about as good a job of at least mollifying the people who wanted to get something productive done as you could ask for. Turner held the Democratic caucus together in holding out for the original deal they thought they were getting to restore much of the money that had been cut from public education even as they were threatened with a special session (you can now see why they didn’t cower at that threat), and he cut a deal on the System Benefit Fund that worked for both himself and Williams. In terms of Getting Things Done, these three certainly stood out.

For his handling of education bills, and for ensuring that vouchers were dead before they could get off the ground, I expect Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock to be included as a Best. It’ll be interesting to see how Burka deals with Aycock’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Dan Patrick, who did accomplish quite a bit with his charter school bill, and who was a team player on the bike trails bill, but who nonetheless made a spectacle of himself over vouchers, going so far as to imply that it was a civil rights issue. You can make a case for Patrick on both lists; I suspect Burka will note him in a sidebar but not include him on either.

Sens. Rodney Ellis and Robert Duncan deserve consideration for the discovery bill, while Ellis was his usual eloquent self on the matter of sunsetting tax breaks and Duncan shepherded potentially divisive bills on the Teacher Retirement System and Employee Retirement System in a way that was fiscally responsible and endorsed by the employees in question.

You know I’m no fan of hers, but Rep. Sarah Davis, along with Rep. Donna Howard, brokered a deal to restore much of the cuts made to family planning funds from 2011. Whether Davis herself helped her Republican colleagues come to the realization that sex is a leading cause of pregnancy or they figured it out on their own I can’t say, but this was a good accomplishment and I will not be surprised if Burka rewards Davis (and possibly but less likely Howard) for it.

These are the names that stand out to me. Again, there are surely others whose merits are less clear to me, but I feel comfortable putting forth these names as likely candidates. Who do you foresee gaining this biennial notoriety? Leave your own guesses and let us know.

We appear to have a budget

Took them long enough.


After days of jockeying and one-upsmanship, the Texas House and Senate each approved measures Wednesday evening critical to passing their next two-year budget.

“The results of these two bills together is a good conservative budget, and it’s something we can all be proud of,” said Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

With just five days left in the legislative session, both chambers needed to at least tentatively pass separate measures by midnight as part of a larger budget deal agreed to by leaders from both chambers last week.

The Senate voted 29-3 for House Bill 1025. Sens. Dan Patrick, R-Houston; Ken Paxton, R-McKinney; and Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, voted against the measure.

Senate Joint Resolution 1 passed the House 130-16, meaning it crossed the 100-vote threshold to avoid coming up for a second vote on Thursday.

The measure approved by the House would ask Texas voters to amend the state Constitution to create a new fund for water infrastructure projects. The Senate passed a $5.4 billion supplemental budget bill that would, among other things, put $2 billion in that new fund.

The negotiations over how exactly to approve the two measures exposed deep tensions between the House and Senate as lawmakers on both sides pushed for the other chamber to move first out of concerns that the other side might not keep its word.

I didn’t follow the ins and outs of this little soap opera because it was low comedy even by legislative standards, and in the end either it was going to get done or it wasn’t. Rick Perry could still blow it all up if he wants to, but that has always been the case. The bill to provide “relief” from the margins tax was substantially altered in the Senate and is in conference committee, and it’s not clear that either that or whatever crumbs have been thrown to TxDOT will meet Perry’s goals for avoiding a special session, at least for something other than redistricting. But at least the Lege hasn’t deliberately sabotaged things. Take your victories where you can. The Observer, Burka, and EoW have more.

Someone attempted to do something about MBIA and the Sports Authority

And others expressed their disapproval about it. What the “it” is, and who it was that was trying to do “it” remain unclear.

Who dunnit?

Who dunnit?

A surprise legislative maneuver has local government lobbyists scrambling to defend the agency that pays the debt on Houston’s sports stadiums against an alleged takeover attempt by the company that insures its bonds.

The insurer, MBIA, has hired lobbyists to circulate language that would prevent the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority from spending money on anything other than debt service and legally required payments without its creditors’ approval.

Sports Authority chairman J. Kent Friedman said the draft, which names neither the Sports Authority nor MBIA, appears innocuous at first glance.

“It’s extremely well done. You have to be an insider to know what this really does,” he said. “In effect, they would take over running the Sports Authority. I’m convinced they’ll try to stick it on some other piece of legislation at the end of the session, on the floor so it’ll get as little notoriety as possible, and try to slip it through.”

A Houston-area lawmaker had considered attaching the language to a pending financial transparency bill, Friedman and others said, but quickly dropped it when a lawyer whose feedback he had sought realized its implications. The legislator could not be reached Friday.


Harris County lobbyist Cathy Sisk called the legislative maneuver “bizarre,” saying the insurer appears to be trying to get lawmakers to do what a judge did not.

“We’ve pretty much alerted everybody in the delegation to watch for it,” Sisk said. “I’d like to think that means it doesn’t have much of a chance of being attached to anything, but you never know. Anything can happen in the Texas Legislature.”

City of Houston lobbyist Kippy Caraway said her team also is on alert.

Kevin Brown, a spokesman for MBIA affiliate National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., said what the firm seeks in its lawsuit against the Sports Authority and the goals of the draft amendment are different.

“The legislation that we have been promoting seeks to achieve greater transparency and accountability from certain governmental entities that are in financial distress,” he said. “The Sports Authority’s opposition to that legislation should raise serious questions for Houstonians and other stakeholders about the authority’s financial condition and the reasons for its objections.”

The draft amendment runs two pages and would apply to a “political subdivision in condition of financial stress,” as defined by five points that describe the Sports Authority.

The amendment says such an entity “may not, unless authorized by (its) creditors” spend money on anything other than debt service, payments required by law or a contract, or to maintain its assets. The draft also would, among other things, require the entity to submit to its creditors a plan stating how it will address its financial woes.

See here, here, and here for the background on MBIA and the Sports Authority. Frankly, the most important piece of information in this article is that the Chair of the Sports Authority is now being referred to as “J. Kent Friedman” again, after a brief run of being called “Kenny Friedman”. Whether this represents a return to copy-editing standards on the part of the Chron or the documenting of a brief midlife crisis on Friedman’s part also remains a mystery.

Things that the story left a mystery:

1. The identity of the legislator. Why wouldn’t you just say who the legislator was? So what if he couldn’t be reached for a comment by the time the story went to print? The fact that this amendment was drafted and this legislator was shopping it around before pulling it back isn’t in dispute, so no one’s reputation is on the line. What purpose is being served by holding back this information?

2. The full text of the amendment. Reporter Mike Morris has clearly seen it, since he quotes from it, but it runs two pages and all we get is a couple of sentence fragments. The amendment was apparently not filed, since I can’t find it via an amendment search using the phrase “political subdivision in condition of financial stress” or a combination of the words. But clearly it exists, so a document could be made of it and uploaded somewhere for the rest of us to see.

3. The bill that the unnamed legislator was going to try to attach it to. At this point in the session, it could only be attached to a Senate bill, and if adopted it would thus require a conference committee to get the different versions straightened out for final votes. If we knew the Senate bill in question, we could then ask the Senate author what he or she thinks of this maneuver. Given all of the sturm und drang we’ve seen recently, that might have made for a more interesting story than the one we got.

As it happens, from prior communication I’ve had with MBIA representatives, I was able to get answers to these questions. The bill in question was SB14, specifically the committee substitute CSSB14, authored by Sen. Tommy Williams. The House legislator was Rep. Jim Pitts, who was the House sponsor for the bill. I don’t know how you can call Rep. Pitts, who is based in Waxahachie, a “Houston-area lawmaker”, but I suppose that’s a minor quibble at this point Rep. Jim Murphy. The amendment, which was drafted but not officially filed, is here. Again, I’m not sure why this information wasn’t in the story. Be that as it may, MBIA disputed Friedman’s contention that this was an attempt to “take over” the agency, saying that the main purpose of the legislation was to enhance transparency and accountability. At last report, a point of order had been sustained against CSSB14 in the House, so this is all likely moot at this point. But we still should have known more about what was happening at the time.

UPDATE: I have since been informed by Judge Emmett’s office that the legislator was Rep. Jim Murphy, not Rep. Jim Pitts. I suspect this was a matter of confusing one Jim for another.

Budget deal reached

And the crowd goes wild.


Top House and Senate negotiators agreed to a two-year budget for the state of Texas Friday that restores about $4 billion of $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made in 2011. It also creates a path for lawmakers to put $2 billion toward water infrastructure projects.

The five House members and five Senators of the Budget Conference Committee voted unanimously to adopt a final draft of the portions of the budget that remained unresolved, including Article 3, the portion focused on education and the area on which most of Friday’s negotiations focused on.

The main numbers of the budget are still being calculated by the Legislative Budget Board. But John Opperman, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s budget director, said the total budget would be less than the $195.5 billion budget the Senate approved earlier in the session. The budget is about $700 million below the state’s constitutional spending limit, he said. The budget still needs to be approved by the full House and Senate and signed by the governor.

The budget adopted Friday does not include a controversial rider setting guidelines around how Texas might negotiate with the federal government over expanding Medicaid. Senators had adopted the rider in their budget plan but the House had voted it down.

“The House wouldn’t agree to it,” said Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

Under Friday’s deal, the $2 billion in water funding will come from the state’s Rainy Day fund, a reserve made up mostly of oil and gas taxes. That funding will be found in House Bill 1025, a supplemental budget bill that addresses funding on various issues.

The roughly $4 billion for public education hews closely to what Democrats had pushed for all week after acknowledging they were not going to be able to completely restore last session’s cuts. Budget conferees agreed to $3.2 billion for the Foundation School Program, the main account the state uses to fund public education. Another $200 million is expected to be added to the Foundation School Program in HB 1025.

As part of the $4 billion education package, negotiators also agreed on a $330 million infusion into the Teacher Retirement System’s pension fund.

All in all, not too shabby. The lack of a Medicaid rider is disappointing, but not terribly surprising. Too many Republicans, starting with Perry, Dewhurst, and Abbott, who just don’t care if people can’t get health care. The $4 billion in public education money is impressive, the highest number I’ve seen all session for public ed. It’s not $5.4 billion, but it’s a pretty significant fraction of it. There were a lot of twists and turns and allegations and accusations along the way, with various deals along the way being reported as agreed to and blown up, with threats of a special session featuring all kinds of awful agenda items for Democrats if they didn’t give in. Burka accused the Democrats of “forgetting how to win” after they spiked a deal that would have infused $3.5 billion into public ed but represented a walk-back of prior commitments by the Rs. I wonder what he thinks of them now. There are of course still reasons why a special session may happen, but assuming Rick Perry doesn’t spike the budget the scope for such sessions is now a lot smaller, and thus a lot less dangerous. Nice work, y’all. BOR has more.

Maybe I buried Medicaid expansion too soon

I still think it’s dead, but I could be wrong about that.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The fate of Medicaid reform in Texas could rest solely on an up-or-down vote on the 2014-15 budget.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, a member of the conference committee that is hashing out the differences between the House and Senate budget plans, said Monday he’s relatively confident that a rider stipulating the Legislature’s preferred Medicaid reform terms — like cost containment measures and private market reforms — for any deal with the federal government is “sticking” to the 2014-15 budget. The rider does not expand Medicaid, he clarified, and said he would be “happy to defend it” to his colleagues.

The 2014-15 budget is not yet finalized. Budget conferees are meeting Monday evening to discuss the health and human services section and could discuss the rider. It could also come up in future discussions on the proposed budget this week.

Republican lawmakers have made it clear that they won’t approve an expansion of Medicaid eligibility this session. And although some conservative GOP House members have vowed to reject the budget proposal if such a rider is included, Zerwas said the rider has the support of the majority of budget conferees. The budget does not include financing to expand Medicaid eligibility in the upcoming biennium.

“No amount may be expended to modify Medicaid eligibility unless the [Health and Human Services Commission] develops a plan to create more efficient health care coverage options for all existing and newly eligible populations,” states the budget rider, which was authored by Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

The rider also says the Legislative Budget Board, which includes the lieutenant governor and House speaker, must ensure that any deal reached with the federal government to expand Medicaid eligibility cuts uncompensated care costs; promotes the use of private coverage and health savings accounts; establishes wellness incentives, cost-sharing initiatives and pay-for-performance initiatives; and reduces the state’s need to gain federal approval to make “minor changes” to the program.

(You can read the budget rider here, under contingent provisions in Article 9, Sec. 17.12. Certain Medicaid Funds.)


The Senate has approved the rider, but the House approved a nonbinding motion directing budget conferees not to include the rider on the budget.

State Rep. Van Taylor, a Tea Party favorite from Plano, told the Tribune on Tuesday that the conservative faction of the House was prepared to vote down the budget, if it called for an expansion of Medicaid.

“John wants it. I want it — so there’s two of us” who want to include the rider in the budget, House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said on Tuesday.

I presume Sylvester Turner, who is also on the House conference committee, would be in favor of this as well. If so, then that should be enough support to include it. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. I’m sure Pitts is smart enough to not doom his own budget, but I don’t know how much faith I’d put in the Republicans; Democrats will have their own incentives, which may or may not line up with what Pitts wants. And if we are going to a special session as Burka is convinced we are, then I wouldn’t put it past Rick Perry to veto the budget out of spite. Let’s just say that the conference committee, which is meeting again and making some progress, is likely the lowest hurdle for this to clear.

Water, water, not so fast

So much for that.

A major bill on the top of Gov. Rick Perry’s priority list that would authorize spending billions of dollars on state water projects faltered in the Texas House on Monday night after a contentious debate over where to pull the money from.

“My understanding is it’s doorknob dead,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, said after debate on the measure, which was backed by Speaker Joe Straus, was halted over a legislative technicality.


Ritter’s bill, House Bill 11, would have taken $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund — a multi-billion dollar reserve of mostly oil and gas taxes — and spent it on water-supply projects, in an effort to help the state withstand future droughts.

Another Ritter bill the House passed earlier this month, House Bill 4, would create a special fund to administer the money.

But HB 11’s backers faced an uphill battle to get enough votes, because drawing from the Rainy Day Fund requires a higher bar — 100 votes rather than the usual 76 votes — to pass.

Democrats’ objections were grounded in the argument that if the Rainy Day Fund gets used for water, it should also be raided for other purposes like public education. Some far-right conservatives, meanwhile, worried about drawing at all from the Rainy Day Fund, which they say should be reserved for emergencies.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, ultimately avoided a vote on HB 11 by raising a point of order, a legislative term for a procedural problem with the bill. Ritter said the bill in its current form is now dead; Perry has previously threatened to call a special session if lawmakers cannot find a way to fund water projects.

If lawmakers do not provide the funding, “I think we’re back in special session, but that’s above my paygrade,” Ritter said.

The Senate, meanwhile, has already passed a measure to move $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund into public education and water and transportation projects.

The House had previously passed a bill to create the fund, which the Senate has now also passed, but this was the bill to actually put money in the fund. The Senate also voted to tap the Rainy Day Fund for this and other purposes, but the House was the heavier lift. Bipartisan support was required, which meant as Burka noted that the House Democrats had leverage. He thinks they overplayed their hand, but the reason their support was so badly needed was because of ideological fractures on the GOP side.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with close ties to several of the state’s political leaders including Perry, announced Sunday it was opposed to the bill.

“The 83rd Texas Legislature has on hand more than $8 billion in new general revenue to pay for increased spending in areas like Medicaid, roads, water and education,” foundation president Brooke Rollins said. “But instead of setting priorities to make the new spending fit within available revenue, the Legislature appears ready to spend far more than this.”

In an unusual disagreement with the group, Perry made the case for a big one-time withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund for water projects in his op-ed. The governor, who considers himself a fiscal conservative, has made economic development his signature issue. And if water gets tight, he said businesses relocations to Texas would dry up.

“The good news is that current economic conditions and available balances in the Rainy Day Fund provide a unique opportunity for the state to partner with communities by offering financing to develop and implement new water supplies,” Perry wrote in support of a one-time transfer of $2 billion from the fund.

Asked about the split among conservatives, Rich Parsons, the governor’s spokesman, said: “We have infrastructure needs in the state that need to be met.” He added: “I think Texans recognize the need for action and expect state leaders to take action, and that’s precisely what the governor is doing.”

Hammond, of the Texas Association of Business, said Monday in support of HB 11: “I think the business community is pretty much united. … It’s necessary [because] unless we do something more than what we’re doing now, in 50 years demand will be up by about 22 percent and supply will be down by about 10 percent. That’s a disaster.”

“It’s already being used against us,” Hammond said, “that Texas is in a drought and they’re not doing anything about it.”

When Rick Perry and Bill Hammond are on the pragmatic, get-stuff-done side, you know how far off into the weeds the enforcers of “conservative” purity have gone. They opposed using the Rainy Day Fund because they oppose spending money – the purpose for the spending and the need it addresses don’t matter. Too many Republican legislators in the thrall of these hegemons, and this is the result.

So now what happens?

Even with the collapse of Ritter’s bill, there are other options. The Senate, which would rather put the politically difficult question before voters, has approved a resolution calling for constitutional amendments that would make available nearly $6 billion from the rainy day fund for transportation and water projects, as well as education.

Another possibility may be House Bill 19 by Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo. The bill would draw $3.7 billion from the rainy day fund for water and transportation projects.

“This issue is too important to leave its fate uncertain,” Perry said after the demise of HB 11. “I will work with lawmakers to ensure we address this need in a fiscally responsible manner.”

A special session is a possibility, since Perry has identified the water infrastructure fund as one of his top priorities. Also possible is the for the House budget negotiators to rip up everything they’ve done so far and appropriate the money from general revenue, which is what the slash-and-burn crowd is advocating. That would of course means however much money would then need to be taken away from everything else in the budget, which I don’t think the Senate will go along with. Some other bill may come to the rescue – where there’s a sufficiently broad caption, there’s a way. I think this is more likely to be a temporary setback than a “doornail dead” situation, but we’ll see. PDiddie, EoW, the Observer, and the TSTA have more.

Weekend legislative threefer

That sound you heard on Friday was Rick Perry stamping his feet if he doesn’t get his way.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

I can eat these all summer if I have to

Gov. Rick Perry is warning state legislators that it could be a long, hot summer in Austin if they don’t pass his top priorities: funding water and transportation projects and cutting business taxes.

With a month left in the regular session, Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said Friday that the governor is prepared to bring lawmakers back in special session if they don’t act on his signature issues.

“The governor laid out his priorities in January to ensure a strong economy for the next 50 years, including instituting fiscally sound budget principles, significant tax cuts and making sure Texas has the necessary roads and water infrastructure to support our growing state,” she said. “His priorities haven’t changed.”

Castle said the Legislature still has plenty of time to act before the clock runs out on the 83rd Texas Legislature next month. But she said Perry won’t stand for incomplete work on his top items.

“He’s been very clear that he won’t sign the budget until he signs significant tax relief,” she said. “And if they don’t address all of these priorities by the end of the session, the governor is willing to keep them here as long as it takes to get it done.”

Whatever. Perry is very likely to get the first two items on his wish list regardless of any threats. His ridiculous tax cut, I hope not. I note that story came out the same day as this one about legislative Republicans pushing back against Perry this session. Not a coincidence, I daresay, but we’ll see whether that attitude survives Perry’s meetup with the GOP caucus.

Meanwhile, the House approved a supplemental budget that included more money for public education.

Debate over a routine budget bill in the Texas House became unusually topical Friday as lawmakers touched on a fertilizer plant explosion in West, the murder of two Kaufman County prosecutors and the Travis County district attorney’s drunken driving arrest.

Lawmakers ultimately voted 129-9 in favor of House Bill 1025, which would add $874.9 million to the state’s current two-year budget. The bill includes $500 million more for public schools and more than $170 million in payments to state and local agencies to cover costs related to wildfires in 2011.

Lawmakers filed 20 amendments to the bill ahead of Friday. Nearly all of them were eventually withdrawn or rejected by the House. Members agreed to an amendment by state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, that allows the governor’s office to “prioritize” the use of $2 million for recovery efforts after this month’s disaster in West. Kacal’s district includes the town of West.

One of the amendments that was subsequently withdrawn came from Rep. Phil King, who is trying to force Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg to resign. He attempted to use the process to move the Public Integrity Unit from Lehmberg’s office to that of the Attorney General, but did not succeed. I wouldn’t put it past him to try again later, however. In any event, the best thing to come out of this debate was the wailing and gnashing of teeth by the slash-and-burn crowd.

Finally, the Texas Association of Business has endorsed the Zerwas plan for Medicaid “expansion”.

“If we can take the money on our terms and conditions then it is something we ought to do,” said Bill Hammond, president of the group, whose board voted in January to oppose expanding Medicaid as called for under the federal Affordable Care Act. The basis of Zerwas’ plan is to negotiate a deal that allows the state to use federal Medicaid expansion dollars to subsidize private coverage, which Hammond said is a workable solution. “We encourage them to march to Washington to try to cut a deal,” he said.

House Bill 3791, authored by Zerwas, R-Simonton, has four parts: It outlines what the state’s request for a federal block grant to reform the current Medicaid program could look like; identifies Medicaid reforms that Texas could implement already, such as cost-sharing requirements and co-payments; sets up a separate program to potentially draw down federal financing to help individuals at or below 133 percent of the poverty level find private market coverage; and sets up an oversight committee for both programs.

“This is not an expansion of Medicaid — this is the creation of a new program that leverages our private sector,” Zerwas told the House Appropriations Committee, which voted 15 to 9 on Tuesday to move the legislation out of committee and continue debate on the House floor.

Like I said, I’m lukewarm on the idea, but it is the best we could get at this time. Lord, we need a new government in this state.

Senate to consider expanded gambling

I didn’t really take it seriously when I heard that Sen. John Carona had filed his own gambling expansion legislation, but it seems it’s got some traction.

Sen. John Carona

A proposal from Dallas Republican Sen. John Carona would establish a commission that licenses 21 casinos throughout the state, including three mega-resorts in Bexar, Dallas and Tarrant counties and two smaller locations at Retama Park in San Antonio and Sam Houston Race Park in Houston.

Carona, chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce committee, told reporters Monday the proposal would keep the estimated $3 billion Texans are spending at casinos in bordering states inside state coffers while creating more than 75,000 jobs. The committee, which will consider the measure Wednesday, is likely to pass the proposal on to the full Senate, he said.

“No one can really determine yet what chance of ultimate passage it has this session,” Carona said in an interview in his Capitol office, noting his vote tally indicates both chambers are a few votes shy of approval. “It is a difficult bill because of the presumed political consequences of it, but the polls show there is overwhelming public support.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has supported similar measures in the past, said the chances of gambling passing the Legislature this session are “slim-to-none.”

However, Pitts said the final decision on the state’s school finance trial could provide a boost for gambling in Texas. If the current ruling – that the state’s public education funding is inadequate and unconstitutional – stands, lawmakers will be searching for a new source of revenue that does not create a new tax, he said.


Under Carona’s proposal, three casinos would be licensed in coastal counties, 12 would be reserved for racetracks and three would be designated for federally recognized Native American tribes.

The majority of revenue generated – 85 percent – would be dedicated to the Property Tax Relief Fund, which supports local programs, such as public education and emergency services. Remaining revenue would belong to city and county governments and fund programs to counter gambling problems. The constitutional amendment must gain two-thirds support of the House and Senate before moving on to voters in a statewide referendum.

Sen. Carona’s measure is SJR 64. If you’ll pardon the expression, the smart money is on nothing happening, as has always been the case before. The Trib goes into some more detail.

[Carona has] been working on casino legislation for the last few sessions, but his plan this year is much more comprehensive. In the past, gaming bills have either had the support of casinos or race tracks. But not both.

That split support had doomed the efforts. This time, Carona said, both groups are on board.

“Let me make clear that this legislation has very broad support,” he said. “While not all stakeholder concerns are resolved in this bill, we have come a long way. And it is my hope that we’ll continue to work together to bring forward a bill that is best for Texas.”

The senator said his legislation is still fluid — many changes could be made. So for now, there’s no price tag on how much money casino gambling would generate. But billions are expected from the three giant destination resort casinos and 18 other facilities that would be authorized under his resolution.


But hey, if you want to pass something in the Legislature, you need to do one of two things: Show what problem the legislation would fix or, as casino supporters did this week, show an enemy that would be defeated by this bill. And according to casino supporters, we have met the enemy — and it is Oklahoma.

“In particular, we’re hemorrhaging money to Oklahoma,” said John Montford of Let Texans Decide. “Not only do they recruit our best high school football players. They also snooker us each day by building their gaming empire on the backs of Texans.”

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond was even less diplomatic when explaining what he sees as the benefits of casinos in Texas.

“Texans will no longer have to travel to third-world countries in order to game,” Hammond joked. “It’s unfair and unconscionable that we are making these people travel to these third-world counties that surround Texas.”

The state’s hatred of Oklahoma aside, there are still several roadblocks to casinos in Texas. Carona’s resolution needs a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate before it heads to the ballot as a constitutional amendment this November.

And on the Senate side, Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has a history of threatening a filibuster over gaming legislation. As debates have neared in the past, she has even put tennis shoes on her desk on the Senate floor to let people know she’s ready to go if needed.

And, of course, if a resolution passes the House and Senate, then there’s the final statewide vote — a vote that will certainly include groups opposing casinos on moral grounds along with some backed by those neighboring states’ casinos that don’t want to lose business.

The 100-vote threshhold in the House is pretty daunting. Speaker Joe Straus will not be an ally, since he stays away from gambling bills to avoid talk about conflicts of interest, and there’s likely to be enough social conservative opposition to make it at best a close call. Still, even getting a bill out of committee in the Senate is farther than the gambling expansion forces have gone in the past. If Carona’s bill can actually make it to the floor in both chambers, who knows? Stranger things have happened.

House debates its budget

As you know, yesterday was Budgetpalooza in the House.

The House budget puts more money into public education and less into health and human services than a Senate proposal that passed the upper chamber last month.

“No one is or will be entirely happy with this bill, but there is something for everyone this year,” House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said two weeks ago after his committee approved its version of Senate Bill 1.


It will be a strikingly different scene from the Senate, which passed its budget proposal last month after about four hours of discussion. Traditionally, senators do not amend their budget plan from the Senate floor. State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, offered an amendment on the bill related to school finance but then withdrew it.

After the House passes a budget bill, both the House and Senate will appoint conference committees to resolve differences between the two proposals.

Neither budget completely reverses last session’s $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools, a goal many Democrats have said is a priority. Several House members have filed amendments attempting to put more money into schools.

Other legislators hope to amend the budget to put more money for uninsured care or specific types of care.

An amendment from state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, aimed at increasing payments to health care providers serving Medicaid patients could spark a protracted discussion over whether Texas should accept federal dollars made available through the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicaid.

House members could also see themselves drawn into debates on hot-button cultural issues. State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, has several amendments aimed at reducing state funding earmarked for “alternatives to abortion” and putting it toward other women’s health services. An amendment from state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, would block funding for “gender and sexuality centers” at higher-education institutions.

A group of Republican freshmen have filed more than three dozen amendments that would take money away from various state programs and agencies and putting the funds into TRS-Care, the group health insurance program for the Teacher Retirement System, which is projected to have a shortfall by 2016.

TRS-Care has since said that they did not support the freshlings’ effort to de-fund various things on their behalf. A number of those hot-button amendments concerning abortion and women’s health were subsequently withdrawn in a bit of bipartisan detente, which if nothing else should make the whole thing go by a bit more quickly. There are still a lot of other issues to be debated, not all of which get much attention but all of which matter a lot to the people affected by them, and a few messages to be sent. One of the messages sent was about vouchers.

About eight hours into the House’s debate on the state budget Thursday, lawmakers in the lower chamber sent a clear signal about their position on private school vouchers.

An amendment from state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, that would ban the use of public dollars for private schools, passed 103-43 with bipartisan support.

“What this amendment basically does is say that you cannot use public money to support private institutions with vouchers,” said state Rep. John Otto, a Dayton Republican who is the House’s head education budget writer.

As they say, this is a big deal. Even Tom Craddick voted against vouchers, amazingly enough. If you listen carefully, you can hear Dan Patrick grinding his teeth. The Observer, Trail Blazers, and Texas Politics, which notes that despite this vote vouchers aren’t quite most sincerely dead yet, have more.

In the end, the House debated the budget well into the night, until almost 10 PM according to Rep. Gene Wu, who heroically live-tweeted the whole thing; BOR liveblogged it as well. Given the big vote in favor, it’s likely that nothing too horrible happened, but we’ll assess the damage later. It’s on to conference committee from here.

More details on the House budget

Consider this to be written in pencil, because it’s going to change.

More than $1.6 billion and disagreements on how much Texas should spend on public education and Medicaid separate the budgets proposed by the House and Senate.

The Senate budget proposal, passed 29-2 by the upper chamber last week, spends $195.5 billion, a 2.9 percent increase from the current two-year budget. The House budget, which is scheduled for a vote on the House floor on April 4, spends $193.8 billion, a 2.1 percent increase.

While the House budget is smaller, it spends nearly $1 billion more on public education. The Senate plan spends $604 million more on higher education.

The Senate also invests $2.1 billion more in health and human services. A large portion of that extra spending, $974.5 million, covers projected growth in costs associated with Medicaid such as more Texans enrolling in the program and general medical cost inflation. The House budget does not address those costs.

“Our bill does not include cost growth, does not include rate increases, and we need to address those things,” state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie and the chamber’s chief budget writer, said last week.

Assuming the House proposal passes that chamber, members from both the House and Senate will meet in conference committee to resolve differences between the two plans.

The final product is likely to be larger than what either side has proposed. Neither budget addresses large shortfalls in transportation or water funding, two issues many lawmakers have discussed tackling this session. Legislators have also said they are considering additional spending on tax reform and further reversing last session’s public education cuts.

Lawmakers are also waiting on an updated revenue projection from Comptroller Susan Combs. If she tells them there is more revenue available than what she estimated in January, lawmakers may feel more comfortable spending more.

As the story notes, don’t be fooled by the graphic for higher education. There was an accounting change that makes it look like there was a cut, but in actuality there’s more money being appropriated, so that’s good. The budget still isn’t where it needs to be to account for growth and need, and we suffered needlessly for two years thanks to Comptroller Combs’ lousy revenue forecast, but things are better and that’s no doubt why this session has been less contentious so far. I do believe the House will account for Medicaid and the Senate will bump up its public education spending, with both being abetted by a higher revenue projection for the biennium. Beyond that, watch for the usual shenanigans in the amendment and rider process.

House Appropriations releases its budget outline

Better news for schools in this version.

The House Appropriations Committee voted unanimously Thursday to boost funding for public schools by $2.5 billion in the next two-year budget period.

Schools would get an additional $500 million in the current fiscal year, which ends Aug. 31, under a second proposal by Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts that is likely to be approved by the committee as part of a separate spending bill.

That $3 billion total is twice the increase approved so far by senators. But Senate leaders have said they want to give schools a bigger increase than the $1.5 billion in their two-year budget proposal.

House lawmakers are eager to put a dent in the $5.4 billion cut from public education two years ago, Pitts said. Budget cuts were made in 2011 because Comptroller Susan Combs projected a severe revenue shortfall. A rebounding economy instead has given the Legislature billions more to spend than expected.

“It is a priority of the Texas House – Republicans and Democrats – to fund public education. We challenge the Senate to have that same priority,” said Pitts, R-Waxahachie.


Houston ISD’s Jason Spencer said the district didn’t yet know what the House committee proposal would mean for its funding, but that Thursday’s move was a positive step.

“We’re encouraged to see that state lawmakers seem to be moving toward restoring the cuts that were made two years ago,” Spencer said. “We’d like to see the cuts fully restored, and we expect that is what is going to happen as a result of school finance litigation. Nonetheless, we are encouraged by this. We need to see how the numbers shake out.”

Given that HISD has talked about raising the tax rate to make up for a $50 million shortfall in the next fiscal year, this is good news. Still not a full restoration of funds, but getting closer, and this might help nudge the Senate a little farther. On the downside, the total amount of spending in the House budget is less than that of the Senate budget, so where they’re giving here they’re taking away there. They have only released a framework, not a complete document, so we don’t know the details just yet. The bill will come to the full House for a vote on April 4. Stace has more.

We have a budget

It is what it is.

Texas budget spending per resident

The 15 members of the Senate Finance Committee unanimously voted on Wednesday for a $195.5 billion two-year budget that undoes some of the cuts from the 2011 legislative session.

The budget, which now heads to the full Senate, is 2.9 percent higher than the estimated size of the current two-year budget, which is $189.9 billion after factoring in extra spending lawmakers are expected to approve later this session.

Senate Bill 1 spends $94.1 billion in general revenue, the portion of the budget lawmakers have the most control over. That’s an extra $6.7 billion over the current budget, a 7.7 percent increase.

“These decisions are never easy,” said Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. “There aren’t any of us that got everything they wanted but I think we came up with a good work product given the budget constraints that we have.”

The committee added about $8.9 billion more than the base budget it released in January. SB 1 now includes an extra $1.4 billion for public schools, $746 million for higher education and $207 million for Child Protective Services.

Williams said the extra money for schools should support the state’s case in an ongoing school finance lawsuit.

The House Appropriations Committee added a smidgeon more for education, though obviously it’s still well short of what it was before the cuts of 2011. This budget isn’t as bad as it could be, but it isn’t as good as it could be, either.

Senators in charge of the various workgroups for the budget wanted to add $8.1 billion in General Revenue to the starting-point SB 1’s $88.9 billion, for a total of $97 billion allocated to schools, public universities and community colleges, health and human services, public safety, and other basic state functions. This $97 billion was also the amount estimated to be the bare minimum needed to pay for population and cost growth in the next two years while leaving most of the 2011 budget cuts in place. Instead, the $94 billion in CSSB 1 is $3 billion below that “bare bones” current services line, meaning $3 billion (3%) more in cuts to current services. These cuts could still be avoided if House and Senate budget-writers are willing to use remaining General Revenue and the Rainy Day Fund.

There are still a lot of things that aren’t being funded; click the link above to see more, including the explanation for that embedded chart. We have the means to do the things that need to be done, but we don’t have the will.

Straus wants someone to do something on Medicaid

Don’t we all, Joe. Don’t we all.

Rep. Joe Straus

Seeking to light a fire under fellow Republicans to provide health care to more uninsured Texans, House Speaker Joe Straus said Wednesday that it is time to “get our heads out of the sand” and find an alternative to Medicaid expansion that would bring billions of federal dollars to the state.

Straus said he and other Republicans have made it clear that they oppose expansion of Medicaid as the program now stands.

“But I think it’s time that we said more than that,” he said. “It’s time that we put forth a good-faith effort to find a Texas solution. We need to move beyond the word ‘no’ to something that the administration might entertain. There are no winners if nothing is agreed to. We have a very large state, a significant population of uninsured people … and I think it could be an opportune time to put some proposals on the table that could be supported by Texas leadership.”

Straus, R-San Antonio, said elements to focus on include subsidies to allow people to obtain private coverage, promoting personal responsibility and cost-sharing, such as co-pays and deductibles.

Straus said there may be a way to tie a plan to a reduction in local taxes, since a key argument for expansion is that it would relieve local taxpayers of some of the burden they now bear to cover the cost of treating uninsured people in public hospitals.


It is unclear exactly how the conversation will move forward, but Straus said it is important to gear up talks with the aim of building consensus behind a Texas solution.

“We need to make the right business decision for Texas taxpayers,” Straus said. “Local governments have to carry a very heavy burden and look, poor people are going to get sick. They’re going to be treated. And somebody’s going to pay for it.”

Nice talk, if plenty vague. But let’s keep these things in mind:

– Medicaid is going to be cheaper than private insurance. If there’s a problem with doctors not accepting Medicaid, that’s entirely within the Lege’s discretion to fix, since the Lege sets the amount that doctors get paid from Medicaid. But even with more generous reimbursements, Medicaid is going to be less expensive than insurance provided by a profit-seeking enterprise.

– The single biggest obstacle in all this is Rick Perry, with Greg Abbott right behind him. These guys just don’t care about this issue. I can’t state it any more plainly than that.

– Of course, after ten years of complete Republican control of Texas government, the only reason people like Joe Straus are even talking about this is because they have to, thanks to the efforts of President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Texas leads the nation in uninsured people, a situation that has only gotten worse under the Republicans. What little progress there has been has been in spite of the Republicans. It didn’t have to be that way, but it was and is. I’m glad that Straus wants to do something, but I don’t take it as a change of mind, just as a recognition of the lay of the land. He hasn’t exactly been powerless to effect change before now, after all.

Be that as it may, there was a hearing in the House on Friday to talk about just what Texas might do to expand health care access, whether Medicaid or something else.

There are thousands of scenarios that the state could take to expand and reform Medicaid, Kyle Janek, executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, told the committee. But “we don’t have something on paper,” he said. Janek said he is awaiting further direction from the Legislature to craft a specific plan.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, referenced a compromise Arkansas’ Republican-led Legislature reached with the federal government, and said if “the people in Arkansas are much more capable of designing a system than the people in the state of Texas, that has taken us to a different level.” He called on his colleagues to stop being critical of the Medicaid expansion presented by the Affordable Care Act and to ask themselves “whether or not Texas has the ability to design something that works for Texas.”

Requiring Medicaid patients to make co-payments for their care — an option that has received support from Perry, Straus and other GOP members — is allowed under the Affordable Care Act, Janek said. He said if Texas took a different route and attempted to subsidize private health plans through an Orbitz-style health insurance exchange like Arkansas, the state would need to set up policies to ensure benefits offered by Medicaid that weren’t covered by private plans didn’t disappear.

“I think the public has a misconception that Medicaid expansion will get us the greatest bang for our buck,” said Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who chairs the House Public Health Committee. “For Texas, the bang for our buck is really in the exchange, the subsidy [for] people going into private insurance.”

Kolkhorst said without expanding Medicaid, other tenets of the Affordable Care Act would reduce Texas’ uninsured rate from 24 percent — the highest in the nation — to 16 percent. Including the Medicaid expansion would drop the uninsured rate slightly more, down to 12 percent.

As noted above it’s actually almost 29 percent. But who’s counting?

In total, unreimbursed charity care creates a $4.3 billion annual tax burden on local government entities and public hospitals, Billy Hamilton, the state’s former chief budget estimator, told the committee. Overall, he said, there is enough local and state spending in the current system to cover the state’s share of Medicaid expansion costs.

“I know this is a controversial issue… but I don’t really think you’re going to see a more overwhelming fiscal opportunity during your service here,” said Hamilton. “I served this Legislature for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The committee also heard testimony from judges from Harris and Dallas counties who spoke in favor of expanding Medicaid, and from John Davidson, a policy analyst from the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, who spoke against Medicaid expansion.

Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton and an anesthesiologist, said Texas needs to ensure that any expansion of reform of Medicaid include ways to incentivize more health care providers to accept those patients. If it doesn’t, those patients will end up in the highest-cost environments, emergency rooms. Zerwas pointed out that only 32 percent of doctors are willing to take Medicaid patients in the existing program, under current reimbursement rates.

Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said the Legislature should be held responsible for this lack of Medicaid providers, because lawmakers set those reimbursement rates. “The provider capacity is a real issue for this system, whether we expand or not,” she said.

So that’s Ed Emmett and Clay Jenkins, two guys who live in the real world and have to deal with the real world consequences of having thousands of uninsured people needing medical services their counties provide, versus some pampered, well-paid shill from a right-wing think tank. In a just world, that would be no contest. I’m glad to see Rep. Turner address the Arkansas plan, as that’s the first comment I’ve seen from a Democratic official about it. Again, it’s not my preference but if it’s that or nothing I’ll grab it with both hands.

In the end, as the updated story from the Trib notes, the Lege punted to the HHSC for now.

Rep. Zerwas filed legislation Friday that would grant the Health and Human Services Commission authority to craft “a Texas solution” to Medicaid reform and negotiate with the Obama administration to draw down billions in federal financing to expand Medicaid services.

As debate in the House Appropriations Committee on Medicaid expansion revealed Friday morning, the House remains divided on how Medicaid should be reformed and whether the program should be expanded. Currently, House Bill 3791 is a shell bill that will be altered as state legislators continue to negotiate how Medicaid should be reformed.

“We felt like it was time to start to get the ball moving on this. We’ve made it pretty clear that we’re not for current Medicaid expansion, but we do need to be for something else,” said Zerwas on Saturday, “because I think its very important for the state that we determine a way to cover this group of people that are currently uninsured.”

HB 3791 directs the HHSC to negotiate with the Obama Administration, so that Texas can draw down Medicaid expansion financing while implementing Medicaid reforms that enhance “personal responsibility” of Medicaid recipients, such as copayments or deductibles. It also includes a severability clause to end the agreement if the federal government reduces it share of Medicaid expansion financing.

As it stands, the HHSC does not “have a legislative directive or mandate to go forward on this, and that’s what this is intended to be,” said Zerwas, explaining the bill gives state lawmakers the opportunity to weigh in on how Texas should tailor a Medicaid expansion agreement with the federal government. The bill prompts the HHSC “to move forward on something that the Legislature, the [state] leadership is comfortable with that is in the best interest of Texans and allows us to pull down those dollars, which ultimately are our dollars,” he said.

In other words, they still don’t know what they want, but some of them at least have decided that doing nothing isn’t the best idea. I’m confident the Obama administration will be flexible in the negotiations given what we’ve seen them allow so far. It remains to be seen how flexible the state of Texas will be.

Finally, Sara Kliff provides some useful information about what the Arkansas plan really means, via an interview with George Washington University’s Sara Rosenbaum, an expert on Medicaid policy.

Sarah Kliff: Right now, you have a number of governors looking at the idea of using Medicaid expansion funding to buy private health insurance for enrollees. How novel of an idea is that?

Sara Rosenbaum: It’s been treated as this brand, new thing, but I don’t actually think it’s completely revolutionary. Keep in mind that states have been using Medicaid to buy managed care plans since the beginning of Medicaid. The whole notion of this as a conceptual breakthrough for Medicaid feels a bit off for me.

It does happen though that this is in Arkansas, which traditionally has not been a buyer of managed care, not a place like Arkansas, and not somewhere like Texas which has been buying managed care.

One of the good things about it, from my perspective, is that it gives you more stability of coverage, or gives you the chance at stability. You’re brought into a plan to stay.

SK: So the idea is, if your Medicaid expansion population is in private insurance, they won’t have to bounce back and forth between private and public plans.

SR: It does address a problem of churn. Four years ago I raised this and put this forward to House and Senate committees as a model. It was met with a lot of opposition from Medicaid advocates, which I didn’t totally understand having worked in Medicaid for almost four years now.

The need for stability of coverage is so great. These are the youngest, healthiest and lowest-income workers. All they have to do is churn from different insurance plans two or three times, and they’re going to say I’m through with this. And these are the exact people we want to enroll.

There’s more about the costs and other aspects of this that are worth your time to read. I still don’t believe the Republicans care enough to actually do something about this – note Kyle Janek’s remark about not having something on paper – but I will be happy to be proven wrong. EoW has more.

Supplement this!

Time for the Lege to pay a few past-due bills from 2011.

That’s where a supplemental budget comes in. It is literally a second budget added to the original one lawmakers approved in 2011. It’s not an unusual course for lawmakers to take to address lingering IOUs, but this year’s efforts are becoming more complicated and politically fraught than in the past.

For starters, lawmakers are planning at least three bills to address the state’s supplemental needs instead of the usual one. The first measure needs to be signed by Gov. Rick Perry in March so the state can pay billions in upcoming health care bills on time. A second supplemental bill will address the state’s costs from fighting wildfires and providing prisoner health care, but it won’t need to pass so quickly. A third measure, also not a rush item, will reverse $1.75 billion in delayed funds to school districts.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said separate bills were needed to ensure that the emergency item makes it to Perry’s desk quickly.

Texas has $6.8 billion of unmet costs in the current budget, nearly all of it related to Medicaid and public education, according to the Legislative Budget Board. Lawmakers plan to use most of the extra $8.8 billion the Texas comptroller reported collecting from this biennium to pay those costs.

One way of thinking about this is that if Comptroller Combs had given us an accurate revenue estimate in the first place, we we could have dealt with all this in 2011 instead of pretending it didn’t exist for the purposes of “balancing” the budget. This is also a reminder, once again, that the concept of “balancing” the budget as we do in Texas is a fiction imposed by an artificial deadline.

The House Appropriations Committee passed its first supplemental bill on Monday, and Pitts plans to bring it to the House floor for a vote early next week. The bill, House Bill 10, has “emergency” status, a parliamentary designation that allows legislators to vote on the measure during the first 60 days of the session if Pitts can get the support of 120 of the 150 House members.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever had an emergency supplemental,” Pitts said.

The emergency stems from the last Legislature’s decision to fund Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program for only 18 out of 24 months in the budget cycle, a move that allowed lawmakers to delay $4.5 billion in spending from state coffers. HB 10 will fund those programs for the full two years with $4.5 billion in state money, which will automatically trigger an extra $6.6 billion in federal funding.

The bill needs to get to Perry’s desk by early March so that health care workers aren’t left in the lurch, Pitts said.

“If we do not pass House Bill 10 for Medicaid, the doctors, the hospitals, the nursing homes will not be paid after the middle of March. … That is the emergency,” Pitts told his colleagues on the House floor Monday. The bill also includes $630 million owed to schools districts.

The emergency is one part the result of Combs’ inaccurate revenue projection, and one part the Republicans’ fanatical refusal to find new revenue. Most likely, these bills (about which you can learn more here) will pass, but you never know what the bomb-throwers in the GOP caucus might try to do. You may be wondering about the issue of school finance, for which Democrats have tried to get the cuts from 2011 restored. That’s not going to happen, but some kind of partial restoration may be possible.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said that lawmakers have just under $1 billion available to spend without hitting the constitutional spending limit on the current two-year budget. He and a group of lawmakers, which includes House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, are in talks to add some of that money to a supplemental spending bill expected to reach the full House next month.

“We’re still working on it,” Pitts said Thursday.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said the discussions are looking at adding public education money both to the current budget and the next two-year budget cycle.


During debate over the rule, Pitts told lawmakers the second supplemental bill may include funding for public education. That bill is also expected to address unexpected costs related to recent wildfires and prisoner healthcare.

State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, urged Pitts to make clear publicly as soon as he could how much more money school districts could expect so they could properly plan to use it before the end of the fiscal year. He said many districts might use some of the funding to hire tutors for students who need to retake the STAAR end-of-course exams.

“There is time for us to make a meaningful difference in the resources available to them,” Strama said.

The rule in question was one that forbade any amendment to HB10 that added to the total cost without any offsetting cut elsewhere. We’ll see what comes of this. EoW has more.

School finance system ruled unconstitutional

Surely no one is surprised by this.

The system Texas uses to fund public schools violates the state’s constitution by not providing enough money and failing to distribute the money in a fair way, a judge ruled Monday in a landmark decision that could force the Legislature to overhaul the way it pays for education.

Shortly after listening to closing arguments, Judge John Dietz called the funding mechanism unconstitutional. He has promised to issue a detailed, written decision soon. The trial took more than 240 hours in court and 10,000 exhibits to get this far.

Judge Dietz made the ruling in the last lawsuit, in 2005, and apparently referenced that in giving his decision from the bench. He will hand down his written opinion at a later date. There’s a ton more detail to come on this – for now, Twitter is your best reference; try searching hashtag #schoolfinancetrial – but I’m sure millions of words will follow elsewhere. So far what we do know is that Judge Dietz found in favor of the school districts on “property tax, equity, and adequacy claims”. He ruled that the cap on charter schools did not violate the constitution, saying that claim and the claims made by TREE are matters for the Legislature. Beyond that, we know that this will be appealed to the Supreme Court, we know that budget writers like Rep. Jim Pitts and Sen. Tommy Williams, along with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, have spoken about setting some money aside in anticipation of such a ruling, and we know that unless the Supreme Court substantially reverses this ruling, there will be at least one special session next year. Fasten your seat belts, etc etc etc. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: Here’s coverage from the Observer and the Trib. I also have statements galore, from the CPPP, MALC, Sen. Jose Rodriguez, Sen. Rodney Ellis, Sen. Kirk Watson, Sen. Wendy Davis, Rep. Mike Villarreal, Rep. Carol Alvarado, Rep. Jessica Farrar, Rep. Donna Howard, and Texans Deserve Great Schools, who seem to be missing the point. Finally, I now have a copy of Judge Dietz’s ruling and the LBB chart mentioned in the ruling.

UPDATE: Stace has more reactions, and Lone Star Ma chimes in.

One place where a little austerity would do some good

Rick Perry’s slush funds get no love in the opening budgets.

The House and Senate’s initial two-year budgets would force Perry’s deal-closing Texas Enterprise Fund to exhaust its last $7 million and throttle back on state film incentives and subsidies for major sporting events.

The Emerging Technology Fund, which subsidizes high-tech commercial ventures, would face slightly less dire prospects. The 8-year-old effort, which a Dallas Morning News investigation in 2010 found had awarded more than $16 million to firms with investors or officers who are large Perry campaign donors, has an estimated $120 million of existing money.

Lawmakers’ initial budgets would let it spend down that sum in the next two years.

“The Legislature is tired of seeing some of these programs being used the way they’re being used — or the appearance that they’re being used for that,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. “By zeroing those things out, the Legislature will have a way to look at these programs.”

In the past, Perry generally has succeeded in defending the programs, except in 2011’s budget-cutting session, when the Enterprise Fund and tech fund received no new money.

This year, though, Perry isn’t facing criticism only from Democrats, who say education and social services should get the first call on limited state dollars.

The Republican governor also is dodging charges of crony capitalism that were bandied about in his failed run for president last year and recently aired by Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, in his failed bid to become Texas House speaker.

Last spring, Texans for a Conservative Budget, a coalition of a half-dozen groups, urged lawmakers to consider eliminating dozens of programs, including the Enterprise Fund and tech fund.

Of course, as we know, these budgets are “just a starting point”, so Perry isn’t going to have to beg for loose change on the streets for his pet projects just yet. I could live with the continued existence of these funds if there were some actual oversight on them, and more stringent rules and sanctions for the job creation requirements of the grants. But just not giving them any more money works for me, too.

Meet the new budget

Same as the old budget.

Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature on Monday offered spare first drafts of the state’s next two-year budget that continue $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made last session and freeze funding for an embattled state agency set up to find a cure for cancer.

Upending recent tradition, the Texas Senate is starting off with the leaner budget this session, one that’s about $1 billion smaller than the House budget but spends nearly the same amount in general revenue, the portion of the budget that lawmakers have the most control over. General revenue typically makes up around half of the total budget, with much of the remainder coming from federal funding.

The Senate proposed a $186.8 billion budget, a 1.6 percent drop from $189.9 billion, the amount the current budget is estimated to grow to after lawmakers pay for some unpaid bills in the current budget this session. General revenue spending makes up $89 billion of the budget, up 1.5 percent from the current budget.

The total House budget will be $187.7 billion, down 1.2 percent from the current budget. General revenue spending makes up $89.2 billion, a 2 percent increase from the current budget.

Both proposals drew swift criticism from Democrats and education groups, but Republican lawmakers in both chambers stressed that the budgets are merely starting points.

Let’s just say that they’ll have to show it to me before I believe it. The first time House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts or Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams starts talking about “tax relief”, I’ll know the fix is in. The debate over the supplemental budget, which will need to pay off some IOUs on Medicaid and school funds, will give us an indication of how this is going to go.

The embedded graphic above is from the Better Texas blog, which is a product of the CPPP and which you should be reading. Their point is that even with the higher revenue estimate, we’re still way below what we’d need to be spending to cover population growth and cost increases. It’s going to take a change in government to get to that point.

Still, some things do change, and the Statesman notes one of them.

One relatively small-dollar change will have an out-sized political effect. The House provided no money for the state standardized testing system, a $98 million reduction in state dollars, while the Senate fully funded the program.

Frustration has been building over the testing system, known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, and parents and some business leaders are pushing for major changes. The House appears ready to force the issue.

“It will at least force the discussion,” said Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped found Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a parent group seeking an overhaul of the state testing system. “I think it was a very bold move.”

It’s unlikely that the final budget will zero out funding for the STAAR test, but I do agree that this will prioritize the debate over just how much standardized testing we need. Keep an eye on that.

Here are responses to the budget from Rep. Mike Villarreal and the Texas AFT. So far everyone is taking Pitts and Williams at their word that what they’ve put out now is just a starting point. If we want to end up someplace better, now is an excellent time to let your Rep and Senator know what your priorities are. It’s also a good time to note that the first Save Texas Schools rally for the session is on the calendar:

In the face of underfunding, over testing and proposed vouchers, get ready to join thousands of concerned Texans as we stand up for quality education for ALL Texas students.

DATE: Saturday, February 23, 2013

TIME/PLACE: March: 10:45 a.m. on the Congress Avenue Bridge to the Capitol.  Rally: Noon – 1:30 p.m. at the Texas State Capitol on the South Steps, Congress Ave. & 11th St.

AGENDA: Speakers include Supt. John Kuhn and Diane Ravitch. More soon!

Organizing in Your Area: Click here to be an organizer in your area.

Transportation: We have scholarships available to local groups to help with buses this year. Click here to apply. Please contact Save Texas Schools as soon as possible!

Let us know you’re coming! Click here to sign the Save Texas Schools petition and to register for the rally.

As always, speak now or forever lose the right to complain about the end result. Burka is dumbfounded by it all, Grits says that “on the criminal justice front they’re not off to an inspiring start”, and EoW, Sen. Kirk Watson, and the Observer have more.

So how’s public education doing under the Republicans?

Well, for starters, there’s larger class sizes.

Northside’s predicament mirrors that of several other local districts with expanding enrollments. It’s part of the argument hundreds of Texas districts are making in an ongoing school finance lawsuit against the state, blaming lawmakers for a funding scheme that doesn’t keep up with growth.

Administrators say larger classes are cheaper than hiring more teachers. There’s no state limit on class size for grades 5-12. In kindergarten through fourth grade, school districts must seek permission to go above 22 students per teacher — and the number of requests for such waivers from several local districts has skyrocketed in the past two years.

School boards, lawmakers and even presidential candidates this year debated whether larger classes hurt education.

“I would say that the majority of those people who say class size doesn’t matter haven’t been in a classroom in a long time,” Southwest ISD Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft said. “To think we can take a college format with larger sizes and bring it down to lower grade levels, where students still are developing socially as well as academically, is a farce. These kids need attention and interventions.”


Southwest ISD has found a way around the waiver requirement by using a “multi-grade” setup, placing some students overflowing from a lower grade into a higher grade classroom and having the teacher instruct the appropriate curriculum. Verstuyft said the district might need to end that experiment and opt for waivers — enrollment is swelling with population attracted by nearby manufacturing plants and the Eagle Ford Shale energy drilling boom.

Now at 13,024 students, Southwest added about 600 in each of the past two years since the Legislature cut its funding by almost $12 million.

FYI, Southwest ISD’s revenue for 2011-12 was $105 million, so they experienced a ten percent growth in enrollment over the past two years while dealing with a ten percent cut in funding. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for continued success to me. But surely with all that extra revenue coming into the state things will be better in the next biennium, right?

Yeah, right.

Republican leaders heading into the new legislative session say they are in no hurry to undo billions of dollars in cuts to public schools made two years ago.

Despite pressure from teacher groups and others, top lawmakers cited holes they must patch in the current budget, a general caution about higher spending and a desire to see how courts rule in the latest suit over how the state funds education.

Many school districts, pointing to an improved Texas economy, are seeking relief. But key budget-writers say the initial two-year plan they’ll unveil soon won’t replace the $5.4 billion the last Legislature sliced from state maintenance and operation aid and discretionary grants.

That means no substantial help to handle bigger classes and no restored grants for half-day prekindergarten and remedial instruction, decisions that are expected to rekindle tensions with school advocates calling for more money.

“The introduced bill won’t have that,” though it may include an additional $1 billion or so to cover student enrollment growth, said Rep. Jim Pitts, the Waxahachie Republican who heads the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Pitts said he expects Comptroller Susan Combs’ two-year revenue estimate, which limits what lawmakers can spend, “to be pretty conservative, and so we’re being very conservative.”


Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said GOP leaders probably are posturing, comparing it to the initial House proposal two years ago for $9 billion in school cuts.

“The story became the restoration of some of the cuts instead of focusing on how can we cut $5.4 billion from education in a school system that we’re holding to higher and higher standards,” said Strama, a member of the Public Education Committee.

“That was actually a smart political strategy to sell a dumb public policy.”

Strama said Republican leaders may ease up some when a final budget starts taking shape.

Don’t count on it, though, said Rep. Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican who, with tea party support, upset an ally to Speaker Joe Straus two years ago — and then beat him again in a primary rematch this year.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “We’re not going to do any restoration.”

So there you have it. Frankly, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting on them to add funding to cover enrollment growth. It’s not a priority for them. I’ll say it again, nothing will change until the government changes. It’s as simple as that. EoW has more.

It’s all about 2014

This is very easy to understand.

So sad about the things the state needs

Signaling austerity despite improving state revenues and a push by some to undo cuts to key programs, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and leading GOP senators said they plan to write a budget for the next two years that is smaller than allowed under a spending cap adopted Thursday.

The announcement was met with caution from House GOP leaders, who said the budget-writing process has yet to take its course.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, voiced concern that even the adopted cap could constrain efforts to restore money to programs such as public education even as Texas faces a school funding lawsuit.

Under the Texas Constitution, state leaders are required to limit certain state spending to economic growth; the cap applies to state tax revenues that are not constitutionally dedicated to other purposes, about $70.4 billion of the state’s current two-year budget of $173.5 billion.

The 10.7 percent cap adopted by the Legislative Budget Board is based on personal income, which would allow $7.5 billion in spending above the current budget. The existing budget is $14 billion less than the previous two-year state budget due to a revenue shortfall.


Dewhurst and the GOP senators’ position raised eyebrows among leading House members who serve on the budget board.

“We’ve written very conservative budgets, and we’ll continue to do that, but right now, we don’t know what we’ll have to pay for and how much revenue we’ll be getting from the comptroller,” said House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said his chamber will follow its usual budget process, noting dozens of incoming members have not yet had a chance to weigh in.

Pretty much everything David Dewhurst will do in the coming months has to do with the fact that he has at least three potential primary opponents, and he will not be outflanked on the right again as he was with Ted Cruz this year. He’ll do the full Mitt Romney on any inconveniently moderate or sane thing he ever did or believed before, and hope it’s enough to hold back the pitchfork mob. Doesn’t matter if it makes sense, it just has to make the robber barons at TPPF twirl their mustaches with glee. This may or may not be enough to stave off a second humiliating defeat at the polls, but it’s his only chance.

No, there won’t be a special session to help the public schools

Someone managed to catch Rick Perry during the few minutes he was in the office this week to ask about about having a special session to appropriate some of the extra Rainy Day funds to mitigate the cuts to public education. His answer was exactly what you’d expect.

Perry said Tuesday that Texas is spending plenty on public education.

“We’re still spending approximately $10,000 per student in Texas, and I will suggest to you the issue is not ‘are we spending enough money?’ The issue is, ‘are we spending enough money in the right places; are we getting a good return on our investment? ‘” Perry said in an interview with the American-Statesman.

The state is sitting on $1.1 billion in unanticipated revenue, as well as $6.1 billion in the rainy day fund. Democrats say some of that money should be used to avoid the second year of budget reductions.

“We made those cuts on the belief that the money was not available … and our kids have paid the price for it,” state Rep. Sylvester Turner , D-Houston, said during an Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday. It was the first meeting of the budget-writing committee since the 2011 legislative session.

But there is no appetite among Republicans “to go back in and undo what we did in the session,” said Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts , R-Waxahachie . The GOP controls both chambers of the Legislature.

Seriously, what did you expect? This was what they wanted to do. Why would Perry and the Republicans want to undo what they wanted to do in the first place? They like what they did so much they may go back and do some more of it:

Last year, lawmakers across the ideological spectrum openly acknowledged that they would need to use the rainy day fund in 2013 to cover the Medicaid cost. But on Tuesday, Pitts raised the specter that support for using the reserve fund has possibly dwindled.

Under federal law, Texas has no choice but to pay the $3.9 billion Medicaid bill. To do so without the rainy day fund, the state would need to start cutting expenses elsewhere this year, Pitts said.

Those cuts would be on top of the $17.6 billion in spending reductions that were enacted last year as part of the two-year, $173 billion state budget.

Remember, that’s with $7.3 billion currently in the Rainy Day Fund, and more likely to come in as the economy improves. This is what they do. You want something different, you need a different Legislature.

By the way, Perry’s claim that we spend $10,000 per student is a flatout lie. Perry’s not the only one who’s been lying about how much we spend on public education. They may be proud of what they’ve done, but that doesn’t mean they want you to think too much about it. EoW has more.

The strip club tax is on the table

Among the things that conference committee members will be discussing as they try to finalize the budget is a reworking of the strip club tax that was first passed in 2007.

This session, while awaiting a ruling on the case from the Texas Supreme Court, lawmakers attempted a preemptive strike. Fearing, as lower courts have suggested, that linking strip clubs to health insurance was too big of a stretch, they easily added language to a large health reform bill directing all of the strip club fee’s revenues — originally estimated at $87 million over two years — to sexual assault victims and prevention. That measure, Senate Bill 23, died on the clock in the House.

The strip club language is back in the special session — first on Senate Bill 7, a sweeping health reform bill, and now as an amendment to Senate Bill 1, a fiscal matters bill that contains the state’s school finance plan. But it’s in trouble.

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock and the author of SB 1, says the purpose of the bill is to fund state government and schools, not to be a landing pad for controversial legislation. He said his colleagues in the upper chamber are lobbying hard on both sides of the issue and that he doesn’t see the provision sticking as lawmakers work out their differences in conference committee.

“I’m trying to be a traffic cop,” he said. “I’m trying to keep a lot of things off of it.”

But supporters of the strip club fee say all kinds of other controversial amendments have been added to SB 1 and don’t seem to be at risk of being killed.

“The courts reviewing the bill … have made it clear that [using the revenue for health insurance] is not a good fit,” said Mica Mosbacher, an advocate for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault and a sexual assault survivor. “SB 1 provides a remedy.”

Maybe if it were linked to abortion somehow, that would break the stalemate. The House wants this in, the Senate is dithering as you can see. Speaking of which, the State Supreme Court heard the appeal of the strip club tax lawsuit in March of 2010, which is to say 14 months ago. You just can’t rush these things.

House Appropriations follows Senate, passes SB1

The grim march of the inevitable takes another step.

The House Appropriations Committee voted along party lines on Saturday to recommend a controversial plan to reduce public education spending by at least $4 billion, cuts which hundreds of Texans later protested during a Capitol rally.

The full House will take up the school funding bill later in the week in a special session that Gov. Rick Perry called Tuesday after Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, killed the plan to cut public education with a filibuster in the last hours of the regular session.

Actually, the Appropriations committee vote wasn’t exactly along party lines.

Abilene Republican Rep. Susan King, who voted against a similar measure during the regular legislative session, said she still cannot support the measure because the scope is too broad. Not only does it contain $3.5 billion in “non-tax revenue” to help balance the 2012-13 budget, but also a highly contentious school funding plan that was finished just two days before the end of the regular session Monday.

“I voted against it several times,” King said after the House Appropriations Committee meeting had adjourned. “It’s the fact that something of this major importance was brought out in a very cloaked way at the very end and pushed into a fiscal matters bill. It should have been kept out. It should have been kept separate, in my opinion. Almost everything for education was rolled into that one fiscal matters bill.”


King’s vote is evidence of the lack of unanimity among even Republicans over the measure, particularly the school funding plan.

While Democrats are opposed to it mostly because of the sizable cuts it imposes on schools, Republicans such as King question the fairness of how those cuts are distributed and are wary of the last-minute — even secretive — nature of the closed-door negotiations that produced the plan.

King said her questions and concerns were dismissed.

“Toward the end of the session, I asked multiple times, you know, ‘What exactly are the negotiations on this? What is it, what will be brought to us?’ ” King said. “And, I mean, you cannot imagine the comments made to me. You know, ‘You don’t need to ask that question,’ ‘You’re going to hurt the deliberations if you ask for that.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s just transparency.’ ”

Of the 20 committee members present Saturday, 14 voted for the measure — including Rep. Drew Darby, who represents San Angelo’s District 72 — and five voted against the measure — including King and four Democrats. Another Republican, Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria, registered “present not voting.” Seven members were absent.

You’d think that lack of transparency that Rep. King cites might be a concern to more people. Does the Lege really know what it’s about to vote on? As Rep. Scott Hochberg pointed out, there hasn’t even been a committee hearing on the proposed changes to school finance. The response from those pushing to get something passed, as expressed by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, is that they have to do something now, and they can fix whatever it is they do in 2013. The thing is, though, they wouldn’t actually have to do that. Patricia Kilday Hart explains:

In our current system, the Legislature sets out school funding formulas in statute, usually after lawmakers see computer runs demonstrating how a particular scheme affects their schools. Putting those formulas in statute means the state is legally obligated to fully compensate school districts for variables like enrollment growth or lost tax revenue due to declining property values.

But the plan panned by Davis and Hochberg — and again under consideration in the special session — will free lawmakers to decide each budget cycle to choose how much money schools get. Public education will be toppled from its special status in the state budget to just another program that will compete for scarce dollars.

The GOP leadership has downplayed the impact of this change, arguing that lawmakers have always made public schools a priority. But the very reason this school finance bill is necessary is to free the state from owing about $4 billion under current formulas.

To some, including Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, this is sound policy. Last week, he called the school finance proposal “a true cut in an entitlement.”

Note the use of that dirty word — entitlement — as if public education is some kind of welfare, not the underpinning of democracy envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.

This school finance bill is a tipping point for the Texas public education system. If the state’s obligation to local schools is no longer carved in statute, public education funding becomes vulnerable to last-minute budget balancing by 10 lawmakers on a conference committee. If they decide to trim a couple of billion from education, the other 171 members of the Legislature have little voice.

Not to mention the voters. We’re one step closer to that now.

Vote on school finance today

On Friday night, the Lege finally reached an agreement on school finance, which is to say on how to distribute the $4 billion in cuts to public education to the school districts. Today the Lege gets to vote on that deal.

House leaders wanted a two-year plan cutting school funding across the board by about 6 percent.

The Senate insisted lawmakers address the controversial “target revenue” system that has created disparities in school district funding. The compromise will use across-the-board cuts for the coming school year before turning to the Senate’s version for the 2012-13 school year.

“We believe it’s the best way to distribute those dollars out to our communities,” Shapiro said.

The deal has been called part Eissler and part Shapiro, which is to say part of HB400 and part of SB22.

Preliminary numbers indicate that Houston ISD will lose about $84 million the first year and an estimated $119 million in the second year — or cuts of roughly $328 per student in the first year followed by $490 the second year. Those numbers are based on earlier printouts that should be fairly close when the newest district-by-district impact figures come out, Shapiro said.

Based on the preliminary details, HISD faces a smaller cut next year than district officials had projected, but they expressed concern about deeper cuts the following year.

Hair Balls noted on Thursday that the HISD Board of Trustees was cautiously optimistic that their remaining shortfall would end up being less than they had originally planned for.

Although leaders reached an agreement on school funding, individual lawmakers will have to assess the impact of the funding cuts on the school districts they represent before ratifying the plan. Most if not all 49 House Democrats are expected to oppose the plan to cut funding to public education — especially when use of the state’s rainy day fund could have avoided those cuts.

“It’s unbelievable that we would lay off teachers, increase class sizes, cut Pre-K programs and hurt our schools across the board while there is more than enough money sitting in the rainy day fund to avoid the cuts completely,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston.

Without Democrats, House Republicans would need 76 of their 101 members to support the agreement. Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, one of the House negotiators, said, “I think we can sell this.”

I hope you can, too. I can’t wait for the 2012 campaigns to start noting that this Republican or that voted to cut billions of dollars from public schools. Remember, the House and every Republican in it originally voted to cut $8 billion from public education, so whatever cuts they end up approving for their own schools, they were prepared to approve cuts twice as big. Oh, yeah, I’m ready for this to quit being a legislative issue and start being a campaign issue. Have fun voting on your cuts, Republicans. School Zone and EoW have more.

Budget passes

It’s official.

The Texas House and Senate passed a state budget Saturday that cuts billions from public schools, state universities and health care for the elderly.

The $172 billion legislation now goes to Gov. Rick Perry for his signature.

Facing a massive revenue shortfall, lawmakers crafted the budget by making cuts and using deferrals rather than raising taxes or dipping into the $10 billion reserve fund.

The Senate voted 20-11, mostly along party lines. McAllen Sen. Chuy Hinojosa was the only Democrat who supported the bill.


In all funds, the plan for 2012-2013 is $15 billion less than the current budget, but that doesn’t account for the costs of providing services to new population.

According to Postcards, the House vote was 97-53 for the budget – guess that means the Speaker cast a vote as well – and according to the Trib, one of the four Republican votes against was the turncoat Aaron Pena. Nice to see that he remains consistent in his lack of principles. That means that all 49 House Dems voted No, which is exactly what they should have done. Not much else for me to say about this, so let me turn it over to the numerous statements I’ve received, all of which are reproduced beneath the fold.


We have a budget

Such as it is.

Budget negotiators met briefly this morning and voted 9-1 to adopt a conference committee report that cuts the state budget over the next biennium by $15 billion, or 8 percent. The total amount of funding from taxpayers, known as general funds, is $80.4 billion. The total expenditures for all funds, including federal money, is $172.3 billion.

Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, told reporters their respective chambers are expected to vote on the report as early as Saturday afternoon.

“We have covered the entire (2010-2011) biennial deficit and the budget is balanced for the next two years. And at the end of the day, that’s a pretty extraordinary accomplishment considering the challenge we were in,” Ogden said.

I suppose a Hollywood accountant might call this a “balanced” budget, but between the delayed payments to school districts, the $4.8 billion hot check for Medicaid, the fantasizing about federal waivers and higher-than-projected property tax revenues, it’s a budget built on cotton candy and hallucinations. And that’s before we consider the cost of slashing $4 billion from public education, which was the best case scenario for that. What still hasn’t been done is to figure out how to spread that $4 billion in cuts out over all the school districts.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said there’s a provision in the budget agreement that makes Foundation School Program payments to school districts contingent on the House and Senate agreeing on school finance.

“If there is not agreement … there’s no appropriations to the Foundation School Program. We’d have to come back in special session,” Ogden said.

Abby Rapoport has more on what the school finance options are at this point. I assume they’re strongly motivated to avoid having to go into a special session. But even if they do, there’s still the question of whether or not the Comptroller will certify the budget. Rep. Garnet Coleman has some questions for Comptroller Combs:

1. Will you evaluate the combined revenue and expenses of all major pieces of legislation regarding the state’s fiscal matters, not just the primary budget bill (House Bill 1), in determining whether or not Texas has passed a balanced budget?

The Legislature is deliberating numerous “fiscal matters” bills that have consequences on our state’s finances for FY 2012-13. In 2003, the last time Texas faced a massive budget shortfall, Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn determined that the budget was a “’patchwork’ piece of legislation that depends on several other bills to determine some of the spending” for the FY 2004-2005 budget. (Source: Associated Press, “Strayhorn criticizes lawmakers for ‘smoke and mirrors’ budget,” June 5, 2003).

Which, if any, bills other than House Bill 1 do you anticipate your office evaluating in order to determine whether or not you will certify the Texas budget?

2. Will you certify $4.8 billion in Medicaid expenses if they are not paid for with revenue Texas can identify in its budget?

Wayne Pulver, an assistant director at the Legislative Budget Board, stated before the Texas House Committee on Appropriations on Monday, May 16 that, “it is our estimate that with these funding decisions, the bill is short $4.8 billion in general revenue.” (Source: Associated Press, “Texas budget plan kicks Medicaid funding problem down the road,” May 21, 2011.) It is your intention to certify the Texas budget as balanced, even if we are budgeting to pay for something we do not have the money to pay for?

3. If you cannot certify the $4.8 billion in Medicaid expenses, will you send the budget back to the House in which it originated to ensure Texas passes a balanced budget?

In 2003, Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn refused to certify the state’s budget because it spent $186.9 million more in the FY 2004-2005 biennium than the state could count as available revenue. Governor Rick Perry, under a special provision inserted by budget writers, was able to use line-item veto authority to cut expenditures in the budget by $186.9 million. Comptroller Strayhorn was then able to certify the budget.

However, the current $4.8 billion shortfall in Medicaid expenses is over twenty-five times the size of the 2003 budget shortfall Comptroller Strayhorn originally did not certify. It is my request that, provided you do not certify the $4.8 billion in Medicaid expenses that remain unaccounted for in any legislation being considered by the Texas Legislature, you do not send the budget to the Governor to balance the budget.

It is our duty, as legislators, to pass a balanced budget. Should you determine that the budget is not balanced, I would request that you send it back to the House in which the budget originated, as prescribed by Article 3, Section 49a(b) of the Texas Constitution.

You can read Rep. Coleman’s full letter to Comptroller Combs here. A statement from the CPPP is here, and a statement from Rep. Mike Villarreal is here. Trailblazers and EoW have more.

Budget deal reached

One less reason for a special session. Assuming nothing else goes wrong, and Rick Perry doesn’t veto it out of whatever sense of grandeur and vanity drives him.

House Speaker Joe Straus indicated legislative negotiators have reached an agreement on the state budget, and the House soon today will consider the much-delayed revenue-generating bill crucial to balancing it.

“We wouldn’t be going with this bill until there was an agreement, so you can draw your own conclusion,” Straus told reporters, referring to Senate Bill 1811. “We’re ready to go.”

Straus didn’t give details, but one sticking point had been higher education, an item on which senators initially wanted to spend $1 billion more than the House. The House countered with an offer to narrow that gap by $300 million.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said a bit earlier after leaving a meeting on the House side, “We’re working on it … We’re in better shape than we were a few hours ago.”

SB1811 “has to pass in some form in order to balance the budget,” Ogden said. The measure includes deferring about $2 billion in state school payments.

Postcards and the Trib have more. Looks like Sen. Florence Shapiro’s SB22, which was added as an amendment to SB1811, will be the plan to officially reduce funding to the public schools. We’ll see if those House teabagger freshmen and others who’ve been expressing heartburn about voting to slash funding to their own schools wimp out or not.

I normally put statements from elected officials beneath the fold, but this one from Rep. Garnet Coleman deserves to be seen by everyone.

Rotten Deal Bad for Texans, Nursing Homes, Schools and Colleges

Republicans in the Texas House and Texas Senate have come to an agreement for the 2012-2013 state budget. The rotten deal cut by the Republican supermajority cuts nursing homes, public schools and universities, and financial aid for college students. Their celebratory rhetoric does not match the reality of their budget’s painful cuts to Texans.

Texas needs to pass a budget with $99 billion to provide the same level of services to Texans. No real effort was made by the conference committee to improve the painful cuts made in the House and Senate.

$21 billion short of current services – House budget
$16 billion short of current services – Senate budget
$18 billion short of current services – “Rotten Deal” Budget

All Republicans have done is come to an agreement between bad and worse. Republican leaders are boasting that they cut a deal, but for some reason haven’t bragged about their cuts to nursing homes, public schools, and public universities, all of which will adversely affect Texans. Those in control in the two chambers have come to an agreement to burn down the house we know as Texas.

The cuts from the current biennium, like the 3% rate cut for nursing homes, carry forward under this budget. On top of the new level of cuts, the rotten budget deal uses funny money and accounting gimmicks like delaying payments to push off the cost to the next Legislature. They also left money in the Rainy Day Fund during a storm and didn’t even address the permanent budget shortfall created by Gov. Perry in 2006. Republicans are writing a hot check so they can skip town and not fix the mess they’ve made.

Untouched money sitting in the bank:
$6.6 billion Rainy Day Fund
Drastic Cuts:
$4 billion cut from public schools for Texas children
Funny Money:
$4.8 billion in unfunded Medicaid services for elderly, disabled, children and pregnant women
Accounting Gimmicks
$700 million “assumed savings” from Medicaid waivers that likely won’t be approved.
$2.2 billion “deferral” of Foundation School Program payment
Permanent Structural Shortfall Not Addressed
$10 billion shortfall every 2 years

Future shortfall
$10 billion shortfall every 2 years
$700 million “assumed savings” from Medicaid waivers
$2.2 billion “deferral” of FSP payment
+ $4.8 billion in unfunded Medicaid
$17.7 billion shortfall for the 83rd Legislature

There’s no way this is a balanced budget. It’s billions short of where Texas is supposed to be on Medicaid and education. Even worse, it means Texas is going to be at least $17.7 billion of current services next session. Those in control of the budget should have crafted a budget that invests in our children, ensures that our seniors are cared for, and protects vulnerable Texans. Instead, they’ve developed an irresponsible budget, made devastating cuts to Texans, and created a huge shortfall that Texas families will have to make up for in the next legislative session.

Keep an eye on that $17.7 billion number. There’s no question that a lot of the “cuts” from this budget are just bills being deferred to the next Lege, and as we’ve discussed before, the Rainy Day Fund that Perry and his minions have been so mulish about not using will be tapped at some point in 2013 to pay the piper. What I want to know is, what excuse will the Republicans use for the next ten-digit budget shortfall? Who will they blame next time? The 2014 elections may wind up being more interesting than the 2012 elections will be. A statement from Sen. Wendy Davis is here and a statement from Sen. Rodney Ellis is beneath the fold.


House punts on budget bills till tomorrow

After getting off to a slow start, budget negotiators realized they were going nowhere fast and put a merciful end to things for the day.

The House has punted to Thursday any floor consideration of the “non-tax revenue” bill and related bills needed to close out a deal on the two-year state budget.

Rep. Jim Pitts told members from the front microphone Wednesday afternoon that House-Senate budget negotiators are within sight of a budget deal.

“I want to be able to get an agreement before we take up” the non-tax revenue bill, said Pitts, the House’s lead negotiator. “We’re very, very close.”

Actually, depending on who you ask and when you ask them, the Lege is either “very close” to a deal or they’re “stuck”, amid “politics at its worst”, and there either will be a special session or there won’t. Got all that? Postcards and the Trib have more.

Senate passes supplemental appropriation with extra rainy day funds

I guess I hadn’t realized that the Senate hadn’t gotten around to passing a bill to close the deficit from the last biennium, since the House had done that a long time ago amid a huge debate about using Rainy Day Funds, but it’s just now that they passed the House’s bill, with a little vig thrown in.

The Texas Senate approved a $3.97 billion draw on the state’s Rainy Day Fund to cover a deficit of the same size in the current budget, but not before rejecting efforts to add on a larger amount to help balance the 2012-13 budget.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, matched the size of the withdrawal to the size of the current deficit. But he asked the Senate to use more of the fund than the House used, casting aside other revenue sources that were in that chamber’s mix. If that prevails, it would mean a bigger draw on the Rainy Day Fund and would make an additional $855.9 million available for the next budget.


Ogden said the bill — HB 275 — isn’t supposed to finance the next budget. He limited the size of the draw on the savings account to the size of the deficit in the current budget. “I’m using the Rainy Day Fund for a single purpose, and that is to cover the current deficit,” he said.

Point being, and I confess I lost some of the details along the way in the fog, the deficit that needed to be closed was bigger than the total amount of Rainy Day Funds that the House voted to use, so the Senate version of HB275 frees up a bit more cash for this biennium. Not that much in the grand scheme of things, but we are well past the looking gift horses in the mouth portion of this session.

Whether the House will go along with this, and whether the two chambers can reconcile their budgetary differences remains an open question. A special session is not just a possibility at this point, it’s a near certainty – as Robert Miller points out, the House did not pass a Congressional redistricting bill before Thursday’s deadline, so at the very least there’s that. Ogden has suggested that a special session could be limited to school finance issues, meaning that other areas of the budget, including Medicaid, could be agreed upon before sine die. That now appears to be the case.

House and Senate negotiators have reached agreement on everything in the state budget except for public and higher education and a section of general provisions that can be used later to make sure the numbers in the budget balance.

They left some controversial issues — like funding for family planning — for later. And the leaders of the conference committee — Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, and Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan — said they need to resolve their differences over education quickly if they’re going to finish a budget during this regular session.

Time is running short. The conferees have to agree on a budget and coordinate that with other pieces of legislation that plug in, including a group of “fiscal matters” bills that generate money for the budget with cuts, accounting tricks and other measures, and on two bills that cover a nearly $4 billion deficit in the current budget, which runs through the end of August.


Lawmakers are also hoping Comptroller Susan Combs will make more money available. She’s been waiting to see what that business tax will produce — it was due this week — before making any adjustments to her forecasts. Sales tax returns lagged for the first year of the two-year budget period, but have been growing at a robust rate for the last several months. As a result, some budget writers expect her to raise her estimate of what will be available to spend, and expect to hear one way or the other in the next few days.

I don’t know how much hope to have about that. This agreement shorts Medicaid by $4.8 billion, at least some of which is to be appropriated later. The House will tackle some key budget bills tomorrow, at which time we’ll have a better idea of how the rest of this mess will play out. Whatever the case, the end result will be a disaster and an abject failure for the state. That much is already known, and won’t be resolved any time this year.

Nothing is dead, and nothing is certain

The deadline for passing House bills on second reading was midnight Friday last week, which means that tons of bills are technically dead, as they can no longer be brought to the House floor for a vote. However, bills can still be attached to other bills that are eligible for consideration as amendments, so nothing can be ruled out at this stage.

“As long as the budget is alive, any fiscal measure is still alive,” said Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, chairman of the influential House Calendars Committee, which determines which bills go to the House floor for debate.

“I think gambling is still alive because it’s a revenue measure and, as the budget process is alive, so is any revenue measure.”

A watered-down gambling bill to allow slot machines at racetracks and Native American reservations moved out of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee last week

“There’s not enough interest on the House floor — at the moment,” said Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, the committee chairman who moved the gambling bill.

Support for the gambling bill could build later — perhaps in a summer special session, he said, as members look for more non-tax revenue. The limited gambling bill could raise about $3 billion, he said.

You knew gambling would come up in this conversation, right? There are still big disagreements about how much money the Lege will actually spend this session, and how cuts to public education will be distributed, and these issues are not close to being resolved.

The House and Senate each has passed its own budget plan, with the Senate spending $4 billion more state dollars than the House in order to mitigate proposed spending cuts to education, nursing homes and other priorities.

The two sides now have little time to hammer out a compromise , and they’re struggling to reach common ground. The Senate thinks the House cuts are too deep, and the House thinks the Senate is unrealistic about how much money is available.

“It’s going to be real tough to get to a compromise,” one high-level legislative staffer said Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity as to not further disrupt the negotiations.

Senate finance chief Steve Ogden said on Friday that a special legislative session on the budget is “pretty likely.”

Anything can happen, but I’d put my money on a special session. The question is whether another thirty days would be enough to resolve the disagreement, since what that really means is who capitulates. There, I’d be putting my money on the Senate finally giving in to the fanatics in the House. At which point we’ll have the budget the Republicans have been dreaming about for years. What happens after that is up to us.