Texas Legislature Convenes, Facing Hard Choices

The 82nd Texas Legislature convenes in Austin this week, and while it’s not as much fun as the circus — usually — it’s more important and does have its share of comedy and drama.

The subject matter is practically operatic: in the 140 days of their regular session, lawmakers must face down a multibillion-dollar shortfall, having made blanket promises not to raise taxes. They need to draw redistricting maps for seats in Congress, the Legislature and the State Board of Education — their most partisan enterprise of the decade.

Expect a heated word or two over immigration legislation and border security, threats of major cuts to education and health and human services, and continuing struggles to keep up with the state’s transportation and criminal-justice concerns. Here’s a look at some key issues coming up while the Legislature is in town.

Budget

The bane of everyone who feared story problems in math class, the budget is the central policy blueprint for the state government. And it’s deeply out of whack, with the state committed to more programs than the Legislature can finance. The size of that shortfall is estimated at $15 billion to $28 billion; the real number will be known Monday when Comptroller Susan Combs issues her revenue estimate and lawmakers unveil their starting budget proposal.

 

The numbers are stark: cutting everything except education and health and human services — everything — would trim a fraction of the shortfall. Local school districts could be forced to raise property taxes to cover costs if the state makes deep cuts in education; municipalities might also be able to reduce cuts in services and staff by raising their own local property taxes.

Lawmakers have just a few options: raise taxes, find other revenue, use the Rainy Day Fund (expected to be at least $8 billion), cut spending, shift costs to local governments or to the private sector, or use financial tricks.

Most of the state’s officeholders campaigned on promises not to raise taxes. Raising fees for various licenses and other state services is possible, but iffy. There’s talk of legalizing gambling to increase state income.

Using the Rainy Day Fund requires the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature. Financial tricks — like delaying payments until the next budget — are good for about $3 billion. Some state leaders want to preserve some of the state’s savings in case the budget after this one is grim, too.

WHO TO WATCH: Steve Ogden, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Jim Pitts, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the head writers of the state’s spending plan. — ROSS RAMSEY

Federalism/Tea Party

To this point, most talk about states’ rights has been just that — talk. But Texas is pushing back against the federal government in substantive ways, too: There’s legal action under way over environmental regulation (whether the Environmental Protection Agency or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality should have supremacy here).

 

Lawmakers are talking seriously about backing out of the federal Medicaid program. Some want the federal government to give states more leeway with programs financed in part by the federal government. Texas and other states have talked about petitioning to change the 14th Amendment’s provision of automatic citizenship for babies born in the United States to parents who aren’t citizens.

The governor has been promoting his book, Fed Up!, focused on what he sees as an overreaching federal government, and he will be sworn in for a new term on Jan. 18, presumably to put some of his words into action.

This is also the Tea Party’s first legislative session, and the combination of people it has helped elect and its ability to spur the people inside the Capitol with phone calls and letters and social media is about to be tested.

WHO TO WATCH: Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, and head of the Texas Conservative Coalition; and Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, founder of the new legislative Tea Party Caucus. — ROSS RAMSEY

Speaker’s Race

The 2011 session’s first order of business is the selection of House speaker, arguably the most powerful political post in Texas. Joe Straus of San Antonio, the Republican incumbent, is trying to keep his job amid challenges from outside grass-roots groups and socially conservative Republicans who take issue with his selection of some Democrats as committee chairmen last session, as well as his past support of groups favoring abortion rights.

His challengers smell opportunity: the election of dozens of freshmen — many of them further to the right than their predecessors — potentially gives Straus’ opponents new allies.

Warren Chisum, Republican of Pampa and a conservative, and Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, also want the job. Paxton has promised to use the new Republican supermajority in the House to “honestly advance conservative principles and not simply protect the status quo.” He has won the support of the Young Conservatives of Texas, the Republican Liberty Caucus and Dick Armey, the former majority leader of the U.S. House and a highly visible Tea Party booster.

Chisum’s candidacy isn’t generating much excitement. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, who led the powerful Calendars Committee under Straus’ immediate predecessor, Tom Craddick, took an important public stand in this largely insider struggle when she threw her support to Straus in December. It was a signal that Straus’ challengers probably won’t win the support of conservative veteran members. But politics being unpredictable, Straus won’t be on solid ground until after Tuesday’s floor vote.

WHO TO WATCH: Freshman members. A handful of new lawmakers have thrown their support behind Straus’ challengers. They’ll either gain clout or give it up — depending on whether they’ve made the right bet. — ELISE HU

Immigration

Rep. Debbie Riddle, a conservative Republican from Tomball, did not wait long after the midterm elections to file immigration-related legislation. Riddle camped out in the Capitol for 36 hours to be the first to file a bill that would stop the flow of state money to any local government that provided “sanctuary” — i.e., a city that does not allow its police officers to enforce federal immigration laws — to illegal immigrants.

Riddle told reporters that her willingness to spend the night in the Capitol showed she had “tenacity and fire in the belly” on the issue.

Many of her colleagues share Riddle’s fervor. Several followed suit and filed bills — more than 40 — that, if passed, would significantly increase the state’s involvement with immigration enforcement. The proposed legislation would, among other things, prohibit any state agency from printing signs or documents in any language other than English, and require the police to ask people stopped without proper ID if they are in the country legally.

Last week, a coalition of civil rights groups, business leaders and law enforcement warned that the proposed legislation would create an antibusiness climate in Texas and divert strained law enforcement resources.

Whether the new measures, if passed, would survive legal scrutiny is another question. Arizona’s immigration legislation is tied up in federal court, which has temporarily halted enforcement of some of its major provisions.

WHO TO WATCH: The always-colorful Riddle, of course. — JULIÁN AGUILAR

Redistricting

Texas picks up four seats, for a total of 36, in the U.S. House of Representatives, thanks to its population growth relative to the other states, but determining the boundaries of the new districts won’t be easy. Members of Congress and their staff members will be spending lots of time in Austin.

Expect cajoling, jawboning, arm-twisting — whatever it takes (including the occasional lavish display of flattery) as lawmakers seek to protect their own seats and damage their opponents’. The new districts go where the people are — each must contain about 700,000 people — so it’s likely that the Dallas and Houston suburbs will gain a seat each, and the Rio Grande Valley at least one.

State lawmakers must also redraw their own districts (150 in the House and 31 in the Senate), which must contain equal populations and be drawn with minority populations in mind. Though the Republicans have a supermajority in the House, it will still be tough for them to draw enough safe GOP districts to protect all of their members from competitive elections in 2012. But they could also try to dilute Democrats’ strength by creating more swing districts.

State lawmakers must approve the maps, as with any other legislation. If they can’t agree on their own seats, the five-member Legislative Redistricting Board, composed of the lieutenant governor and other statewide elected officials, will decide. It’s possible that a special session in the summer will be required to finish drawing congressional seats. Then come the legal challenges.

WHO TO WATCH: Attorney General Greg Abbott, who will have to defend the maps in any court challenges. — MATT STILES

Criminal Justice

Criminal-justice advocates, both liberal and conservative, agree that the biggest cost savings would come from shuttering some of the facilities that house adult and juvenile offenders. But it’s not an easy proposition to accomplish.

The Texas Youth Commission has said the only way it could slash its budget enough is to close two more facilities beyond the five it has closed since 2007. There were more than 900 empty beds in its 10 facilities in October. The commission estimates that each facility it closes would mean 230 lost jobs. In some small towns that have youth prisons, that would be a major economic blow that could create major political fallout.

As for adult prisons, Texas has never closed one. The prisoner population, however, dropped by more than 1,000 from the 2008 fiscal year to the 2009 one. Still, the department said it needed all of the bed space it had.

Of course, the keys to keeping adults and juveniles alike out of prison in the first place, advocates of reform say, are the changes Texas made in specialty programs to provide more treatment for addicts and mentally ill offenders. Lawmakers, they say, should resist cutting those programs.

Lawmakers will also have to deal with the continuing problem of wrongful convictions and the need to debate over the use of faulty evidence.

WHO TO WATCH: Scott Henson, a very knowledgeable blogger, who writes about all things criminal justice at gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com.— BRANDI GRISSOM

Health and Social Services

Expect ample political bluster — and devastating cuts. The Republican majority will continue to attack the federal health care overhaul and do everything legislatively it can to resist it.

Lawmakers will also file bills and resolutions seeking federal waivers to redesign how Medicaid is administered, or they could try to drop out of the program. At an annual cost to the state of $10 billion, Medicaid is the single biggest health-related item on the budget.

 At the very least, legislators will most likely take aim at the rates at which Medicaid health care providers are reimbursed and expand Medicaid managed-care into the Rio Grande Valley and rural Texas.

Other anticipated legislation? An effort to lift Texas’ ban on hospitals directly employing doctors, and a move to expand the scope of practice for nurse practitioners.

In social services, expect cuts in community-based care for people with disabilities — the state’s big institutional care facilities are largely protected under a federal Justice Department settlement. Cutbacks in community-based care for the elderly are also possible. A redesign of the state’s foster-care system is in the works, but lawmakers will be hard-pressed to approve anything that requires more money.

WHO TO WATCH: Tom Suehs, commissioner of health and human services, is trusted on both sides of the aisle and is a straight-shooter on budget cuts and Medicaid’s merits and shortcomings. — EMILY RAMSHAW

Education

In a session in which any new policy proposal with a price tag is probably dead on arrival, the most significant changes in public education could come in existing programs. To ease the burden of cuts in financing, lawmakers could relax state rules and regulations that create costs that local school districts must bear on their own or with limited help from the state.

The most controversial proposal? Removing the requirement of a 22-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in kindergarten through fourth grade. Legislators have also promised a new school finance bill overhauling the current long-contested mechanism.

Colleges and universities are particularly vulnerable. Last year, when the state reduced the current biennium budget by 5 percent, more than 40 percent of the cuts came out of higher education. Deeper cuts loom, but even as the money disappears, institutions are under pressure to improve graduation rates.

Policy makers will consider tying state money to graduation rates instead of enrollment in order to create greater incentives for improvement. They could also raise eligibility standards for the state’s largest financial aid program, which could also be slashed.

WHO TO WATCH: The chair of the appropriations subcommittee on education. For now, that’s Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, but this is a leadership position Republicans could grab. — REEVE HAMILTON and MORGAN SMITH

Energy

In the 2009 session, dozens of bills to foster the use of solar power died. Some are being introduced again this year, and they’re a priority of environmentalists.

Pro-solar action could take one of two forms: a mandate for electric companies to utilize renewable energy sources other than wind (which got its start from a mandate and has thrived) or a rebate program, specifically for solar, intended for residents and businesses. With the economic recovery still tenuous, both will face obstacles.

The Sunset Advisory Commission, which looks for waste in state agencies, will review oil and gas and electricity regulators, keeping the energy sector in the spotlight.

The hottest item may be the structure of the Railroad Commission, which oversees the oil and gas industry in Texas. Will its name be changed to something more apt — like the Texas Oil and Gas Commission? And will its structure, headed by three elected commissioners, be altered?

The sunset panel’s review of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental agency, will also be closely watched.

Texas lawmakers may also choose to dive into the regulatory fight between the state and the Environmental Protection Agency, with legislation that backs the state’s permitting system and rebuffs the federal agency.

WHO TO WATCH: Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and a solar-rebate advocate. — KATE GALBRAITH

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