20 Weeks in Texas in Which the Budget Held Sway

The Texas Capitol in the twilight of the 82nd legislative session.
The Texas Capitol in the twilight of the 82nd legislative session.

The 82nd Texas Legislature’s regular session ends as it started, with lawmakers arguing about a shrunken state budget and redistricting. With Republicans operating with a supermajority in the House and a commanding majority in the Senate, there was little doubt that the GOP would be able to impose its will.

What was new was the power exerted by the Tea Party movement, which helped propel dozens of new lawmakers into the Capitol to hold the line on solving the budget mess without raising significant new revenue or tapping the state’s sizable Rainy Day Fund. As a result, legislators have made serious cuts to education, health and human services, and other state programs that will be felt over the next two years. They also hammered out political maps for everything except, notably, the state’s congressional delegation.

During the last 20 weeks, they made some expected stops on issues like abortion, voter ID, and immigration, and some unexpected ones for shooting hogs from helicopters, regulating puppy mills and making it legal to pull catfish out of the water with your bare hands, a feat known as noodling.

Here’s a rundown on some of the key issues and the key players involved:

Budget

 

It’s hard to write a budget when the state is short of money and lawmakers insist up front that they will stay out of the state’s savings account and not raise taxes.

They did it, but only by cutting a record $15.2 billion from current spending, including a $4 billion reduction in what public education would get under current law, and setting aside $4.8 billion in expected Medicaid spending in hopes that the federal laws or the economy will change before they have to spend that money in 2013.

The budget process limped to the end of the session — with lawmakers approving the budget on Saturday — dependent on related legislation pulling $3.2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund so the state wouldn’t default on bills for the current budget, but using none of it to help close the huge shortfall for 2012-13. That balancing act required some money from a combination of deferred payments and accelerated tax collections and other tricks, cuts to programs throughout state government, and rosy forecasts that lower the price tags on programs where costs are rising with the state population, inflation and participation rates.

As local school districts write their own budgets and decide their tax rates for the coming school year, state lawmakers will learn how their public education cuts and new formulas for state aid to local schools translate back home. And they will face re-election — in new political maps — on the basis of the reactions to those and other provisions of the two-year spending plan.

Key Players: Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; Gov. Rick Perry; Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst; and Speaker Joe Straus. — Ross Ramsey

 

Immigration

It was supposed to be the session of birther bills, criminalizing an illegal immigrant’s presence in the state (as opposed to being only a federal civil violation), limiting an illegal immigrant’s access to courts, mandating electronic employment verification and even stripping babies born in Texas to illegal immigrants of their birthright citizenship. But the 82nd Legislature, as a whole, did not have the stomach for the most draconian proposals.

 

Even the so-called “sanctuary cities” legislation, which some called “Arizona lite,” failed to make much headway. (It would have prohibited communities from adopting policies that would prevent law enforcement officers from inquiring about the immigration status of people detained or arrested.) It did not pass the Senate after Democrats, 12 in all, voted against bringing up the bill for a floor debate.

Some immigration measures are on their way to the governor’s desk, including a bill that would allow counties to adopt stricter rules for legal immigrants who apply for indigent health care. And it is possible that some of the tougher proposals may yet be resurrected in the final hours of the session.

Key Players: Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, who got the sanctuary cities bill out of the House, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who sponsored the bill in the Senate but did not try to circumvent the two-thirds rule when Democrats stopped it from coming to the floor for debate. — Julián Aguilar


Redistricting

Texas Republicans couldn’t have timed their huge victories in November any better, increasing their numbers in the state Legislature and the congressional delegation just before it came time to institutionalize those results with new redistricting maps. Lawmakers drew maps for the State Board of Education, for the state Senate and for the state House, but not for congressional districts.

The Senate map is a classic incumbent-protection plan, with only one of the 31 senators — Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth — in a hostile new district, which will be vulnerable to a court challenge because it splits minorities in a way that opponents say violates the federal Voting Rights Act. As for the House, the new map puts 90 to 93 incumbents in districts where Republicans ordinarily beat Democrats.

Unless there’s a special session with cartography on the agenda, the congressional maps will be drawn by the federal courts. Texas gets four new seats as a result of its growth over the last decade. Republicans have a claim on at least two. But 89 percent of the state’s growth was in minority populations, giving rise to counterclaims for those new seats.

Key Players: Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, and Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, the chairmen, respectively, of the House and Senate redistricting committees. — Ross Ramsey

 

Public Education

The legislative session brought public schools one drastic change — $4 billion less in state financing — but not much else.

Many lawmakers entered the session with hopes that the spartan budget could propel reform in school finance and education policy. But even legislation billed as a method to help school districts cope with the deep cuts stalled. Measures that singled out often-criticized “unfunded mandates” — state regulations on class size, furloughs and layoffs championed by education leaders in both chambers but fiercely opposed by teachers associations — died one after another.

Lawmakers did succeed in passing a bill that expands the definition of bullying, an issue that has drawn much public attention after a spate of bullying-related suicides. But they declined to include any mention of bullying related to sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation — the cause of some of the recent suicides. HB 1942 from Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, does add cyberbullying to the books, however, and gives school districts more flexibility in how they address aggressive behavior in the classroom.

As of Saturday morning, chief negotiators from both chambers had reached agreement on school financing formulas. The plan, which awaits approval from the full Legislature, avoids any extensive policy overhaul, leaving that for lawmakers to study over the interim and take up during the 83rd Legislature.

Key Player: State teachers associations. They lost the financing battle but flexed their muscles and defeated a score of measures — the final body count will likely include charter schools and teacher evaluation bills — initially popular with the Republican majority. — Morgan Smith


Higher Education

Members of the state’s higher education community grappled with how to raise productivity — higher graduation rates, more efficiency in teaching — while cutting their budgets as a result of reductions in state financing.

The cuts, though not quite as deep as originally proposed, still sting. A 25 percent reduction in money for special items not contained within basic financing formulas hit the state’s smaller universities particularly hard. Lawmakers tried to provide relief by eliminating some unfunded mandates.

Additionally, they approved the development of a financing system for colleges and universities that rewards outcomes like higher graduation rates. They also consented to giving high-achieving students priority access to the state’s primary need-based grant program, which will be available to nearly 29,000 fewer would-be students in the next two years.

But the real excitement occurred outside the legislative chambers. Actions by the chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, Gene Powell, unexpectedly provoked an intense statewide examination into the behind-the-scenes influence of a small group of individuals — Gov. Rick Perry and his allies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative research organization, who have pushed the state’s public university systems to embrace a set of proposals that they say would increase transparency, efficiency and accountability.

Critics of the proposals say they are anti-intellectual and would be especially damaging to the state’s flagship institutions. The controversy prompted the formation of a new Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency led by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

Key Player: Jeff Sandefer, an Austin businessman, Perry donor and Texas Public Policy Foundation board member, who wrote the so-called “breakthrough solutions.” — Reeve Hamilton

 

Criminal Justice

For the first time, Texas will shutter a maximum-security prison unit. Lawmakers decided to close the Central Unit in Sugar Land, a Houston suburb. For years, city leaders had asked for the facility to be closed, and the state’s multibillion-dollar budget hole made that wish come true. Lawmakers estimate that the closing will save the state $50 million over two years.

A new agency, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, will take on the duties of the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, which will be eliminated (and three youth detention facilities could be closed). The goal, lawmakers said, is to keep young offenders closer to their homes and rehabilitation services in urban areas. Combining the agencies should save about $150 million.

The Windham School District, which provides education for the state’s 150,000 prisoners, unexpectedly came under attack. Lawmakers said there was not enough accountability in the program and questioned whether inmates could take online classes instead. They threatened to eliminate the school district, but it survived, although its budget was slashed.

Advocates for the rights of people accused of crimes made significant headway with measures that will reform how the police make use of eyewitness identification and expand prisoners’ access to postconviction DNA testing. The Legislature also passed a bill to ensure that those who were wrongfully convicted are compensated for their time behind bars.

Key Player: Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston and chairman of the Innocence Project, saw to the passage of bills intended to stop and to correct wrongful convictions. — Brandi Grissom


Health and Human Services

The big story was the budget — and the Medicaid rate cuts inflicted on the hospitals, doctors and providers who treat Texas’ neediest patients. Other health-efficiency legislation sharply altered how hospitals are financed, expanded managed care and authorized pay-for-performance pilot programs for medical providers.

But the political drama surrounding abortion and money for family planning programs threatened to overshadow all of it. After passing legislation requiring women who are seeking abortions to get a sonogram and to hear a description of the fetus 24 hours before the procedure, Republican lawmakers removed tens of millions of dollars in financing for contraception and reproductive health screenings for low-income women. (On Friday, the Medicaid Women’s Health Program, which gets $9 in federal money for every $1 the state spends, had been quietly revived in the state budget.)

As with similar efforts in Washington and in other states, the Republicans’ goal was to put Planned Parenthood — which provides abortions in some of its clinics, but none of the ones that receive state dollars — out of business.

By Saturday morning, bills banning or curbing the carrying out of the new federal health care overhaul were dead or dying. But a measure to ask Washington for control of Medicaid and Medicare had new life.

Key Players: Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, pushed for state sovereignty in health care, while Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, an anesthesiologist, served as her more moderate foil. In the Senate, Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, shepherded Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s health overhaul plan, while Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville and a family physician, kept Planned Parenthood in his cross hairs. — Emily Ramshaw

 

Energy

“Landmark” is how politicians are describing legislation that will require disclosure of the chemicals used in the drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The legislation, which has passed both houses, will mandate well-by-well disclosures on a public website, and oil and gas drillers say it could serve as a model for other states, although environmentalists remain concerned about provisions that allow companies to exclude “trade secrets” from disclosure.

A bill that would make changes to the oil and gas industry’s regulator appeared dead on Saturday. Lawmakers had sought to change the name of the Railroad Commission to the more accurate Texas Oil and Gas Commission and also alter its structure.

On water, lawmakers passed legislation to clarify that landowners have a “real property right” to Texas groundwater.

They also approved expansion of a planned radioactive-waste dump in West Texas and handed significant rate-setting authority for some waste to the site’s operator, Waste Control Specialists, a company majority-owned by Harold Simmons, a Dallas billionaire, and his family.

Key Player: Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, who pushed for the fracking legislation. — Kate Galbraith


Surprises

It’s the Texas Legislature: Expect the unexpected. Among the biggest head-scratchers? In the face of the largest budget shortfall in state history, lawmakers left billions of dollars in the Rainy Day Fund. In the end, it was a school finance meltdown that jeopardized lawmakers’ summer plans by threatening a special legislative session. And, despite entering the 2011 session with a supermajority in the House, Republican lawmakers still struggled to get some key measures through.

A lockup over windstorm insurance — pitting Gov. Rick Perry against trial lawyers who have spent millions against him — came down to the wire, creating another threat of legislative overtime. Other surprises include Republican lawmakers’ determination to gut contraception and family planning (anything connected to Planned Parenthood) though budget experts believe such efforts will cost the state money in additional Medicaid births and loss of federal dollars. And the higher education “research vs. classroom” sideshow saw key lawmakers tangle with the University of Texas System Board of Regents and Perry.

Nothing’s dead until Monday. But in the waning hours of the session, efforts to allow concealed handguns on college campuses and to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants appeared to be fizzling.

Key Players: Gov. Rick Perry: This session, when the governor set an agenda, lawmakers took note; on Saturday morning they were well on their way to passing all but one of his emergency items. And they followed his budget wishes — balancing the shortfall without the Rainy Day Fund — even in the face of pressure from financially beset schools and angry parents and health care providers.

Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview: The freshman engaged in quixotic battles, opposing bills regulating puppy mills and banning “salvia” and got crosswise with the federal government over his bill to criminalize “groping” by airport security agents. — Emily Ramshaw and Brandi Grissom

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