Liveblog: What's Left for the 83rd Legislature

Crowds of visitors, lobbyists, and lawmakers turned out to the Texas capitol for the opening day of the 83rd legislative session, Jan. 8, 2013.
Crowds of visitors, lobbyists, and lawmakers turned out to the Texas capitol for the opening day of the 83rd legislative session, Jan. 8, 2013.

The clock is ticking for lawmakers hard at work to pass prize bills in the final days of the 83rd legislative session. Here's a look at what's still outstanding. Check back often: We'll update this story as deals are brokered or broken. 

BUDGET

None of the bills key to a budget deal have reached the governor's desk yet. Both chambers need to vote by Monday on a unified version of SB 1, the main budget bill. The Senate needs to agree to the House changes made to SJR 1, which would ask voters to create a water infrastructure fund. Budget leaders in both chambers need to resolve their differences on HB 1025, a supplemental budget bill that includes a $2 billion appropriation for that water fund as well as other spending pivotal to the budget deal. 

Some major tax relief bills remain unresolved. House and Senate members need to find middle ground on HB 500, the major franchise tax relief bill of the session. Same with HB 213, which deals with a tax exemption for small businesses, and HB 7, which includes $630 million in refunds to residents and businesses from the System Benefit Fund, an account set up to help low-income Texans pay their utility bills. HB 800, which provides tax credits for business spending on research and development, is headed to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.  

ETHICS

The chambers have yet to agree on SB 219, an omnibus reform bill for the Texas Ethics Commission. The measure was loaded up with amendments in the House that force lawmakers to be more transparent with their finances. It also includes a contentious "dark money" amendment aimed at getting politically active nonprofits to disclose their donors; a similar bill, SB 346, is sitting on the governor's desk, and is considered to be at risk for a veto.  

HIGHER EDUCATION

Conferees have yet to issue a report on SB 215, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s reform bill. In addition to seeing the extent to which the final version maintains restrictions on the coordinating board that were added in the House, questions also remain about the fate of amendments that tweak the state's B-On-Time student loan program to prevent universities from losing money on it. 

HB 29 was originally designed to require universities to offer incoming students optional four-year fixed tuition plans — a proposal backed by Perry. It was returned to the lower chamber by the Senate significantly altered to put new restrictions on regents of public university systems, similar to a bill already sitting on the governor's desk, SB 15. The Senate reduced the substance of the original bill from three pages to 14 lines, so House members are looking — at a minimum — for some of that to be restored.

PUBLIC EDUCATION

Two major education bills — SB 2, which expands the state's charter school system, and HB 5, which makes changes to high school testing and course requirements — are still up in the air as lawmakers from the House and Senate hammer out their differences in conference committee. Both are the last chance for other education measures that have died to hitch a ride, and will likely affect negotiations on a number of other smaller education bills. 

ENERGY 

If lawmakers take no action to extend the life of the Railroad Commission, the oil and gas regulatory agency would shut down. All eyes are on the conference committee for HB 1675. That bill provides "safety net" legislation that can extend the life of an agency — and the RRC, having failed to go through the "sunset" agency review process this session, needs its life extended. As passed by both chambers, the measure does not currently extend the RRC's life, but the conferees could use a special maneuver to do it.

TRANSPORTATION

Lawmakers may try for a last-ditch effort to find more funding for the Texas Department of Transportation, which says it needs $4 billion more a year just to maintain current congestion. SB 1730, which clears the way for several major road projects around the state to move forward as public-private partnerships, appears headed to Perry's desk.

HEALTH CARE

Medicaid expansion — or the lack thereof in Texas — remains a sticking point in the final days of legislative negotiations. The House attached an amendment to SB 7, a key bill to transition people with disabilities to Medicaid managed care, that would prevent the state from ever expanding Medicaid eligibility without legislative approval. Senate Health and Human Services Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said she’s working on new language to capture the intent of supporters of the amendment without creating unintended consequences. 

Lawmakers are still hammering out the details to two other Medicaid overhaul bills, SB 8 and SB 58, which would crack down on Medicaid fraud and expand behavioral health services in Medicaid managed care. 

Independent pharmacies around the state are watching to see if House and Senate lawmakers can come together to pass SB 1106, a bill to provide greater transparency in negotiating rates with Medicaid managed care organizations. The Senate didn’t agree with a House amendment that requires managed care plans to submit quarterly reports to the state detailing how much they're reimbursing different providers in their network for the same drugs. 

IMMIGRATION

Lawmakers aren't giving up on what's been a surprising bipartisan push to create a new driver's permit for undocumented immigrants. The measure, championed by state Reps. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, is intended to fix what lawmakers call an unintended consequence created in 2011, when they mandated that an applicant for a new or renewed license prove they are in the country legally. Lawmakers would have to adopt an "outside the bounds" resolution, where legislation is attached to a separate measure still moving through the legislative process, in order to pass the provision.  

The non-binding HCR 44, aimed at telling Congress that the Texas Legislature supports comprehensive immigration reform, has yet to be voted on. The measure, filed by two House Democrats, includes talking points from Republican groups that support reform. The holdup is two-fold: conservative Republicans do not support the path to citizenship provision included in a bipartisan U.S. Senate bill, and Republicans generally won't support an effort that President Obama considers a second-term priority. Because it’s a concurrent resolution, it isn't dead. But whether or not the Legislature has the stomach to call out members and force a vote is another matter. 

CRIMINAL JUSTICE 

The chambers have yet to agree on SB 213, the reform bill for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The bill reauthorizes the state's sprawling prison system and provides for the expansion of re-entry programs for inmates who are released from state custody. The House and Senate put in differing provisions regarding the potential closure of two prison units. The bill also includes a number of amendments, including one that would require a study of the prison grievance system, one that would study the agency's visitation policies, one that would require the collection of information about inmates after their release and another that would allow for the collection of information about inmates who were previously in the state's foster system.  

SOCIAL SERVICES

After an animated debate, the House clock ran out on SB 11, a bill that would subject applicants of certain welfare benefits to a drug test. But SB 21, a similar bill that would require drug testing for certain unemployment benefits, passed the House and is awaiting final approval in the Senate. If it goes to conference committee, it could potentially be used as a vehicle for SB 11. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has pushed for this legislation: “Stay tuned,” he tweeted.  

GUNS

A controversial amendment that would give lawmakers the ability to carry concealed handguns where others cannot has forced HB 508 into conference committee negotiations. The bill as written would penalize state agencies or other government entities if they refuse to acknowledge the rights of some authorities to carry concealed handguns in places where the practice is not otherwise permitted. A Senate amendment extended this all-access pass to lawmakers; the House vehemently opposed it.

Liveblog

by Morgan Smith

With a conference committee report expected sometime later today, some details of major testing and charter school bills have emerged.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, told reporters as he was leaving the House floor that he was working with House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, toward "big goals, bold, big major reforms."

Patrick said he doesn't think "anything is in flux" with the final legislation, though he said he would not discuss the specifics.

Earlier, Aycock offered a few. He said that the charter school legislation, SB 2, would be closer to the version that passed the upper chamber, while the testing legislation, HB 5, would be closer to the version that passed the lower chamber.

A controversial provision that would allow school boards to vote in favor of converting campuses in their districts to charters would be included in SB 2. HB 5 would contain the "4x4 flex" curriculum that required four years in English, and three years in science math and social studies. It would have five exams, with districts given the option to offer diagnostics in algebra II and English III that did not count toward state accountability ratings.

The status of SB 1718, the achievement school district bill that state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, have been trying to attach to other legislation since it died in the House is still unclear. If it does not get amended to another bill, SB 1718 will be among a slate of school choice and other education reform measures that have failed this session.

But it may have another chance soon. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Thursday that he wanted to add school choice, along with other conservative-backed legislation, to the topics covered in a possible special session. When asked whether he would throw his support behind that as well, Patrick said: "I'm focused on the regular session. There's a lot to do here in the next 72 hours."

by Becca Aaronson

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute is on track to receive $595 million in bonds to finance cancer research, prevention and drug development in the 2014-15 biennium. The Senate unanimously concurred on the House’s version of Senate Bill 149 on Friday, which budget negotiators agreed must pass for the agency to receive financing. The bill is now headed to the Governor for final approval.

“The fact of the matter is, it was on the verge of not being funded,” said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. He commended Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, for her efforts to restore public trust in CPRIT through SB 149 and make certain that checks and balances were in place “to prevent some of the abuses that have taken place in the past with CPRIT.”

“At the very beginning of session when we started working on this, I expressed along with you and others, how very disappointed we were that those abuses took place,” Nelson said in response to West’s comments.

“We have plugged the holes,” she said. “We have established all the necessary transparency and oversight needed to ensure that CPRIT continues on its very important mission.”

by Emily Ramshaw

Via reporting from Chris Hooks:

The Senate has declined to concur with the House's amendments on SB 219, the Ethics Commission sunset bill, and appointed conferees. But even among the Senate conferees, there’s already some disagreement.

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place and the bill’s author, wants to remove so-called “dark money” legislation that would force some politically active nonprofits to report their donors.

"I'm not supportive of it staying on, and I think the House will probably agree to remove it at the request of the Senate,” she said.

But Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville and another of the Senate’s five conferees, was the coauthor of a similar stand-alone bill that is awaiting a verdict on Gov. Rick Perry’s desk. He wants it to stay on the ethics bill.

“I was a coauthor of that, so that should tell you that I'm supportive of it,” he said.

There’s already some indication that a House amendment to post lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms online might have a tough road. (The records are already online on The Texas Tribune’s site.) Huffman said she believes that will be taken out.

Nichols said he opposes it, adding that he had two friends who had their children kidnapped because of their financial resources.

“The more you expose the members here as to who has money and who doesn’t, the more you’re endangering our lives and our children’s lives,” he said. “…It keeps people from sitting up at night trying to figure out who to target and attack them and their families.” 

by Emily Ramshaw

Rep. Dennis Bonnen, who's handling the Ethics Commission sunset bill in the House, doesn't appear happy with the Senate waiting until Friday to appoint conferees. Asked when the House would appoint conferees, he told our reporter Chris Hooks: "Well, probably a lot sooner than the three days it took the Senate."

by Aman Batheja

House members made official their decision not to agree with the Senate’s edits to three bills at the center of this session’s tax relief efforts.

House Bill 500 is a leading franchise tax cut bill this session. The House conferees are state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, the bill’s author, and state Reps. Angie Chen Button, R-Garland, Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, and Tracy King, D-Batesville.

The bill, as passed by Hilderbran, cost about $660 million and included various franchise tax exemptions targeted at industries that have claimed the tax treats their industry unfairly. In the Senate, state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, replaced the targeted exemptions with a broad 5 percent rate cut.

House Bill 6 and 7 are a pair of bills dealing with nearly $5 billion that the state has collected through various fees over the years. Instead of spending from those dedicated funds for their intended purpose, lawmakers have hoarded the money and, every two years, used it as part of an accounting gimmick to make the budget appear balanced.

HB 6's author, state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, said he and the Senate are working out how to gradually put an end to the gimmick. He said those negotiations are being impacted by the contents of House Bill 7, another bill dealing with dedicated accounts, that would refund more than $600 million sitting in the System Benefit Fund. Those refunds have become a sticking point between the two chambers on finalizing a budget deal before the end of the session.

Along with Otto, the HB 6 conferees, all Republicans, are House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, and state Reps. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, and Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

The conferees of HB 7 are Darby, the bill's author, Pitts, Otto and two Democrats: Sylvester Turner of Houston and Craig Eiland of Galveson.

by Emily Ramshaw

A bill establishing an interim committee to review and make recommendations for substantive changes to state's ethics and discosure laws — SB 1773 —is headed to Gov. Rick Perry's desk. 

by Becca Aaronson

The nation’s big four tobacco companies have won a years-long lobbying effort in Texas to impose state fees on smaller tobacco companies that were not included in a 1998 lawsuit settlement.

The House signed state Rep. John Otto’s House Bill 3536 on Friday, which will charge “non-settling” tobacco companies 2.75 cents for each cigarette or .09 ounces of tobacco sold, consumed or distributed beginning in fiscal year 2013. The bill also eases fees on smokeless tobacco, which lawmakers established in 2009, from $1.22 an ounce to 80 cents an ounce. The bill now moves to the Governor's desk.

Big tobacco companies have been urging the state to impose a fee on smaller tobacco companies for years, as they currently pay half a billion to the state annually as part of the $17 billion settlement to cover the damaging costs of tobacco products to public health.

It’s unclear how much revenue the tax would raise. According to the bill’s fiscal note, it is difficult to estimate the revenue gain, because of uncertainty over how much tobacco products  would be sold and declining revenue trends in other states that have imposed such as a fee.

by Reeve Hamilton
The House concurred with Senate amendments to HB 31, which requires the boards of regents of public university systems to stream their public meetings on the internet, record those meetings and make those recordings available in a public online archive.
by Aman Batheja

The House declined to concur with all of the Senate's changes to House Bill 1025, a $5.4 billion spending bill critical to the budget deal worked out between both chambers.

House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, called for a conference committee to continue negotiations with the House.

Pitts said he has concerns about the things the Senate added to the bill, some of which apparently were not part of the deal reached before hand.

Along with Pitts, the House conferees are state Reps. John Otto, R-Dayton, Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, Trey Martinez Fisher, D-San Antonio, and René O. Oliveira, D-Brownsville.

Pitts said time is of the essence. The unique rules of the Senate require that the conference committee must come to an agreement and have a final bill filed by midnight tonight, he said.

Soon after the House conferees were announced, Gov. Rick Perry's office told the Tribune that Perry opposes part of HB 1025

by Alana Rocha

The conference committee report on SB 1106, by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, is filed and distributed. It strips a key amendment that would have provided local pharmacies even greater transparency in rate negotiations with Medicaid managed care organizations. 

Schwertner's Chief of Staff, Tom Holloway, confirms that the amendment by state Rep. Doug Miller, R-New Braunfels, was removed due to fiscal concerns. It would have required Medicaid managed care plans to submit quarterly reports to the state on how much they're paying each provider in their network for the same drugs.

The Senate's passage of the bill was contingent on the guarantee that it would not lead to an additional cost to the state. And the amendment resulted in a higher fiscal note.

The increased cost to the state concerned the Health and Human Services Commission, according to Holloway. HHSC officials said asking managed care organizations to submit quarterly reports may have forced the state to pay MCOs more for pharmacy services.

by Morgan Smith

HB 1926, which expands the state's virtual school system, is headed to conference for a "small language change," according to state Rep. Ken King, R-Hemphill, the bill's  author. Conferees from the House are: King, Bennett Ratliff, R-Coppell, Harold Dutton, D-Houston, Michael Villarreal, D-San Antonio, and Dan Huberty, R-Humble. Senate conferees are: Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, Dan Patrick, R-Houston, Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, Royce West, D-Dallas

by Alana Rocha

The House and Senate have named conferees for HB 508

The lawmakers will be debating whether they should keep language in the bill that would give them and all members of the Texas Legislature the right to conceal carry where others cannot.

The amendment, by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, caused quite a stir in the House chamber on Wednesday, with several members voicing opposition.

Joining state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, the bill's author, are state Reps. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, Dan Flynn, R-Canton, Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, and Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the bill’s sponsor, chairs the conferees in the upper chamber that include Carona, state Sens. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen and Ken Paxton, R-McKinney.  

by Morgan Smith

Lawmakers are also going to conference on HB 2836, a bill focused on testing in lower grades. Representatives from the House are: Bennett Ratliff, R-Coppell and the bill's author, Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, Dan Huberty, R-Humble, John Keumpel, R-Seguin, and Syveslter Turner, D-Houston. 

by Aman Batheja

The concerns raised by Gov. Rick Perry earlier today about a portion of the budget deal may not get addressed with the time left in the session, according to the House’s chief budget writer.

House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, described Perry’s reservations about plans to tap the Rainy Day Fund for $1.75 billion to undo an accounting gimmick employed by lawmakers last session as “a little late.”

“We don’t have any GR to replace it,” Pitts said, referring to general revenue, the portion of the budget lawmakers have the most control over. Pitts also noted that budget writers opted to use the Rainy Day Fund to address the referral to free up general revenue funding to pay for tax relief that Perry has also demanded.

“We’re doing over $1 billion worth of tax relief with that swap,” Pitts said. It’s also helping direct $400 million of gas tax funds to the Texas Department of Transportation that traditionally has gone to the Department of Public Safety. That spending is often derided as a “diversion” by conservatives.”

Another lingering sticking point on budget negotiations may have been settled, Pitts said. State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, has been leading House Democrats on a late-session campaign against plans to refund $630 million from the System Benefit Fund, which is intended to help pay the utility bills of poor Texans. Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, has said those refunds were agreed to in the budget deal agreed to by both the House and Senate.

“We’re working on that with Sylvester and I think we’ve got an agreement on that,” Pitts said.

Asked if the budget deal would hold together, Pitts didn’t say anything. He just crossed his fingers and smiled.

by Morgan Smith

House and Senate conferees have made a deal on SB 219, the sunset bill for the Texas Ethics Commission that was carrying several amendments strengthening disclosure requirements from the House. The most controversial of those, a measure from state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, requiring 501(c)4 nonprofits to report their funding sources, was stripped. So was a measure from state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, that would force lawmakers to disclose contracts with governmental entities, and one by state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, that would've required the state to post lawmakers' financial statements online. Some amendments hung on, including one from state Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, that classifies robo-calls as political advertising for disclosure purposes. A provision requiring Railroad Commissioners to resign to run for another office was also kept in the deal.

by Aman Batheja

What had been touted as a crucial midnight deadline in finalizing a budget deal appears likely to come and go, but lawmakers don’t seem too worried.

House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, had told House members earlier in the day that differences between the House and Senate on House Bill 1025, a spending bill central to a budget deal, needed to be resolved before midnight. He cited a senate rule that required that the final version of appropriations bills be filed by that point in the session.

With less than two hours before the deadline, budget leaders are unlikely to come to an agreement on the bill but expect one will emerge this weekend. To get around the missed Senate deadline, Senators are expected to be asked to vote to suspend their own chamber’s rules to take up the bill anyway, according to those with knowledge of budget negotiations.

by Emily Ramshaw

Tom "Smitty" Smith, the Texas director of Public Citizen, called lawmakers' deal on the Ethics Commission sunset bill a mixed bag.

He said it "takes a number of big steps forward, but the Legislature still has miles to go to end the ethics abuses in the Legislature."  

Among the big wins, he said, are provisions that require railroad commissioners to resign if they run for a different office and call for people who pay for email and internet advertising to disclose their identities. Under the deal, lawmakers who start lobbying may not donate their remaining campaign funds to other members for at least two years.

"Many key provisions were eliminated," Smith said, "including those that required disclosure of who was providing the 'dark' money used to fund ads by political non-profits and provisions that would have required the posting on the internet of  lawmakers personal financing disclosures."

by Jay Root

The Texas House and Senate, taking a brief break from legislative deliberations Saturday, are meeting in a joint session to mark the Memorial Day weekend.

After the singing of the Star Spangled Banner in the House chamber, Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, delivered brief remarks paying tribute to soldiers who have died in service of their country.

“No one prays for peace more than veterans do,” Lucio said.

Gov. Rick Perry will deliver remarks shortly.

by Jay Root

Gov. Rick Perry just addressed a somber joint session of the Legislature. He said as Americans commemorate Memorial Day they should not only remember soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“As we remember those who gave all in defense of their country let us not forget those who are left behind at home,” he said. “They too have lost the sons and daughters, the husbands and wives, the fathers, the mothers.”

Perry said Memorial Day is more than “cookouts and speeches” but an opportunity for Texans and Americans to serve their community and help those in need.

Now the names of fallen military veterans are being read aloud on the House floor.

by Alana Rocha

Judging by their reactions earlier this week, members of the Texas House could again get fired up when they see the conference committee report on HB 508.

The amendment by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, not only stayed in the bill, but the conferees added members of Congress to the list of those able to carry their concealed handgun where others cannot. Carona’s amendment would expand this all-access pass to statewide elected officials, members of the Legislature, the attorney general and assistant attorneys general, as well as to state and federal attorneys.

Members of the House were not shy in voicing opposition to the amendment, calling it a “privilege” they should not afford themselves until they can do the same for their constituents.

The original bill, filed by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, would penalize state agencies or other government entities who refuse to acknowledge the rights of these office holders to carry concealed handguns where the practice is not otherwise permitted. 

by Emily Ramshaw

House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, just said the House will not take up SB 1, the primary budget bill, and HB 1025, another bill crucial to the deal, until Sunday. But he said the House could take up HB 7,  which, as part of Friday night budget negotiations, is expected to be amended to include language winding down the System Benefit Fund, an account set up to help low-income Texans pay their utility bills.

by Morgan Smith

If the House's version of SB 2 encountered opposition from members on the floor, the same may be in store when the legislation expanding the state's charter school system comes out of conference committee. In conference, lawmakers added back in several provisions from the Senate that could prove controversial in the lower chamber, according to a copy of the  report obtained by the Texas Tribune.

Instead of upping the number of charter contracts by ten a year to a total of 275 in 2019 like the House proposed, they will increase by about 15 to a total of 305 by that year. High-performing charter schools from out-of-state and dropout recovery charters would not fall under the cap — language that the lower chamber took out when it approved the bill.

Conferees also kept a Senate provision allowing school boards to convert underpreforming campuses within their districts into a charter school. Those in-district charters would not count toward the state limit on contracts, either.

At 3 p.m., House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, will hold a news conference to discuss education legislation. 

by Aman Batheja

A bill requiring some Texans receiving unemployment benefits to submit to drug testing is headed to Gov. Rick Perry's desk. Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, is the author of SB 21. The bll would require Texans applying for unemployment benefits to take a drug test if their responses to a screening questionnaire raise red flags that indicate drug use.

Williams opted to concur with changes to the bill made in the House, which he said included edits to the appeals process so that it matches the appeals process already in place at the Texas Workforce Commission. Perry can now sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

by Emily Ramshaw

The House has adopted the conference committee report for SB 1106, though it strips a key amendment that would have provided local pharmacies even greater transparency in rate negotiations with Medicaid managed care organizations. The amendment by state Rep. Doug Miller, R-New Braunfels, was removed due to fiscal concerns. It would have required Medicaid managed care plans to submit quarterly reports to the state on how much they're paying each provider in their network for the same drugs.

by Kate Galbraith

House Bill 1675 may hold the answer to whether the closely-watched question of whether the Railroad Commission of Texas will go out of business — and both House and Senate conferees for the bill have now been named. Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who is one of the conferees, says he anticipates little movement for awhile. "We’re waiting to see how we do on a couple of other Sunset bills," he said. The conferees have the power to change HB 1675 in ways that would extend the life of the Railroad Commission, which otherwise could expire this year as part of the process known as Sunset.

by Becca Aaronson

Lawmakers are one step closer to fixing language that would ban Medicaid expansion without legislative approval that the House added to a Medicaid reform bill, SB 7. The author of the bill, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said the original amendment could have created unintended consequences for the state health department, but that she would work to create new language to capture the supporters’ intent.  

Here is a draft of the new language lawmakers are considering adding in conference:

"Under the Act that added this section, the department may only provide medical assistance to a person who would have been otherwise eligible for medical assistance or for whom federal matching funds were available under the eligibility criteria for medical assistance in effect on December 31, 2013."

Under the original amendment, which was authored by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, the state may not have been able to receive a block grant from the federal government to reform Medicaid as Texas saw fit, said Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville. The original amendment also did not clarify that it applied only to Medicaid, and therefore, could have had a broader impact on other state health programs eligible for financial matching funds. You can find the original text here.

by Aman Batheja

Senators grudgingly agreed to concur with the House on changes to a bill aimed at providing more restrictions and oversight to two controversial economic development funds run out of the Comptroller’s Office.

SB 1678 will provide some reforms of the Major Events trust fund and the Events trust fund, both of which have been criticized for giving out too much money for minor conferences and sports events that don’t bring in much economic development. It’s also drawn controversy over payments by the fund to pay for scoreboards and other amenities for sports teams that weren’t expected to move to another state if they hadn’t received the assistance.

“It’s better than current law but it’s not what the people of Texas deserve or expect,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said. “It’s not going to put an end to the scandalous stories that prompted the Senate to take up this issue in the first place.”

Senators said the bill was neutered by members of the House who refused an audit of the fund and pushed for less onerous restrictions on spending.

“They should have passed without even a second thought,” Watson said.

State Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, chairs the Senate Economic Development Committee and is the bill’s author. Since he couldn’t get an audit of the funds put into his bill, he said he planned for his committee to perform its own audit of those funds in the interim before the next session.

by Aman Batheja

A bill reauthorizing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will stay silent on the controversial decision of whether to close two prisons but the budget will make the Legislature’s intentions clear, state Sen. John Whitmire, R-Houston, said.

The Senate concurred with changes to SB 213, which will continue TDCJ. The bill will head to Gov. Perry’s desk if the House follows suit.

Whitmire, the bill's author, said conferees opted to keep language out of the bill  specifying what to do about two privately operated prison facilities on the chopping block, the Dawson Unit in Dallas and a pre-parole transfer unit in Mineral Wells. The final version of the budget bill, SB 1, directs TDCJ to reduce "bed capacity" at correctional facilities in order to cut costs. The budget rider also says TDCJ should prioritize state-owned facilities vs. private facilities.

"It doesn't specify those two but they certainly fit the description,” Whitmire said.

There are currently about 12,000 empty beds in Texas prisons. Advocates for closing the Dawson and Mineral Wells facility say they are the obvious choice for shuttering in part due to security issues at both facilities.

by Emily Ramshaw

On the House floor, Speaker Joe Straus acknowledged there’s been some disagreement on the budget, but said that’s par for the course.

“Any session I’ve been associated with, not everyone is 100 percent happy,” he said. “But you have to get the votes to pass a budget. And that means input by all the members from both bodies.”

When asked about the possibility of a special session on redistricting, he said that’s not his territory — it’s a decision Gov. Rick Perry will make with input from Attorney General Greg Abbott, the state’s legal adviser.

“I’ll leave it to the legal folks and the governor to decide if and when we do that,” he said. “I have no problem with the attorney general’s advice but it’s his advice and the governor’s call.”  

When asked whether lawmakers would be at risk of taking up controversial social issues, such as abortion or gun rights, if the governor called a special session, Straus responded that the only risk was to a lawmaker who had purchased non-refundable tickets to go on vacation. “I’ve been around long enough to not make summer plans,” he said. 

by Becca Aaronson

A budget rider that would direct the state to pursue private-market driven Medicaid reforms has been misconstrued as an expansion of Medicaid, said Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, due to “some misguided rumor” in the House.

As an opponent expanding Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, Williams said that the Rider 51 mirrored conservative language put in previous budgets to give direction on how the Legislature would like to reform Medicaid, if given the opportunity from the federal government.

“Unfortunately, mass hysteria in the other side of the rotunda prevailed,” said Williams. “There was a huge misunderstanding about what it did.”

by Morgan Smith

The House and Senate will vote Sunday — perhaps simultaneously — on the session's biggest education measures.

At a press conference Saturday afternoon House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, announced they had just signed conference committee reports on two pieces of high priority legislation, HB 5 and SB 2. Aycock's HB 5 changes high school graduation and testing requirements. Patrick's SB 2 expands the state's charter school system.

Throughout the session, each chamber has followed the other's movements on the two bills closely, using different stages in the legislative process as bargaining chips to ensure favored provisions stayed in. On Sunday, it appears that dyanmic will continue, which could make for a dramatic outcome if either chamber balks.

Where that is most likely to happen is the House. In conference, lawmakers added several measures back in to Patrick's bill that the lower chamber had stripped, including exempting dropout recovery and in-district charters from the state cap, which is also now higher than what House members originally passed. 

High-performing out-of-state charters may also be excluded from that cap — according to an initial conference report they were, which Patrick confirmed at a news conference. But shortly after, Patrick clarified to say he misspoke and that they would be included in the state cap.

(We will update this post to clarify soon as the final report is available.) 

Conferees kept Senate language that is opposed by teachers' associations that allows school boards to convert underpreforming campuses within their districts into a charter as well.

"I think so," Aycock said when asked whether SB 2 had the votes to pass the House. "Obviously we will lose some votes like we do with any changes to major legislation. But I think we have enough votes on [SB2] that it will pass. I think we've made some good policy."

Patrick added that Gov. Rick Perry has been "very clear that he believes both of these bills need to come to his desk."

Perry and his staff have played a significant role in negotiations over the two measures. With HB 5, along with some members of the business community, he has pushed to maintain the state's current high school diploma standards, which require four years of math, science, English, and social studies.

Aycock said that while the governor "rarely" gives a guarantee that he will not veto a bill, he believed lawmakers have "come a long way towards his goals."

"We've listened to the governor, we've listened to the lieutenant governor, we've listened to business groups, we've listened to a lot of people," he said.

Patrick noted that 2,000 people, most of whom were focused on SB 2 and HB 5, had testified in education committee hearings this session.

by Becca Aaronson

“We don’t always agree, but we always want to be heard,” said Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, while commending the Legislature on its work to increase financing for mental health care. In the 2014-15 budget, lawmakers have allotted $1.77 billion for mental health care, an increase of $259 million over the previous biennium.

“In too many cases they go to jail and they cost us more money in the long run, not to mention the heartache that they and their families suffer,” said Deuell.

He also commended lawmakers for restoring financing for family planning and women’s health. Lawmakers have included more than $330 million in the 2014-15 budget for women and children’s health services, family planning and primary care. That includes $100 million earmarked for women’s health services that lawmakers added to a primary care program.

“A lot of times when people talk about cutting the budget, they’re not being smart,” said Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville. He chastised outside groups that pressured the Legislature to cut financing for family planning last session, which he said led to more unwanted pregnancies, more abortions and more people relying on state assistance. “They don’t understand prevention.”

by Aman Batheja

The Texas Senate voted 27-4 to pass a $196.95 billion two-year budget Saturday. The House plans to take up the same bill on Sunday. Four Republican Senators voted no: Brian Birdwell of Granbury, Donna Campbell of San Antonio, Ken Paxton of McKinney and Dan Patrick of Houston.

“This has been the most rewarding experience of my legislative career,” Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said, just ahead of the vote.

The budget spends $7 billion over the current two-year budget, a 3.7 percent increase, according to the Legislative Budget Board. It spends $7.2 billion more in general revenue, the portion of the budget lawmakers have the most control over, which is an 8.3 percent increase. The broader budget deal cuts $1.3 billion in taxes, according to a statement released by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

“This budget continues in what we’ve done over the last decade in maintaining a very fiscally conservative budget,” Williams said.

Several senators took time to praise Williams and the budget deal he forged over the course of the session, working with both Democrats and Republicans in his chamber as well as budget leaders in the House. None of the four Senators that ultimately voted against the budget spoke on it before the vote.

The House is scheduled to take up the budget bill tomorrow. Both chambers still have to vote on HB 1025, a supplemental spending bill that includes several measures key to the overall budget deal.

by Aman Batheja

With no debate and little discussion, the Texas Senate voted 26-5 to approve HB 7, a bill that has emerged over the last 24 hours as key to the session’s broader budget deal.

The final version of the bill now includes language to spend down the balance of the System Benefit Fund over three years and then abolish it. The fund, designed to help millions of low-income Texans with their utility bills, has a balance of over $800 million through fees paid by most Texans and businesses on their electric bills.

Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, had been hoping to refund most of the fund’s balances but was able to broker a deal with the House Friday to abolish the fund by 2017 instead.

Starting in September, the state will stop collecting the fee and the fund’s balance will be spent providing relief on electric bills during the year’s five hottest months for Texans living at up to 125 percent of the federal poverty level. In the first year, the fund is expected to provide electric bill discounts of 82 percent discounts.

by Reeve Hamilton

The conference committee report to SB 215, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board sunset bill, has been approved by the Senate.

The bill allows the coordinating board to continue operating for another 12 years before being reviewed again. However, it removes some of the board's current authority, such as its ability to close degree programs at universities. It also requires the board to involve institutions early on in policy-making decisions through a process referred to as "negotiated rule-making."

The bill makes changes to some financial aid programs, including the eligibility requirements for the TEXAS Grant program and the handling of funds for the B-On-Time loan program.

The final report does not contain some amendments added in the House, including a proposal by state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, calling on the coordinating board to protect the right of student clubs to restrict their membership. Also out is an amendment to by state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, to create an adult stem cell research program.

by Becca Aaronson

Sixty of the 150 House members have sent a letter to Gov. Rick Perry urging him to call a special session to address “pro-life” issues that failed to pass this go around.

“Despite an overwhelming pro-life majority in the House, not a single pro-life bill filed during this 83rd session reached the House floor,” the letter states. “Since pro-life values are fundamental to us, and since the majority of Texans share these convictions, we are not willing to give up the fight.”

The letter specifically asks Perry to call the Legislature back to approve four measures: the so-called “fetal pain” measure, which would ban abortion at 20 weeks gestation; heightened regulatory standards for abortion facilities; requirements that doctors that perform abortions have privileges at a nearby hospital; and requirements that health plans offered through the Health Insurance Exchange that will be launched as part of the Affordable Care Act not include coverage for abortion.

Read the full letter here.

by Aman Batheja

The Texas House has a busy Sunday ahead of it, with a series of bills related to a broader budget deal at the top of its agenda. The two bills likely to draw the most debate are SB 1 and HB 1025. Both bills are crucial to the budget deal and need to pass by midnight.

House Speaker Joe Straus said midday Sunday that he was confident the House would pass both measures.

While that may turn out to be the case, expect a fight beforehand over how much spending has grown this session. In recent days, the notion that lawmakers are approving a spending increase of as much as $22 billion has spread fast thanks in part to a chart that the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative group, has promoted via social media. The group is urging lawmakers to vote down the budget and force it to be addressed in a special session.

 “Comparing how much we are spending now with how much was spent last session, general revenue spending and draws from the [Rainy Day Fund] are $22 billion higher, a 26 percent increase,” said TPPF Vice President Chuck DeVote in a statement.

Budget leaders have criticized such statistics of being manipulative or just plain wrong.

Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, made reference to his  “most vocal critics of the extreme right” yesterday.

“They don’t do math really well,” Williams said. “I need to take them back to school and teach them how to count.”

On Friday, several Republican House members questioned House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, about how much spending was in the budget deal. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford asked if the Legislature was approving an increase of $22 billion this session.

“That’s not comparing apples to apples,” Pitts said.

He noted that much of the spending approved this session is meant to address unpaid bills and undo accounting gimmicks lawmakers stuck into the current two-year budget back in 2011. Two years ago, Gov. Rick Perry signed a $173 billion budget that was, in essence, larger than it appeared. Largely due to making good on a $4.5 billion Medicaid IOU and undoing some of those accounting gimmicks, that budget is now estimated at nearly $190 billion.

The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board, and most budget analysts, track state spending the same way Pitts and Williams are doing – by comparing budget periods rather than what legislative session the spending is approved. According to the LBB documents, the proposed budget would increase state spending $7 billion. General revenue spending would increase $7.2 billion, or 8.3 percent.

by Kate Galbraith

It looks like lawmakers have decided to save the Railroad Commission after all, after a few days of will-they-or-won’t-they drama. The conference committee report from HB 1675 amends the bill to extend the agency’s life for four more years, so it will face a full re-review in 2017.

But judging from the language of the conference committee report, the agency will suffer for failing to complete the Sunset review both process this session and last (a situation that particularly irked Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the Sunset commission chairman this session). The bill requires the Sunset commission, during its review for 2017, to include “an assessment of existing state agencies that would be able to perform the commission’s functions." The bill also stipulates that the agency must pay all costs of the Sunset review, and  requires the Sunset commission to look at ways to increase public involvement in the RRC's decision-making.

State Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, put out a statement saying he was glad the agency would be able to continue its work. "Predictions of its demise were clearly alarmist and overstated," he said.

by Reeve Hamilton

After significant changes were made to HB 29 in the Senate, the conference committee report largely restores the bill to its original version, requiring the state's public universities to offer students optional four-year fixed rate tuition plans.

Instituting such a requirement has been a priority for Gov. Rick Perry. In fact, as a response to his push, most of the state's public universities have already instructed to offer such plans by their governing boards.

The Senate version of the bill included many of the provisions of SB 15, a bill that institutes new rules and restrictions on the boards of regents of university systems. That bill, filed amid controversy surrounding the University of Texas System, has been sent to the governor.

After conference committee deliberations, the SB 15 language is gone, and the final version of HB 29 is, once again, solely focused on the required offering of an optional tuition plan .

by Morgan Smith

As the House and Senate prepare to vote on final versions of testing and charter school legislation today, here's an update on where HB 5 and SB 2 ended up as they came out of conference: 

HB 5

· High school students would take a foundation curriculum of four English credits; three science, social studies, and math credits; two foreign language credits; one fine art and one P.E. credit; and five elective credits. They would add a fourth science and math credits when they select one of five diploma "endorsements" in areas including science and technology, business and industry, and the humanities.

· To qualify for automatic college admissions under the top 10 percent rule and state financial aid, students must take four science credits and algebra II must be among their four math credits. 

· The state will require five standardized tests in English I, English II, algebra I, biology, and U.S. history. School distircts will have the option of offering diagnostic exams in algebra II and English III that will not count toward their accountability rating.

· Districts will get an A through F rating; campuses will remain under the existing exemplary, recognized, acceptable, and unacceptable labels.

SB 2

· The state cap on charter contracts will increase by about 15 a year to 305 by 2019.

· Dropout recovery and charters created by a school district would not count toward that cap. High-performing charter schools from out of state would. Up to five charters focused on special needs students would not count toward the cap.

·  School boards would have the authority to vote in favor of converting low-performing campuses in their districts into charters.

· The Texas Education Agency, not the State Board of Education, would oversee the charter approval, renewal, and closure process.

by Morgan Smith

Another testing bill, state Rep. Bennett Ratliff's HB 2836, has made it out of conference. Lawmakers kept much of the changes the Senate made, including ordering a study of Texas curiculum standards and an outside audit of state testing contracts.

As it passed the House, Ratliff's legislation also eliminated writing tests in fourth and seventh grade. The Senate added those back in, but kept provisions requiring exams to be constructed so younger students  can finish them within two hours and limiting the number of local "benchmark" exams districts can offer to two per subject.

by Morgan Smith

House Republicans and Democrats are now caucusing  — separately, despite state Rep. Jim Keffer's (tongue-in-cheek) enouragement from the dais that they "join together for fellowship"  — for about 30 minutes to take care of administrative and "other" matters.

by Brandi Grissom

The Senate approved the conference committee report for the Texas Ethics Commission bill, SB219, after some debate over provisions that were removed from the bill during the conference process.

Among the controversial removals was a provision that would have required the ethics commission to make lawmakers personal financial statements available online and one that would have required the disclosure of so-called "dark money."

The removal of the "dark money" disclosure came after Gov. Rick Perry on Saturday vetoed a stand-alone bill that would have forced some tax-exempt, politically active nonprofits to disclose their donors.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said she was disappointed that both of those items were removed from the measure.

"I think that transparency is incredibly important, and the people of Texas expect that we're going to be transparent in terms of the way we function," Davis said.

She was also concerned with the removal of a measure that would have required lawmakers to disclose their contracts with governmental entities.

State Rep. Giovanni Capriglioni, R-Southlake, had filed a stand-alone bill, which failed, that would have required the disclosure of such contracts.

State. Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said that an interim study would examine those issues and make recommendations for changes deemed necessary in the next legislative session.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he was upset over a measure in the bill that requires a review of the Public Integrity Unit in the Travis County District Attorney’s office, which is responsible for investigating lawmakers. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, added the measure after the Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested for and charged with drunken driving.

Whitmire said King had been a “demagogue” on the issue.

“That office is bigger than any individual and certainly any individual personality,” Whitmire said, adding that he planned to vote for the ethics bill anyway.

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, lodged one of two no votes against the bill. State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, was the other. Fraser said he voted against he bill because it contained a provision that would require members of the Railroad Commission to resign if they run for another public office. Other statewide elected officials, he said, aren’t required to do that.

“This one issue, I believe, is terribly unfair,” he said. “I think it’s bad public policy.”

The House must still approve the conference committee report, which is eligible for a vote in that chamber at 6:40 p.m. today.

by Aman Batheja

The conference committee report for the main bill aimed at franchise tax relief looks like a hybrid of the versions that passed the House and Senate.

HB 500 passed the House with a provision making permanent a $1 million exemption on paying the franchise tax. It also included several provisions providing tax relief to specific industries. The Senate kept the $1 million exemption provision and replaced the rest with a temporary across-the-board 5 percent rate cut.

The conference report keeps the $1 million exemption and includes a smaller temporary rate cut – 2.5 percent in 2014 and 5 percent in 2015. That 2015 cut is contingent on the Comptroller certifying there is enough revenue available for the rate cut to go through. The bill now also includes a handful of provisions targeted at specific industries.

Laura Hoke, spokeswomen for the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said the bill provides some relief to small businesses but that full repeal of the tax would be better.

“We've said there must be universal relief; this bill doesn't go far enough in that respect,” Hoke said. 

by Reeve Hamilton

The Texas Senate approved a conference committee report on SB 1907, which allows concealed handgun license holders to store firearms and ammunition in locked cars on college campuses.

The bill, by state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, was introduced late in the session as it became clear that more ambitious bills, which would have allowed the carrying of concealed handguns in campus buildings, were in danger of failing — as they ultimately did.

by Becca Aaronson

Health and Human Services Chair Jane Nelson’s three key Medicaid overhaul measures — SBs 7, 8 and 58 — survived the conference report deadline and are on track to reach the Governor’s desk.

The House and Senate have approved one measure already, SB 58, which would require Medicaid health plans to provide targeted case management and psychiatric rehabilitation services for mental or substance abuse disorders. 

SB 8 sets up a variety of provisions to help the state detect and prevent Medicaid fraud. And SB 7 seeks to contain Medicaid costs by transitioning recipients that receive expensive acute and long-term care services to managed care plans. 

All together, the three bills are expected to save the state more than $51 million in the 2014-15 budget, according to the conference reports.

The SB 7 conferees also modified language added by the House to ban the Health and Human Services Commission from expanding Medicaid eligibility without legislative approval. Nelson feared the original language could have “unintended consequences,” so the conferees cleaned up language — which you can read on page 62 of the conference report — while still capturing the House’s original intent to ban Medicaid expansion without legislative approval.

by Reeve Hamilton

The House has adopted the conference committee report to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board sunset bill, SB 215. The Senate already adopted it, so the bill is bound for the governor's desk.

One of the bill's noteworthy provisions prohibits the coordinating board from issuing a certificate of authority to a foreign institution offering professional degrees seeking to operate in Texas.

The American University of the Caribbean, a for-profit medical school owned by DeVry Inc., has been seeking such a certificate in order to be able to send some Texas students back to their home state to complete their third and fourth years of medical school, which consist of clerkships and clinical electives.

That plan met with significant opposition from the state's medical schools, which expressed concern that, especially with new medical schools in the works in Central Texas and South Texas, there will not be enough room to accommodate their students in the future.

With the passage of SB 215, pending the governor's approval, that concern has been alleviated, and AUC will have to look elsewhere.

by Morgan Smith

House lawmakers just took a vote to go outside procedural rules and stick around past midnight today to make sure they get through their entire calendar. The lone dissenter was state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview. 

by Aman Batheja

The Texas House took a break from votes this afternoon to meet along partisan lines. Republicans caucused in one room and Democrats caucused in another. Democrats discussed several bills and procedural issues. Republicas were mostly focused on the budget, where dissent is apparent.

Each Republican left their caucus meeting with a handout explaining to them how this budget compares to previous ones.

The handout (tweeted here by Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas) argues that state spending has not grown much this session, once you adjust the figures for the state's population growth and inflation. It shows adjusted spending from three major sections of the budget – general revenue, general revenue from dedicated accounts and the Rainy Day Fund -  growing $2.3 billion between 2010 and 2015. (You can see many of the members holding the handout in this photo from the caucus state Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, posted on Facebook)

A contingent of Republicans, including most of the House freshmen, has expressed concerns about the growth in spending this session. That concern has been fueled in part by a chart distributed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation that argues that spending is growing $22 billion this session (see my 1:52 p.m. post on this liveblog for more background on that).

House Democrats, meanwhile, appear to be largely united in planning to vote for the two key budget bills – SB 1 and HB 1025 – later today. All signs point to the House Republicans caucus splitting their votes on those bills.

by Becca Aaronson

The House and Senate have approved a measure requiring Texas teachers to receive training to recognize students with mental or emotional disorders. The bill now heads to the Governor for final approval.

"This isn't about mislabeling a child, it's about saving a child," said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston and the sponsor of SB 460. He added that he and Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, offered SB 460 this session “because of the tragedies that have occurred,” such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Under the measure, teachers would be trained to recognize a student suffering from a mental or emotional disorder, and methods to teach those children more effectively. It does not require the teacher to report students with mental illnesses.

State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, raised concerns that teachers would be required to diagnose students, which could distract them from other educational priorities such as state testing requirements. “I would certainly be concerned about the unintended consequences of this type of legislation,” he said.

The bill was approved with bipartisan support in both chambers.

“We’re not asking them to be counselors,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston. He said the extra training would help teachers recognize suicidal tendencies in students that are victims of bullying. Teachers that recognize a student with a mental illness could also help the student receive appropriate support services, he said, if they decide to report the student to the principal or school counselor, who could then contact the student’s parents.

by Brandi Grissom

The House has now passed the conference committee report for SB219, the Texas Ethics Commission bill. With that 137-8 vote, the bill is now headed for Gov. Rick Perry's desk.

by Becca Aaronson

A bill to give the State Board of Dental Examiners an extreme makeover is on its way to the Governor.

Public Health Chair Lois Kolkhorst’s House Bill 3201 would redesign the dental board’s complaint investigation and resolution procedures to more closely resemble the Texas Medical Board’s procedures. It would also allow the dental board to charge an additional $55 fee for dental licenses and license renewals. And it requires dentists seeking a license to report whether they have a contract with a dental service organization to provide administrative or other non-dental services.

As the Tribune previously reported, the dental board was accused of ineptitude in the interim. Lawmakers heard horror stories of toddlers being held in restraints while dentists performed unnecessary root canals to appease their financial backers, profit-hungry private equity firms.

Dentists, patients and representatives of the dental board complained that the regulatory agency was underfunded and understaffed. And because the agency only has the authority to license and sanction individual practitioners, members of the dental board said it could not sufficiently monitor or regulate dental clinics that had contracts with dental service organizations owned by private equity firms or corporations.

House Bill 3201 has the support of the Texas Coalition of Dental Support Organizations. 

by Ryan Murphy

The conference committee report for HB508, a bill that would penalize state agencies or other government entities if they refuse to acknowledge the rights of some authorities to carry concealed handguns and would expand the pool of elected officials and government officials that have special privileges to carry, has passed the Senate with a 22-9 vote.

Notably, the committee report added language to include U.S Congress members in the pool of elected officials that receive the special privileges.

by Aman Batheja

The House voted 143-4 to concur with the Senate on HB 7, sending a bill that would end the System Benefit Fund in three years to Gov. Perry’s desk.

The bill will end a fee collected on most Texans electric bills and spend the System Benefit’s Fund balance of over $800 million on its intended purpose, providing discounts on low-income Texans electric bills.

The bill's author, State Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, credited state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, for the bill’s final version. Turner has long been an outspoken proponent for the System Benefit Fund and fought against a Senate plan to refund most of the fund’s balances rather than using it for what it was intended.

“He is a champion of the House of Representatives and the conscience of the House of Representatives,” Darby said of Turner.

Turner said he was thrilled at how the bill turned out.

“I believe this will be the only bill going through this legislative session, where customers, mom and dad, individuals who are working, will see a direct tax rebate that they can feel, that they can see, that will be meaningful for them,” Turner said.

by Becca Aaronson

The Senate has approved Health and Human Services Chair Jane Nelson’s SB 8 to crack down on Medicaid fraud in Texas.

"Medicaid fraud robs us of resources we desperately need to help those who truly need them,”  Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said in a statement. “SB 8 will help to ensure that every dollar we spend for Medicaid is going to honest providers who provide proper services.”

The conference version of SB 8 includes a provision some lawmakers found controversial, which would allow the Health and Human Services Commission’s office of inspector general to investigate Medicaid fraud as peace officers. Nelson said those peace officers would be trained by the Department of Public Safety, and would be required to follow DPS procedures.

“In our discussions, we felt like there needed to be protections for potentially dangerous situations that might arise,” she said.

The Senate also approved a technical correction offered by Sen. Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa, D-McAllen that would ensure the Attorney General’s Office oversees the OIG’s peace officers. Nelson and Hinojosa clarified for other senators that the OIG’s peace officers would need to receive authorization from the AG to pursue fraud investigations.

The House must also approve the conference version of SB 8 with the technical correction before the bill will be sent to the Governor.

The conference version of SB 8 also includes new ambulance licensure rules, requirements for the office of inspector general to review how it investigates fraud, waste and abuse in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a measure to standardize insurance plans preauthorization forms for prescription drugs, and a measure to set up a medical transportation pilot program. 

by Aman Batheja

At nearly the same time, the House and Senate began debate on a supplemental spending bill crucial to a broader budget deal. With no debate, the Senate passed HB 1025 28-3.

About 40 minutes later, the House finished its debate and voted 110-29 for the bill, surpassing the 100 threshold the bill needed.

The House’s strong support for HB1025 is a good sign that the broader budget deal will hold together. 

“If we don’t get 100 votes, we do not pay for our wildfires,” House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said. “We cannot do disaster recovery. We cannot help the city of West.”

The bill also taps the Rainy Day Fund for $2 billion for water infrastructure projects, assuming voters approve creating the fund this November.

Several House Republicans questioned whether the spending in the bill was necessary or appropriate. State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, tried multiple times to derail the bill by calling points of order, a parliamentary maneuver that would have killed the bill this late in the session. They were all overruled by House Speaker Joe Straus.

State Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, also had some questions about some of the smaller appropriations in the bill, wondering why they got into a bill that was supposed to be for emergency spending. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, announced he was voting against both HB 1025, and SB 1, the main budget bill, and urged others in the House to do the same.

In the end, a clear majority of the House opted to support the measure.

by Becca Aaronson

The Senate approved the conference version of SB 7 to transition Medicaid recipients receiving acute and long-term care services to managed care plans without debate. The bill also includes language to ban the Health and Human Services Commission from expanding Medicaid eligibility without legislative approval. 

Meanwhile in the House, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton clarified to members that the 2014-15 budget they're preparing to vote on "does not contain any Medicaid expansion language."

Rider 51 on SB 1 seeks to save $400 million in the 2014-15 budget by implementing private-market driven reforms to Medicaid. Read the rider here on page II-100.

by Julián Aguilar

The Texas Legislature will not endorse a federal bipartisan push to overhaul the country’s immigration system after all.

If passed, House Concurrent Resolution 44, would have urged Congress to “enact and fund comprehensive immigration reform that creates a road map to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants, promotes economic growth, and strengthens national security.” 

“I think there were people in both parties that wanted to see this come to the floor but it didn’t seem there was a lot of willingness to get it out [of the Calendars Committee],” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, the resolution’s co-author. Anchia and state Rep. Ana Hernandez Luna, D-Houston, filed the measure in February. They included key talking points from Republican groups and conservative think tanks to convince Republican legislators to support the nonbinding agreement. Some lawmakers, however, were reluctant to back the resolution’s call for a pathway to citizenship.

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, subsequently signed on as a co-author and helped redraft the resolution. The result of the amended version was a resolution that still urged reform, but also criticized “amnesty’ and instead called for a path to “legal status.”

The measure wasn’t passed out of the House State Affairs Committee until this month, and after that, the session began winding down, Villalba said.

“The clock wasn’t on our side. There’s too much of this going on, other work,” Villalba said on Sunday, referring to debate on the state budget. “And when we went up the chain, there just wasn’t the appetite.”

Anchia said he hoped the measure would show that Texas has shed the anti-immigration rhetoric that was on display two years ago, when more than 100 immigration-enforcement measures were filed, though none passed.

Anchia said the overall tone had changed this session, but said he hoped for more cooperation.

“Last session was horrible. Anything that is short of horrible is an improvement,” he said. “But I was hoping we’d get past where we were last session and do something positive and productive."

by Morgan Smith

Legislation expanding online education in Texas public schools is heading to the governor's desk. Both the House and Senate have adopted the final version of HB 1926 from Rep. Ken King, R-Hemphill.

The bill opens up the state's virtual school system — which is now restricted to school districts, charters, and colleges — to nonprofits and private companies. Currently, many course providers within the virtual school system already subcontract with private companies. Starting in middle school, HB 1926 also requires all districts to offer students a chance to take online courses, though it limits the number of those classes students can take to three per year.

The Texas Education Agency would authorize course providers, renewing their approval every three years depending on student performance. 

by Aman Batheja

A $197 billion two-year budget is headed to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk, after the House voted 118-29 to approve the passage of SB 1. The Senate approved the measure yesterday.

With the passage of SB 1, nearly all of the bills tied to a complex budget deal forged between the House and Senate have passed both chambers. Earlier in the day, the Senate made the final move on SJR 1. Both chambers have also passed HB 1025 and HB 7. HB 6, a bill that reduces the state’s reliance on funds hoarded in dozens of dedicated accounts to balance the budget, has passed the Senate, still need to pass the House. Also outstanding is HB 500, a key franchise tax cut bill, which has not passed either chamber yet.

Prior to the vote, state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, made a lengthy and passionate speech against the budget, accusing budget leaders of replacing last session’s accounting gimmicks with an overly complex budget deal over multiple bills that was purposely meant to make it difficult for lawmakers to coordinate an attack against it.

“I daresay when we were in a shortfall, we used smoke and mirrors and we are using smoke and mirrors now when we have a surplus,” Simpson said. 

by Brandi Grissom

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, R-Houston, is threatening to filibuster HB500, which gives more than $700 million in franchise tax relief to Texas businesses. 

Ellis asked whether the bill was eligible for a vote without the suspension of Senate rules, and he was told from the dais that a two-thirds vote was needed to bring up the bill.

Ellis asked whether he could talk through the suspension of the rules to prevent the bill from coming up, but he was told the suspension was not debatable.

He said, that he was going go get "strapped up" to prepare to talk the bill to death.

If he does that, it could put a number of critical education bills that are behind the tax bill in jeopardy.

Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, is moving to debate the bill later, giving other bills time to pass and allowing Sen. Ellis to “put on his track shoes.”

From the dais, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said that tomorrow senators would need a four-fifths vote to suspend rules to bring up the bill.

The bill is part of a complex budget package that lawmakers have been working to finish before the end of the legislative session tomorrow.

Now, a big group of senators and House members is gathered with Lt. Gov. Dewhurst at the back of the Senate chamber.

by Aman Batheja

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said he is completely serious about killing HB 500, a major franchise tax cut bill this session, even if it involves a filibuster. His reason? Language in the Senate version of the bill that would have required the Comptroller to review all of the state’s tax breaks every 12 years got stripped out in a conference committee.

Ellis said his interest in such a study emerged when he asked the Comptroller’s office for a list of all the tax breaks in state law and learned that office didn’t have such a list.

“Once you put these in place, they never go away,” Ellis said. “All these fiscal hawks over here, all these conservatives, where’s the outrage over these tax breaks?”

Ellis said he was hopeful he had the 11 votes needed to keep the bill from coming up for a vote in the Senate Sunday before the midnight deadline. If he can’t get that, he plans to filibuster it tonight. It would require a vote of four-fifths of the Senate to bring up the bill tomorrow, the last day of the session. Ellis said he is certain the bill’s author, Sen. Glen Hegar, R-Katy, could not meet that threshold.

Immediately after Ellis made his threat, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst joined a huddle of lawmakers discussing the situations. House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, was among those in the discussion.

Afterward, Dewhurst said he doesn't think Ellis will filibuster HB 500. He also said he doesn’t think Ellis has the votes to block the bill. If HB 500 doesnt pass before the end of the session, Dewhurst said he would ask Gov. Rick Perry to add the issue to the agenda for a special session.

Ellis said he was fine if the bill died only to pass in a special session. He would still have reached his goal if it brings more attention to the state’s long list of tax breaks, he said.

“Get it on the front page instead of the last paragraph,” Ellis said. “Maybe I can wake the Tea Party up.”

Pitts, reached later, said he did not know what would happen to the bill or what Perry would do if it didn't pass. While budget discussions this session frequently involved where to find the money to pay for HB 500 and other tax relief bills, Pitts said HB 500 was not central to the session's budget deal.

by Reeve Hamilton

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters he is worried about SB 16, which would authorize nearly $2.7 billion in bonds for campus construction projects.

The Senate requested a conference committee after refusing to concur with House amendments to the original bill, but the House never appointed a conference committee. At this point, in order to do that, the House would have to suspend their rules, which they don't appear inclined to do for this particular bill.

The quickest way to pass the bill would be for the Senate to recall their conference committee and agree to the House changes, but the bill's author, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, told the Tribune she would not do that.

Dewhurst sounded supportive of her position, telling reporters, "It's bad public policy to try and not have a well thought out, real discussion between the House and Senate when you're looking at a large [tuition revenue bond] package."

by Aman Batheja

The last of the four bills central to a budget deal just passed the House and is headed to Gov. Rick Perry's desk. The House passed HB 6, 143-4.

The bill, along with HB 7, deals with nearly $5 billion that the state has collected through various fees over the years. Instead of spending from those dedicated funds for their intended purpose, lawmakers have hoarded the money and, every two years, used it as part of an accounting gimmick to make the budget appear balanced. HB 6 would reduce the state's reliance on those funds to certify the budget, said the bill's author, state Rep. John Otto, ,R-Dayton.

Along with HB 6 and HB 7, SB 1 and HB 1025 are the four bills that were crucial to passing as part of a broader budget deal, according to House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. All four bills have now passed both chambers and are headed to Perry's desk.

by Becca Aaronson

Although some outside groups are still raising red flags on the language added to SB 7 to ban Medicaid expansion without legislative approval, the kinks in the language that could have threatened to put the state out of compliance with federal regulations seem to have been worked out.

"We tightened up the language of the Leach amendment to make sure there are no unintended consequences,” Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the author of SB 7, said in a statement. “This prevents the expansion of Medicaid."

The language in the conference report requires the state to maintain Medicaid eligibility criteria as of December 31, 2013, and prevents the state from expanding eligibility without legislative approval after that date. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was optional for states to expand coverage to low-income adults in 2014, the Affordable Care Act still requires the state to expand eligibility to include former foster children under age 26 and children age six to 18 in families with incomes 100 and 133 percent of the federal poverty line, even if those children are currently covered by the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program.

The original amendment offered by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would have restricted the state from expanding Medicaid coverage to those populations. The language had the potential to throw Texas out of compliance with federal guidelines, which would have allowed the federal government to withhold billions in Medicaid matching dollars.

Nelson’s office worked with the Health and Human Services Commission to ensure that the language did not create such unintended consequences. By changing the language to specify that the rule applied “under this Act,” the bill would not prevent the state from expanding eligibility to populations that the state is already required to include after Dec. 31, 2013. The language would still prevent the state from expanding Medicaid eligibility to include low-income adults without legislative approval.

by Ryan Murphy

The conference report for HB 912, also known as the "drone" bill, passed out of the Senate tonight with a vote of 26-5. HB 912 would make it a Class C misdemeanor to use an “unmanned vehicle or aircraft” to capture video or photographs of private property without the consent of the property’s owner or occupant.

Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, raised some concerns about a portion of the bill on allowed exceptions to use drones that would let private citizens use them to capture images over private property. Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, called that "a good catch."

"We did not catch this, our legislative intent was for law enforcement officials to use drones," said Estes.

Estes said that Rodríguez's concerns could be address with language included in the bill that gives the Department of Public Safety the ability to set laws concerning drones, or that drones can be brought back up in the event of a special session.

The conference committee made only two changes to the bill, removing amendments by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

by Alana Rocha

The House likely dealt a deadly blow to legislation that would have allowed lawmakers and other elected officials to carry concealed handguns in places where others cannot.

Some legislators in the Texas House said on Sunday that state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, dishonored his agreement to strip conceal carry exemption language from House Bill 508 when it went to conference committee. Not only did the amendment, by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, stay in the bill, conferees added members of Congress to the list of those able to carry their concealed handgun where others cannot. 

"I just want the body to understand your lack of integrity," state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso told Guillen. Guillen said he never made any promises to remove the amendment.

Pickett joined state Reps. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas and Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, to argue that it was wrong to grant members of the Legislature an all-access pass to carry concealed handguns where their constituents cannot.

“Some people believe that this is a maneuver that will move the ball closer to open carry or campus carry,” Sheets said. “I have to go back to my district and say, 'We couldn't pass campus carry but you know what I can carry wherever I want.'”

State Reps. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Van Taylor, R-Plano told the body that, as lawmakers, their safety is more at risk than their constituents. Both men said they have received death threats since taking office.

The original bill would have penalized state agencies or other government entities that refuse to acknowledge the rights of officeholders to carry concealed handguns where the practice is not otherwise permitted. 

Carona's amendment would have given statewide elected officials, members of the Legislature, the attorney general and assistant attorneys general, as well as state and federal attorneys, expanded CHL rights.

After about a half-hour of debate, the House voted 38-103 against taking up HB 508. It is possible for the bill to be resurrected if it can be recommitted to conference.

by Becca Aaronson

With the approval of the House, Senate Bills 7 and 8 are headed to the Governor’s desk — and a provision to ban expansion of Medicaid eligibility to low-income adults without legislative approval is hitching a ride.

As explained in a previous Liveblog post, the original language amended to SB 7 to ban Medicaid expansion could have had unintended consequences.

“None of the conferees were comfortable with the amendment as it was written,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo and the sponsor of SB 7. He said the revised language allows the state to apply for Medicaid waivers and continue serving the disabled community in the state. “We made it clear that this bill was never about expanding eligibility, expanding Medicaid, and so, that language makes sure that it doesn’t.”

The House approved SB 7, which will transition Medicaid recipients that receive acute and long-term care services to managed care health plans, 146 to 1.

Before approving SB 8, an omnibus bill to crack down on Medicaid fraud, the House had a heated debate on a provision that would allow the Health and Human Services Commission's office of inspector general five peace officers to help them police Medicaid fraud.

“I think the office of inspector general could do its job without walking into a doctor’s office with a gun strapped on them,” said Raymond. “I just don’t think it was written and handled in the right way.”

Raymond and other lawmakers from the Rio Grande Valley raised concerns that the provision to allow OIG peace officers was based on allegations that medical providers were associated with the Mexican drug cartels. They based their concerns on an article published in the Rio Grande Guardian on Sunday.

“There is Medicaid fraud all over the state, Dallas, Houston, you name it. The cartels are in Dallas and Houston. But way along the border, and all along the border, McAllen, Brownsville, Cameron County, Hidalgo County, Starr, all those areas, there is huge cartel influence and I assure you that these individuals that are involved in setting up these bogus clinics and hiring these dentists and doctors to file these fraudulent Medicaid claims, it’s cartels,” state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, the author of the provision, states in the Guardian’s article.

The sponsor of SB 8, state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said the provision was added to help investigators pursue Medicaid fraud in all parts of the state. “I would never impugn South Texas, and it’s unfortunate that that has happened,” she said.

by Emily Ramshaw

The House has passed the drone bill, HB 912, with a 140-4 vote, sending the measure to Gov. Rick Perry. The bill passed with little opposition; state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, said he worried about the “lack of restrictions on the government.”

The measure passed the Senate earlier tonight 26-5. 

by Aman Batheja

After threatening to single-handedly kill the biggest franchise tax cut bill of the session, state Sen. Rodney Ellis allowed HB 500 to move forward without his filibuster. The Senate passed the measure 27-4.

Along with Ellis, Democratic state Sens. Sylvia Garcia of San Antonio,  Jose Rodriguez of El Paso and Kirk Watson of Austin voted against the bill.

Ellis had said earlier in the evening he planned to block the bill because of the stripping of an amendment from it that would have required the Comptroller to review all of the state’s tax breaks every 12 years.

After signaling his intention to filibuster the bill and even allowing a photo of him napping in preparation to be posted on Twitter, Ellis decided to have a short speech with the bill’s author and then allow it to come for a vote. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst purposely made the bill last on the day’s schedule so a potential filibuster wouldn’t kill any other bills.

In the Senate, wearing or carrying sneakers is often a way for a Senator to signal plans to filibuster a bill. Once Ellis walked back onto the Senate floor still wearing his dress shoes, it became clear he had scrapped his earlier plan.

He still planned to keep fighting for transparency on the state’s tax breaks, he said.

“Just last week, this body unanimously said it was time to shine the light on those giveaways,” Ellis said in a statement.  “Now, in the dead of night, we have again chosen to protect these special interest tax subsidies in a cloak of darkness and secrecy while adding hundreds of millions more breaks to the code.  That is outrageous.”

Ellis also said he expects Gov. Rick Perry will call a special session on tax relief because lawmakers aren’t passing enough to meet his earlier demand for $1.8 billion on cuts.

Once the bill was brought up again on the Senate floor, the bill’s author, state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, told Ellis he supported Ellis’ amendment and made clear he was for it remaining in the bill.

“Once I left this door, I had push back from them,” Hegar said, referring to the House.

Hegar also said he would continue to support such a review of the state’s tax exemptions.

“I believe we need to have a full accounting of all the different exemptions, breaks, that are out there,” Hegar said. “We need to know what those are to have meaningful impact here in the state of Texas.”

by Reeve Hamilton

The Senate adjourned without approving the conference committee report to HB 29, which would have required that public universities offer incoming students a four-year, fixed-rate tuition option.

The House did approve it, but it takes two chambers to make a law — and the time for this bill has run out.

While implementing such a requirement has been one of Gov. Rick Perry's priorities, the bill's death may not matter that much. As the legislation was winding its way through the Capitol, almost all of the state's higher education governing boards went ahead and instructed the universities they oversee to begin offering students optional fixed-rate tuition plans.

by Morgan Smith

Two major education bills — Senate Bill 2, which expands the state's charter school system, and House Bill 5, which changes high school testing and graduation requirements — are headed to the governor's desk after clearing the Legislature Sunday evening. 

Neither measure generated much debate as lawmakers finally approved them after months of committee hearings and contentious behind-the-scenes negotiations.

HB 5, from House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, passed both chambers unanimously, with members of both the House and Senate who had previously opposed the bills explaining why they now supported them. 

State Rep. Mark Strama, the Austin Democrat who was one of two no votes on the bill as it initially passed the House, said he now supported it because it brought needed flexibility to high school curriculum while maintaining high standards. But he said the bill’s reduction of state standardized exams would make it more difficult to gauge the progress of low-income and minority students and may fail to address what lawmakers were trying to correct with student assessments.

“We defined the problem with testing in Texas as the number of tests,” he said, “But really it was because of the stakes we had attached to those tests that created a culture of testing rather than learning.”

Though he voted in favor, state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, also spoke critically of the measure. “We haven’t done anything more than change the ceiling,” he said. “And we haven't done more to raise the floor.”

In the upper chamber, several senators rose to speak in support of the measure, including Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, who said it was "one of the most important [public education bills] I’ve had a chance to work with" in 26 years in the Legislature.

"This is the bill that the people of the state of Texas wanted, and felt like they needed for their kids," said Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. 

SB 2, from Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, passed with less fanfare. After brief debate on the House floor, where lawmakers questioned a transfer of authority from the State Board of Education to the Texas Education Agency and a provision that would allow school boards to convert underperforming campuses into charters, it passed 105 to 41.

“This bill lets good performing charter operators replicate,” said Aycock. “And very importantly, it closes down those low performing ones.”

Most of the no votes came from Democrats, though two Republicans joined them, state Reps. Walter “Four” Price, R-Amarillo, and Larry Phillips, R-Sherman.

Three Senators voted against the bill: Sens. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso.

Here's a review, re-posted from below, of what the two bills do: 

HB 5

· High school students would take a foundation curriculum of four English credits; three science, social studies, and math credits; two foreign language credits; one fine art and one P.E. credit; and five elective credits. They would add a fourth science and math credits when they select one of five diploma "endorsements" in areas including science and technology, business and industry, and the humanities.

· To qualify for automatic college admissions under the top 10 percent rule and state financial aid, students must take four science credits and algebra II must be among their four math credits. 

· The state will require five standardized tests in English I, English II, algebra I, biology, and U.S. history. School distircts will have the option of offering diagnostic exams in algebra II and English III that will not count toward their accountability rating.

· Districts will get an A through F rating; campuses will remain under the existing exemplary, recognized, acceptable, and unacceptable labels.

SB 2

· The state cap on charter contracts will increase by about 15 a year to 305 by 2019.

· Dropout recovery and charters created by a school district would not count toward that cap. High-performing charter schools from out of state would. Up to five charters focused on special needs students would not count toward the cap.

·  School boards would have the authority to vote in favor of converting low-performing campuses in their districts into charters.

· The Texas Education Agency, not the State Board of Education, would oversee the charter approval, renewal, and closure process.

by Reeve Hamilton

In a major blow to higher education administrators eager to break ground on a growing list of campus construction projects, the Senate adjourned without any movement on SB 16.

The bill would have authorized nearly $2.7 billion in "tuition revenue bonds" for projects around the state, including high profile proposals like a new engineering building at the University of Texas at Austin and a new campus in Brownsville for a recently approved regional university in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Senate refused to concur with House amendments to the original bill, and the House declined to acknowledge the Senate's request for a conference committee.

By the time Sunday rolled around, the House could have gone through the process of suspending multiple rules to appoint a conference committee and adopt their report — or the Senate could have agreed to accept the House changes.

In the end, neither chamber budged. Unless the issue gets added to a special session call, those campus shovels, which came so close to getting the go ahead this regular session, will have to go back in the closet for at least another two years.

by Aman Batheja

After surviving threat of a filibuster in the Senate, HB 500 passed the Texas House at midnight Sunday 131-14. The franchise tax cut bill has been the most visible tax relief bill of the session. Two Democrats, state Reps. Borris Miles of Houston and Yvonne Davis of Dallas, tried to kill the measure on parliamentary procedures called points of order. Straus overruled them both.

The bill now heads to Perry’s desk.

by Reeve Hamilton

Both chambers approved a conference committee report to SB 1158, making changes to the state's Hazlewood program, which allows veterans' and their family members to receive tuition-free higher education.

The bill reassigns oversight of the Hazlewood Act from the Higher Education Coordinating Board to the Texas Veterans Commission, and it creates a statewide veteran college resource counselors program.

It also establishes a permanent fund to provide some relief to universities who are currently struggling with the growing cost of providing free education under the Hazlewood program.

by Kate Galbraith

To extensive praise by his Senate colleagues, State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, was unanimously elected president pro tempore of the Texas Senate — meaning that he stands third in line to the governorship, after Gov. Rick Perry and Lieutenant Gov. David Dewhurst. He replaces Sen. Leticia van de Putte, D-San Antonio.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, dean of the Senate, began the nomination process, praising Estes for his collaborative skills.

“When we get into a stalemate or controversy, Craig can show us the pathway to building a consensus,” he said. Estes championed legislation favoring property rights and to “control the abuses of eminent domain,” Whitmire said.

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who also placed Estes’ name in nomination, reminisced about the days of Estes’ first campaign. He first came to the senate in a special election in 2001. Fraser called Estes, and 30 seconds into the conversation he asked me for money,” Fraser recalled, adding: “At that point I knew he was likely to get elected.”

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, described Estes as a “a man of incredible faith. I knew that god gave you a big frame of a body because he knew you were going to have a big heart.”

As for Estes, after taking the oath, he noted, “When I first got here I didn’t even know what a president pro tempore was. Now I’m it.”

by Kate Galbraith

Estes, on taking the oath to become Texas Senate pro tempore, third in the line of succession to the governorship, lays out a few priorities, including water and transportation. He says he will push hard for a yes vote on the November water-fund referendum, and also urges the construction of reservoirs. "Let us firmly commit to building one reservoir in this state—just one to start out with—within the next 5 years." He recommends on that's uphill from the greatest number of people.

Estes says he's "disappointed that we were not able to pass SJR 1 as it came out of Senate this session," by a vote of 31-0. He adds: "In the future let’s find the best way to fund our transportation needs. ... Folks, it doesn’t have to be that hard. ... Our vibrant state will not continue to thrive without this critical investment in our transportation infrastructure."

Estes also praised the congeniality of Texas Senate. "People who sit together and eat together and fellowship together usually don’t stay mad at each other for very long."

by Kate Galbraith

The Texas Senate has adjourned until 1:30pm today, but one other item of interest in the meantime. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, discussed the good spirit of this session of the Legislature during the nonimation of Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, as president of the Senate pro temporare.

It is the "best environment, most respectful working relationship of any session I’ve seen in 30 years," Whitmire said. In the past, he said, "there have been bullies we've had to deal with. ... In years past, as a freshman, I was expected to be seen and not heard," and senior members would delight in pointing out things buried deep in a bill that the hapless freshman had not fully considered. "Those days are as long gone," Whitmire said, who reiterated that the Senate this year has had "as good a climate of respect and accomplishment of any in my 30 years of service."

by Reeve Hamilton

On the final day of the legislative session, the Senate approved the conference committee report to HB 29, which will require that public universities offer incoming students a four-year, fixed-rate tuition option.

The Senate adjourned on the night before the final day without taking up the bill, pushing it beyond the official deadline to adopt conference committee reports. But they were able to suspend the rules on Monday, and the report was adopted unanimously.

The House already approved the report, so it is on its way to the governor's desk. Implementing such tuition options was one of the governor's priorities this session. In fact, with his encouragement, the public university systems in the state have already adopted plans to begin offering fixed tuition options.

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