83rd Lege's Regular Session: What Happened, What Didn't

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It's been a whirlwind of an end to the 83rd Legislature's regular session, and with Monday's announcement of a special session, lawmakers aren't done. Here's a look at the deals reached and the measures that fell short during the 140 days of the regular session

BUDGET

The budget negotiations ended up more convoluted than usual this session. In the end, four key bills needed to make it to Perry's desk: SB 1, HB 1025HB 6 and HB 7. By Sunday evening, all did. A pivotal resolution, SJR 1, also was passed by both chambers and doesn't require Perry's signature, which means Texas voters will decide in November whether to amend the constitution to create two water infrastructure funds. 

If Perry signs HB 1025, those funds will start off with $2 billion in them. Perry's signature on that bill remains an open question, as he expressed reservations about how the bill spends $1.75 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to undo an accounting trick lawmakers used last session to make the budget appear balanced. 

Paying for tax relief was also high on the priority list of budget negotiators. Several tax measures made it to Perry's desk, including HB 500, the major franchise tax relief bill of the session, and HB 800, which provides tax credits for business spending on research and development. HB 7 will wind down the System Benefit Fund, an account set up to help low-income Texans pay their utility bills. A related fee most Texans pay on their utility bills will stop being collected in September if Perry signs the bill.

 

TRANSPORTATION

For all the talk of finding a robust, reliable revenue source for the Texas Department of Transportation this session, lawmakers are leaving the agency's funding woes largely unaddressed. The budget deal includes $400 million in gas tax dollars for TxDOT that in the past had gone to the Department of Public Safety. But that is far short of the $4 billion a year TxDOT said it needed in extra revenue just to maintain current congestion. A last-ditch effort by the Senate to dedicate some Rainy Day Fund money to the issue was rebuffed by the House. 

The so-called shale counties in West and South Texas that are undergoing an oil drilling boom did end up with some aid for their roads, which have been torn up by all the truck activity. HB 1025 includes $450 million for TxDOT to address that issue. SB 1747 will let counties to draw $225 million from that funding for local roads. It also allows those regions to develop County Transportation Reinvestment Zones that would let them take the revenue from increased property and sales tax revenue to address the problem. 

PUBLIC EDUCATION

Two major education bills — SB 2, which expands the state's charter school system, and HB 5, which changes high school testing and graduation requirements — are awaiting an OK from Gov. Rick Perry. Neither measure generated much debate in the Legislature's final days as lawmakers finally approved them after months of committee hearings and contentious behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Under 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 arts and one P.E. credit; and five elective credits. They would add a fourth science and math credit when they select one of five diploma "endorsements" in areas including science and technology, business and industry, and the humanities. The state will require five standardized tests in English I, English II, algebra I, biology and U.S. history. School districts will have the option of offering diagnostic exams in algebra II and English III that will not count toward their accountability rating.

Under SB 2, the state cap on charter school 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. And the Texas Education Agency, not the State Board of Education, would oversee the charter approval, renewal and closure process.

HIGHER EDUCATION

 

Both chambers approved HB 29, which will require that public universities offer incoming students a four-year, fixed-rate tuition option. The issue has been one of Perry's priorities, but it almost didn't make it — the Senate had to suspend its rules on the session's final day to adopt the conference committee report. In anticipation of the bill passing, nearly every board of regents in the state has instructed its institutions to begin offering such an option.

The Legislature approved SB 215the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board sunset bill, which allows the agency to continue operating for the next 12 years but also reins it some of its authority. The bill prohibits the board from issuing a certificate of authority to a foreign institution offering professional degrees, meaning the American University of the Caribbean will not get its wish to send medical students to Texas. Additionally, the bill alters the eligibility requirements for the TEXAS Grant program and changes the rules so that institutions do not lose money through the B-On-Time loan program.

Campus carry may not have passed this session, but lawmakers did pass SB 1907, which allows concealed handgun license holders to store firearms and ammunition in locked cars on college campuses.

High up on the list of unfinished business this session was SB 16, which would have issued nearly $2.7 billion in bonds for campus construction projects around the state. The bill got stuck after the Senate refused to concur with House amendments to the bill, and the House declined to acknowledge the Senate's request for a conference committee. On the last day of the session, there were still efforts to save the bill, but the challenge proved too great. 

ENERGY

The extension of the Railroad Commission's life has been approved by both the House and Senate. The oil and gas regulatory agency will survive for four more years, but must go through an especially rigorous review process in 2017, after failing to do so this session and last. The extension was contained in the conference committee report on HB 1675; the measure now goes to the governor for a signature.

ETHICS

The chambers signed off on SB 219, an omnibus reform bill for the Texas Ethics Commission — but not until after they had stripped off a range of amendments that would have forced lawmakers and special-interest groups to be more transparent. They left on the bill measures to let lawmakers remove their home addresses from their financial statements and a study backed by some Republicans to consider moving the state's public integrity unit away from the Travis County district attorney's office. 

Meanwhile, Perry vetoed a "dark money" bill — SB 346 — aimed at getting politically active nonprofits to disclose their donors. 

The only standalone transparency bill to make it, SB 1773, calls for an interim study on whether the state's financial disclosure and ethics laws need to be updated. 

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

The reform bill for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, SB 213, is headed to Perry's desk. 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 had included differing provisions regarding the potential closure of two prison units. In the end, the bill was silent on that, merely leaving language in the budget to guide TDCJ officials in deciding how to address their approximately 12,000 empty beds. 

The final version of SB 1 directs TDCJ to reduce "bed capacity" at correctional facilities in order to cut costs. It says TDCJ should prioritize keeping open state-owned facilities over private facilities. That means that advocates for the closure of two privately operated facilities, one in Dallas and another in Mineral Wells, will probably continue their campaign to ensure those facilities are shuttered. While the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the facilities, says they are safely operated, critics say conditions there are unsafe for inmates.

Legislation to establish an innocence commission to review wrongful conviction cases failed again this legislative session. Critics, including state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, argued that HB 166 was unnecessary because lawmakers have already addressed many of the problems in the criminal justice system that have been uncovered in dozens of wrongful conviction cases. 

HEALTH CARE

Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Jane Nelson’s signature bills to overhaul Medicaid — SBs 78 and 58 — are headed to the governor for final approval. The bills would save the state an estimated $51 million in the next biennium by curbing Medicaid fraud, transitioning acute and long term care services to Medicaid managed care and expanding behavioral health services in managed care. The GOP also solidified its stance against the Medicaid expansion called for in federal health reform by attaching language to SB 7 to ban Texas from extending Medicaid coverage to low-income adults without legislative approval.

Despite the controversy surrounding the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas throughout the session, lawmakers ensured the agency would receive $600 million in the 2014-15 budget by passing SB 149 to strengthen measures to prevent conflicts of interest at the agency.

Independent pharmacies around the state can expect more transparency when negotiating rates with Medicaid managed care organizations. SB 1106, by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, is headed to Perry's desk. The measure will require Medicaid managed care plans to disclose how they determine the maximum amount they'll reimburse a pharmacist for a particular drug. Because of fiscal concerns, the Senate stripped a key amendment that would have required managed care plans to submit quarterly reports to the state listing how much they're reimbursing different providers in their network for the same drugs. 

Lawmakers have sent two measures to the governor to enhance the rights of Medicaid providers. SB 1803 lays out a process to protect providers' due process rights during investigations of fraud allegations, while SB 1106 reduces the administrative burden on providers who contract with multiple Medicaid managed care plans.

Other health care measures headed to the governor include provisions to cut red tape by standardizing preauthorization forms for prescription drugs and other health care services, an extreme makeover of the State Board of Dental Examiners, and requirements to train teachers to identify students suffering from mental illness or emotional disorders.

IMMIGRATION

Despite a surprising bipartisan push to create a driver's permit for undocumented immigrants, HB 3206 didn't survive. Supported by state Reps. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the bill would have allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for the permit to legally drive and purchase insurance. Though it was voted out of the House State Affairs Committee, it never made it to the House floor for a vote. Three attempts to attach the measure to other bills were unsuccessful. 

Nor did lawmakers endorse a federal bipartisan push to overhaul the country’s immigration system. If passed, HCR 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.” Some lawmakers were reluctant to back the resolution’s call for a pathway to citizenship. State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, signed on as a co-author with the resolution's Democratic filers and helped redraft it so it criticized amnesty and instead called for a path to “legal status.” But the measure still fell short. 

SOCIAL SERVICES

Come September, Texans applying for unemployment benefits could be subject to a drug test if a screening questionnaire raises red flags. SB 21, by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, is on Perry's desk awaiting his signature. A similar measure, SB 11, that would have set up a drug-testing system for certain welfare applicants, died in the House. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has pushed for the measure to be revived if there is a special session.

GUNS

For the second session in a row, lawmakers were unable to pass legislation that would have given themselves and all statewide officeholders the ability to carry concealed handguns where it is otherwise prohibited. HB 508 by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, would have penalized state agencies or other government entities that refused to acknowledge the rights of certain officeholders to carry concealed handguns where the practice is not otherwise permitted. His colleagues in the House voiced strong support for the bill itself. It was an amendment tacked on in the Senate that would have extended the privilege to lawmakers that caused an uproar in the lower chamber. Many lawmakers argued that they should not grant themselves the "privilege" unless they could do the same for their constituents. On Sunday night, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said Guillen had assured him that the provision would be taken off in conference committee. When conferees decided to not only keep the amendment but extend the right to members of Congress, the House voted the bill down. 

DRONES

Lawmakers in both chambers sent a measure to the governor to ban unmanned drones from capturing video or photographic surveillance of people or their property without permission. HB 912, filed by state Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, would make the practice a Class C misdemeanor. Among the measure’s exceptions: law enforcement officials who are investigating crimes and authorities investigating disasters or industrial accidents. 

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