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End Games

It's down to fixing the differences between House bills and Senate bills and getting final sign-offs and sending them to the governor for signatures, vetoes, or approval without fingerprints (unsigned bills go into law automatically).

It's down to fixing the differences between House bills and Senate bills and getting final sign-offs and sending them to the governor for signatures, vetoes, or approval without fingerprints (unsigned bills go into law automatically).

This last bit started with the Senate unleashing more than 500 bills it had been holding during the five-day stall in the House. The House ran a triage operation, deciding which of those bills needed surgery and which could get by with a couple of aspirin. The surgeries are sorted, broadly, into two groups. One holds bills with major differences between the House and Senate that need to be hashed out in the normal way. The sunset legislation on the Texas Department of Transportation is one of those. The other group is in for painful amputations. The Senate tried to save a bunch of dead bills by attaching them to live bills. Sometimes that works. But when the subject matter of the two bills doesn't mesh, the offending material has to be chopped away to preserve the original bill. Legislation expanding the Children's Health Insurance Program, for instance, was badly paired by the Senate, leaving the House with no choice but to kill it.

The House still has to vote on the budget and the supplemental appropriations bill — the Senate's finished both — and the rest of the weekend will be busy with conference committees settling differences and the full House and Senate getting together every few hours to ratify or reject the compromises. Barring any major new problems, the state's 181 lawmakers will be going back home Monday night or Tuesday morning.

The governor then has 20 days to dispense with the results, including a tear through the budget, where he has the power to prune some items he doesn't like. Father's Day is the deadline. And if he wants to call a special session — on windstorm insurance, for instance, if it fails to pass — that would probably follow. A note: Calling a special session during that 20-day veto period opens a governor to a veto override. If lawmakers aren't here while he's vetoing stuff, they can't reverse his decisions.

Rear View Mirror

Legislation they wanted is dead. Legislation they didn't want is alive. Some people behaved well (ask Edmund Kuempel about John Zerwas), and some didn't (you did see that El Paso Times story about Norma Chavez and Marisa Marquez, right?). And so on. Was the pace too slow? Was the result any different than usual? Don't sessions always end like this?

Have a little perspective. Start with some things that, if you've been around the Capitol much, you're sick of hearing.

"The budget is the only bill that has to pass."

"The system is set up to kill legislation — not to pass it."

"The Senate only has rules when it wants them."

"Every speaker is a reaction to the previous speaker."

They're all true.

So how does the Legislature handle the only bill that has to pass? In four of the last five sessions, the budget has been out of the first chamber by April 1 (it starts in the Senate one year, the House the next). The exception was in 2003, when lawmakers cut billions from the budget at the same time they were adjusting to a new speaker, Tom Craddick, R-Midland. With that same year as an exception, the bill emerged from the second chamber by mid-April. The conference committee always started up in two weeks or less, and the budget went to a final vote in both houses after the deadlines for other bills were out of the way (so that a long conversation about state spending won't kill other legislation). This year, with members adjusting to a new speaker, Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, the budget was out of the Senate on April 1, out of the House on April 17, and the conference committee formally met for the first time on April 27. The only bill that has to pass gets underway early, hits its marks and comes out on schedule. This year is no exception.

Westerns, gangster movies, space operas, and legislative sessions build to a climax, where the chances of success or survival narrow. Heroes and heroines get wounded, but survive. Sidekicks get shot. Bills die. The credits roll. That's how the story line works. The House and Senate just escaped from the big end-of-session shootouts. The particulars were different, with the looming Voter ID bill on the House calendar, the Democratic Stall to avoid it, and the Senate's clock-stopping attempt to bring life back to bills sent to the legislative graveyard as a result. But the effect is the same. Some skirmishes remain. But they're saving what they can, finding that many of the things they really, really wanted are intact, burying and mourning their dead, and getting ready to ride off into the sunset. If you want to see the credits roll, catch the final debates on the budgets, when everyone in the room hails everyone in the room for the fine work and the creative genius and all.

The House seems to get into a tight spot at the end of each session. The Senate waltzes in, frowns, and starts breaking any rules necessary to clean up the mess. This time, the rule-breaking started when the session started, with Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, cutting a path around the Senate's two-thirds rule to allow passage of a photo Voter ID bill that wasn't acceptable to a full two-thirds of the Senate. It came out on a straight party vote. The bookend — a bipartisan effort — came the other night, when a Senate staffer unplugged the official clock at two minutes before midnight so the upper chamber could spend another two-and-a-half hours resurrecting dead bills.

As for that fourth cliché, Craddick concentrated power in the speaker's office, taking it away from committee chairs and members. He was a policy speaker, using the position in pursuit of his agenda for the state. After three terms, the other members of the House — his voters — replaced him with Straus, who promised to return power to the members. Straus, in his first term, has been a process speaker, making sure the machinery of the House works and letting the members pursue their own agendas without pushing his own. At a meeting of Straus and the committee chairs about halfway through the session, recounted by several participants, he told them that the pace was up to them and that they should quit looking to his office for instructions on how to run their panels. And over the past week, he made sure everybody was following the rules without diving into the partisan squabble over Voter ID legislation. The Republicans and the Democrats struggled with each other, and he let them. He clearly didn't like it — remember the "obstructionist" remarks at the first of the week — but as long as the boxing was within the rules, he didn't call any fouls.

It's not over yet. But as the sun sinks, the budget is done, a mess of bills got killed after a lot of hard work, the Senate's rules were highly situational, and the House, for better or worse, got the kind of leadership it was seeking back in January.

Not Dead Yet

No legislation is ever really dead until the Legislature has left Austin, and that doesn't happen for a few more days.

Accordingly, the House is poring through 500+ bills that have been approved and amended — sometimes in astonishing ways — in the Senate. And the Senate spent the last hours of Wednesday night — a deadline night — grafting dead bills onto live ones in the hope that the House might approve the little monsters before time runs out.

A sampling of measures on the revivification list: Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (SB 14, the only bill Gov. Rick Perry has said would definitely prompt a special session), Budget transparency (SB 736), clean air (SB 16), Children's Health Insurance expansion (SB 841), low income housing tax credits (SB 1429), groundwater well-drilling regulation (HB 4258), tax exemptions for wind and solar projects (SB 832), gang-related investigation, prosecution and punishment (SB 11), post-conviction DNA evidence (SB 1864 & SB 1976), a state alternative fuels program (SB 1425), criminal asset forfeiture (SB 1529), water development grants in low income areas (SB 2284), open meetings at electric coops (SB 921), and a solar incentive program (SB 545).

Some bills got past the deadline without hitching rides, both before and after the Senate stopped its clock and worked for about two-and-a-half hours past the midnight deadline: Pre-Kindergarten education (SB 130), an innocence commission to look at new evidence in death penalty cases (HB 498), and sunset bills for the Department of Public Safety (HB 2730) and the Texas Youth Commission (HB 3689).

CHIP Shot

It might not matter if an expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program gets to the governor; he doesn't like it.

Rick Perry, quoted by the Austin American-Statesman on the subject of the CHIP bill: "I would probably not be in favor of that expansion even if it came to my desk. I think the members know that. That is not what I consider to be a piece of legislation that has the vast support of the people of the state of Texas."

Both the House and Senate approved the expansion, but in different forms. The Senate let the House version die in committee, and then attached it to another bill in yesterday's spree of rescue attempts. But they attached it to a bill that is arguably a bad match, and it might die without reaching the governor.

Immovable vs. Irresistible

Legislation that bewitched the Senate at the beginning of the legislative session bothered and bewildered the House at the end of it.

In the end, House Democrats were able to kill the photo Voter ID bill by stretching out deliberations over local and consent bills that usually fly by at a clip of a bill every minute. After five days of that, they reached the deadline for considering bills, killing the Voter ID bill and dozens and dozens of others as well.

Speaker Joe Straus refused to let them suspend House rules to cherry-pick bills parked behind the voter bill, and that was the standoff: Republicans wouldn't remove Voter ID from the agenda, and Democrats wouldn't drop their delaying tactics.

Unless Gov. Rick Perry calls them into a special session and adds Voter ID to the list of issues they can consider, it's dead until 2011, and a win, for now, for the Democrats.

Senators started the session by skirting their two-thirds rule to get around the Democratic minority. In mid-March, they sent the bill to the House. It stopped in the House Elections Committee for two months while Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, tried to get a compromise bill out of that divided panel. The Senate version is what emerged, but two members of his committee were ready with amendments if the bill had come before the full House.

At one end of the spectrum was Betty Brown, R-Terrell, whose version would require a photo ID and not allow any alternatives. At the other was Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who preferred no bill at all but said he could support a Voter ID bill with these components: same-day registration of voters during early voting; criminal prosecution of voter suppression; the ability to show a voter registration card and sign an affidavit in lieu of showing a photo ID; and a four-year "layout" before the voter ID law took effect.

The post-fight blame is murky. The Democrats' tactics killed a lot of bills. But the Senate came in and saved a bunch of the important ones. It's difficult to say, now, what died because of the gab-a-thon and what would have died anyway.

The next move is Gov. Rick Perry's: Does he call a special session, and if so, is Voter ID one of the issues on the agenda?

Road Work

The House opened a parley on a four-inch-thick transportation bill and told their negotiators to kill enforcement cameras at red lights and a local option gasoline tax increase approved by the Senate. That Sunset bill overhauls the Texas Department of Transportation. The House approved an elected 15-member board, but the Senate wants to keep five appointed commissioners. And the House would give much broader finance and project selection authority to local boards, while the Senate would leave more decision-making in state hands.

Several senators (17 of them) answered that with a letter to House members arguing that the provisions wouldn't raise taxes, but would allow voters to raise taxes locally if their county commissioners first approved the elections. And they asked them "to embrace local control."

Tax Swap

The Senate voted to change the formulas for taxing smokeless tobacco — effectively raising $105 million in new revenue for the state. They'll use the money to finance part of the $172 million in franchise tax cuts approved earlier by the House.

The smokeless tobacco fight has been going on for years. At issue is whether that ought to be taxed on the basis of price — the current system — or on weight. The lower-priced brands like the tax as is. Higher-priced brands like the weight-based tax, which trims the difference between regular and premium brands to the customer.

Lawmakers have rejected the idea in several sessions before now, but a couple of sweeteners this time might do the trick. First is the money; this would allow the Legislature to free thousands of businesses from the corporate franchise tax. Second is a doctor loan program that's been tied to the tax this session; some of the money will be used to help pay off student loans for doctors who agree to work in under-served areas of Texas.

The smokeless tobacco tax is currently 40 percent of price. The proposed change would put it at $1.10 per ounce, and the tax has a built-in escalator, raising the rate each year until 2013, when it would top out at $1.22 per ounce. Instead of setting the new tax to bring in the same revenue the old tax yielded, lawmakers decided to include a tax increase. But some conservatives like the new tax better than the old one in spite of that; the Texas Conservative Coalition, for instance, endorsed the change.

The new tax will raise $104.8 million over the next two years. Of that, $22 million will go to the loan program and the rest will pay for the business tax cut. That business tax cut has a two-year sunset on it — lawmakers will have to renew it in 2011 if they want to keep it — and the money for the doctor program will increase to $58 million in 2012, $68 million in 2013, and so on. Doctors would get paid $25,000 for their first year in the program, $35,000 for their second, up to $55,000 for their fourth year.

The franchise tax cut hasn't passed the Senate yet. The House version allows businesses with gross receipts of less than $1 million avoid paying any tax (the exemption is currently $300,000, and businesses don't pay the full rate unless their gross receipts exceed $1 million). After two years, the exemption would drop to $600,000. That would free about 39,000 businesses, and would leave what was sold as a broad-based tax with fewer taxpayers than paid the old levy it replaced.

The tax was the biggest piece of the 2006 "swap" — when lawmakers attempted to lower local school property taxes by increasing the state's share of the costs of public education. Now it's part of a new swap, with the increased taxes on smokeless tobacco paying for part of the business cut.

All About the Money

The budgeteers are done, and (finally) the final version of the $182.3 billion budget is posted online. That's 8.7 percent bigger than the current budget, but because most of the increase was covered by federal stimulus money, state general spending will rise by 0.9 percent. In dollar terms, spending will rise $14.5 billion, and general spending by $747 million.

Look here, on the Legislative Budget Board's website (also the source of the numbers in the growth chart) for the full bill, in searchable form.

Over the last two decades, the state budget has grown 260 percent. General revenue spending — that's the part paid for with state taxes and fees — has risen 133.6 percent. The budget has been approved by the Senate and was pending in the House as we hit our deadlines.

Numbers in the chart are in millions of dollars.

Balancing Act

The state employee bonus — $800 for every worker who a) makes less than $100,000 and b) isn't getting a pay raise — is now in the state's supplemental budget, a $2.4 billion spending bill that whizzed through the Senate and now goes to a conference committee to settle up with the House. That bill, or something like it, could also be the defibrillator for a "fiscal matters" bill that includes some wonky state finance stuff and also $150 million for a hospital tower at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, is still looking for a rescue plan. As a practical matter, this is the bill used to tie up some of the financial loose ends that weren't apparent when the 900-page budget was printed. It's easier to amend the smaller bill than to cut back into the big one.

Home Wreckers

The Texas Residential Construction Commission is on its deathbed, failing to get a Senate hearing on the final day that was possible. Sen. Glenn Hegar Jr., R-Katy, says that leaves only two options: Let the agency expire under the state's Sunset laws, or include it in a "safety net" bill that would keep it alive through the 2011 legislative session.

"I'm inclined to do what the Sunset report originally recommended," he says. That report said the state would be better off with no regulation than with the regulation it's getting.

With the Senate deadline passed, Hegar says, there's no way to approve the TRCC's Sunset bill. He says he still needs to talk to the House sponsor — Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio. But he's for letting it die.

Political People and Their Moves

The Texas Senate voted against Gov. Rick Perry's choice to head the State Board of Education. Don McLeroy, of Bryan, will remain on the board in an elected term that lasts until January 2011. But the governor will have to name someone else to chair that board.

McLeroy was criticized inside and outside the Legislature for his views on science, evolution and creation in particular, and for the headline-generating conduct of the SBOE in general.

His home senator, Republican Steve Ogden of Bryan, took up for him: "When we stand up here and ridicule a man who says he doesn't accept the current Darwinian theory of evolution, or that he says in an impolitic way that global warming is a bunch of hooey, he is not necessarily on the fringes of historical and scientific thought." But it wasn't enough.

The Senate voted 19-11 along party lines in McLeroy's favor, but since his confirmation would have required a two-thirds majority, that was two Nays too many.

It's the second bust of the session. The Senate denied the appointment of Shanda Perkins to the Board of Pardons and Paroles two weeks ago.

Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, is now sporting a pacemaker and trying to cook up a good yarn for anyone who asks whether he experienced anything between the time he had his heart attack in a Capitol elevator and was revived a few minutes later. At our last check, his health was fine, and he didn't have his story together yet.

Joe Straus will seek a second term as speaker of the House and filed the papers to make those efforts legal. He can start collecting pledge cards from members as soon as the session is over.

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, will face Democrat Loretta Haldenwang, an exec with the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Harper-Brown squeaked into reelection last year after a recount. The new challenger in HD-105 starts with the backing of Annie's List, a Democratic PAC that supports pro-choice female candidates.

Quotes of the Week

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, on the state of things: "We go through this every session. It looks like all is hopeless and then something breaks and, amazingly, we stagger out of here with most of what we have to do, done."

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, on the gridlock in the House: "I'm not being at all critical. It's just a fact: If the House had taken up two, three, four weeks ago a voter ID bill, none of this would have happened."

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, on the House Democrats' strategy of stretching debate on minor bills to avoid a debate on Voter ID: "I would say that the more they talk, the more explaining they have to do."

Rep. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, quoted by The Dallas Morning News after House Democratic leaders said the impasse over Voter ID reminds them of the bad ol' days under Speaker Tom Craddick: "Let's face it. We've got two polar opposite speakers. The one thing we have constant is a group that can't get along with either one."

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, talking to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about slowing down the House to avoid debate on Voter ID legislation: "I won't kill a person for the right to vote, but I'll kill hundreds of bills for the right to vote."

Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, talking to the Austin American-Statesmen about bills dying at the House's deadline: "I've come to expect tragedy at the end of the session, and tragedy always appears."

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, telling The Dallas Morning News that a local tax option in the transportation bill is a deal-breaker: "I can tell you this: I am not going to budge on the local-option bill. I simply won't accept a bill that comes out of the conference committee that does not include it."

Sen. Robert Deuell, R-Greenville, pulling down needle exchange legislation that threatened to bring down other issues: "I think it's time, especially for you Republicans, in order for you to remain a viable party, we need to start looking at medical facts and not dealing with those black helicopters and myths."

Gov. Rick Perry, asked by the Houston Chronicle what issues might prompt him to call a special legislative session when the regular session is over: "There's a lot of things that are important. I just don't know whether or not — you know, my goal generally is to keep the Legislature out of town."


Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 21, 1 June 2009. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2009 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 302-5703 or email biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.

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