Anything else would have been a surprise.
The first day of voting on state finances produced a series of similar votes, with the winners carrying the 101 Republicans, give or take, and the losers carrying the 49 Democrats, give or take. The changes from one amendment to the next had more to do with who was out getting a sandwich or visiting the facilities or talking to a constituent or lobbyists outside than to any philosophical or political lean.
Day One involved the current budget, with lawmakers passing two bills that would erase the $4.3 billion deficit with a combination of cuts and Rainy Day Funds.
It also worked as a test vote for both sides, allowing them to see who's doing what on which issues. Though the session is past its halfway point, there haven't been that many big debates on the floor, and members are still watching to see what works and doesn't. It took a while, but it was an easy and predictable round for the folks in management. There was one breakout of discord that wasn't on party lines when Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, proposed cutting the pay of any state employee making more than $60,000 per year. Paxton took fire from the left and the right and, after a few minutes of discussion, pulled his amendment down.
Right after that, the final vote came up on the cuts bill, HB 4, and the House reverted to the template it followed on most votes, approving the bill 100-46. On the GOP side, it was 99-0-1-2 (yup-nope-abstain-absent); on the Democrat side, it was 1-46-0-2. Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, told reporters he voted for the cuts now because he voted for them last year when he was on the Legislative Budget Board.
As you read this, the House is gearing up for its first run at the state budget — at least in front of all of the members. It's a stinker, the sort of thing that can get people unelected. Next year's opponents won't likely make campaign advertisements out of the budget itself, but out of the small, specific, visceral and understandable stuff inside it, like schools and nursing homes and parks, or about entitlements and noncitizens and whatever turns out to be the least defensible program left in the bill or the least defensible program that was cut out.
It's a dangerous thing, voting on budgets.
The initial proposal — the one presented at the beginning of the year, had even deeper cuts than what's in play at the moment, and it might be that the votes going on right now won't matter much in the end. The Senate's budget — still in committee — is bigger than the House version, and the reconciled version that gets to lawmakers in May (assuming the House and Senate can compromise) will likely spend more than the House is spending now.
A quick run of bottom line all-funds numbers looks like this: current budget, $187.5 billion; LBB proposed House budget, $156.4 billion; LBB proposed Senate budget, $158.7 billion; the Appropriations Committee version of the House budget, $164.5 billion. The House's current version would cut $23 billion from current spending, but their first proposal would have cut $31.1 billion. And some of the numbers aren't what they first see. Public education spending in this version of the House budget is higher than in the current budget. But it's $7.8 billion short of what the schools are supposed to get under current school finance formulas, which take into account enrollment growth and inflation and so on.
The floor rules in the House will prevent anyone from adding to the spending without subtracting a like amount, but doesn't require lawmakers to stay inside each article with education subtractions for education additions, for instance. They can add anything they want, theoretically, so long as they cut the same amount somewhere else.
For all of the noise about the Rainy Day Fund, the first round was easy. Only two members of the House — Republican Gary Elkins and Democrat Barbara Mallory Caraway — voted against tapping the fund to help fill the deficit in the current budget. The package included cuts ordered earlier by state leaders and $3.1 billion from the state's savings account. They needed 90 votes to get the money. They got 142.
After the Vote
The tension now is between the two chambers and whether the House is willing to spend as much as the Senate wants, or whether senators can stomach the cuts favored in the House.
The comptroller already weighed in once with a more optimistic revenue estimate, and that could happen again. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, has a pack of senators looking for money, and that could help. Some have their eyes on funds outside the regular territory of budgeteers — like endowments set up in the tobacco settlements more than a decade ago — hoping to bring those into play. Expect another strong push to make school districts use their local, state-required reserves to offset cuts in state spending.
Duncan expects to have his proposals ready next week. He's not hinting at what his gang is looking at, but did say he sees no reason for the Senate to mess with a casino or slot machine bill until and unless the House passes something first. He's personally opposed and says an expansion of gambling in Texas doesn't have the votes in his committee and probably doesn't have the needed two-thirds of the full Senate to come up for a floor vote. It's too early to say anything is dead, but gambling looks a little green around the gills.
In the House, hearings on expanded betting started this week. Casinos made their pitch for destination-style resorts in populated spots and along the Gulf Coast. Tracks made a pitch — with horse owner Lyle Lovett as their headliner — for slots at tracks as a way to support the state's languishing equine business.
The Senate Finance Committee could get to the House bill next week, assuming the House doesn't drive into an oak tree between now and then. (Speaking of trees, the stack of amendments pre-filed on the House budget totaled more than 400 pages, and we've uploaded a searchable electronic copy if you want to follow along on your computer.) The Legislature could have the budget into conference committee by mid-April, and that group of negotiators will probably be the first people in the Capitol to know whether there will be a special session this summer or not.
Three Metroplex mayors hit the leadership with a letter this week asking for no money but also asking the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker to leave the cities alone. They've been hit with dropping property values (and taxes) and falling sales taxes, they wrote. "Even with these challenges, we've balanced our budgets, and now we ask that you not pass the buck as you balance yours." The letter from the mayors of Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington — Dwaine Caraway, Robert Cluck and Mike Moncrief — details cuts they've made over the last three or four years to balance their budgets.
"Though only one state in the country provides less financial assistance to cities than Texas, we are not requesting such assistance," the letter says. "We ask only that the State balance its budget in a transparent and thoughtful manner that does not pass the cost along to cities in the form of unfunded mandates, hidden fees, or increased expropriation of city-generated revenues."
On that last point, they note the state's charge for collecting sales taxes, which they say is twice as high as what cities in other states pay, local contributions to state highway projects, and so on.
Wallets v. Kids
In advance of Friday's budget debate, House members filed more than 70 amendments to Article III, the portion that handles public education.
The most popular proposal for sending more funds toward the classroom? Defunding the Texas Education Agency — and the forays come from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, would slash the commissioner of education's salary by more than 70 percent — from $186,000 to $50,000. Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, would reduce the agency's funding by $50 million and move that money to TEXAS grants under the Higher Education Coordinating Board. Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, would make an across-the-board cut of $8 million to the agency's budget. Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, has two different amendments that would divert funds from the agency to pre-kindergarten programs, which are zeroed out in the House budget. One would transfer $12 million in TEA appropriations over the biennium to early childhood programs. Another would re-appropriate $500,000 from the agency to pre-K programs in the state.
It wouldn't be the Texas House if there weren't a few culture-war proposals. Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, has an amendment that would make it illegal for any state funds appropriated for higher education to pay for financial aid, in-state tuition or scholarships for illegal immigrants. Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, would require a university to create a family and traditional values center if it has a gender and sexuality center "or other center for students focused on gay, lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, transsexual, transgender, gender questioning, or other gender identity issues." On the left, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, wants a swing at the State Board of Education. His amendment would prohibit state funds from going to purchase "factually inaccurate" textbooks or instructional materials.
When This is Over
Put two items on your list of things for interim committees to do when the legislative session is over.
House Ways & Means Chairman Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, says lawmakers will do a full soup-to-nuts review of the state's tax structure after this session of the Legislature. Taxes are dangerous politically right now, but some folks inside and outside the government think one of the biggest problems with the state's finances is a tax architecture that doesn't fit the times. He says they'll look at all the taxes, fees, exemptions, whatnots, and you-name-its.
And Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, followed his release of a proposed redistricting map for the State Board of Education with a call for remodeling of that board during the interim. His complaint is with the size of the districts. With 25.1 million people in Texas, each of the 15 SBOE members represents a district with an ideal size of 1,676,371. There are 12 states with populations smaller than that. Solomons thinks they're too big to represent. He doesn't make any suggestions about fixing it, but two come to mind: Increase the size of the board, or replace it with an appointed panel and ditch the big-district elections altogether.
Republican lawmakers represent nine of the ten Texas House districts with the biggest drops in Anglo population over the last ten years, according to Census numbers sorted by the Texas Legislative Service.
They represent 18 of the top 20. In 13 of those districts, less than 50 percent of the population is Anglo. Ten years ago, that was true in only four of those 20 districts.
The biggest drop in the percentage of Anglos was in one of the fastest-growing districts in the Texas House. In House District 132, where Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, is the incumbent, 39.5 percent of the population is Anglo now, as against 66.3 percent a decade ago. The same pattern is true in other districts, notably in the Dallas and Houston areas.
According to the latest Census, Anglos are in the minority in districts represented by Reps. Cindy Burkett of Mesquite, Ken Legler of Pasadena, Patricia Harless of Houston, Bill Zedler of Arlington, Gary Elkins of Houston, Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, Joe Driver of Garland, Barbara Nash of Arlington, and Angie Chen Button of Richardson. The Democrats in the top 20 are Helen Giddings of Dallas and Mark Strama of Austin. Giddings district has been a minority district for a long time; all but three of the others were majority Anglo ten years ago, and those three — represented by Anderson, Harper-Brown, and Nash — were close to 50 percent a decade ago.
A Rose By Any Other Name
A Texas lawmaker wants the federal government to start thinking of Mexican cartel operatives as terrorists. U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, filed legislation that would add the Arellano Felix Organization, Los Zetas, the Beltran Leyva Cartel, La Familia Michoacana, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel to the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. McCaul chairs the House Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management.
The designation would allow the federal government to freeze funds tied to the organizations and open up persons found guilty of working with the organizations to an additional prison term of 15 years, in addition to the penalties for the crimes they were originally convicted of. A death sentence is possible if the cooperation, which includes providing, among other things, identification, lodging, training, weapons and transportation, leads to the death of an individual.
All but two of the cartels listed, the Arellano Felix and La Familia Michoacana, have or once had a heavy presence near the Texas-Mexico border. Absent from the list, however, is the Juárez Cartel, also know as La Línea, which has been embroiled in a bloody turf war with the Sinaloa Cartel in Ciudad Juárez, across the Texas border from El Paso.
"The cartels use violence to gain political and economic influence. They have taken control of much of northern Mexico and spillover crime has resulted in the abandonment of property and loss of security on the US side of the border," McCaul said in a statement on his website.
The Week in the Rearview Mirror
After stirring up a firestorm of controversy for hiring highly paid consultant Rick O'Donnell, whose views on academic research have put alumni and lawmakers on edge, the University of Texas System has modified its plans for him. His role has been scaled down from a special adviser to the Board of Regents to a special assistant for research in the office of business affairs, a position that will come to an end on Aug. 31. His salary of $200,000 remains unchanged.
The tight budget has put virtually every revenue-yielding issue on the table, including the elimination of a tax break for high-cost natural gas production. A proposal to end the break through periodic state review drew praise from some, including former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, and criticism from others, mostly industry groups calling the exemptions vital to economic growth for the state. The estimated $2.3 billion the state will give up in the current budget cycle may prove hard for lawmakers to resist.
With the state now unable to get one of the drugs used in executions, officials at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced that they will now use pentobarbital in place of sodium thiopental, whose manufacturer could not get it made in its Italian plant unless it promised not to sell it for executions. Two death row inmates filed suit against the state for violating the Administrative Procedure Act, arguing that the public should have been notified of the change and been offered a period in which to comment.
The Senate passed a groundwater bill by a vote of 28-3. Landowners hope that the legislation will clarify their right to a vested interest in the water below their property. This version spells out the role of conservation districts and their authority to enforce rules, which brought in some votes.
A bill requiring law enforcement agencies to develop and follow certain protocols for police lineups passed unanimously in the House on the heels of a similar version passed by the Senate earlier in the month. Agencies would be forced to base their eyewitness identification procedures on academically based research, and the bill calls on Sam Houston State University to create a model policy.
Advocacy group Children's Rights has filed a federal lawsuit against Texas officials, alleging that foster care in Texas fails to keep children safe and provides little supervision. The group, based in New York, filed the suit on behalf of 12,000 foster children housed across the state. Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein issued a statement addressing the charges, citing a redesign of the state foster care system and an additional $1 billion in funding that the system has received in the past six years. Additional figures released by the agency show an increase in adoptions by more than 50 percent in the last five years, and caseloads for foster care workers falling by more than 10 cases per worker.
Political People and Their Moves
So long, and thanks for all the fish: Michael Williams leaves the Texas Railroad Commission 13 years after he got there to turn his attention to a race for the U.S. Senate. The primary is less than a year away, and there are at least five declared candidates. Williams picked up an endorsement from retired U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks.
Hank Whitman is the new head of the Texas Rangers (the official title is assistant director of the Department of Public Safety). He's been the interim director and the deputy assistant director and was the agency's interim inspector general before that.
Texas State University System chancellor Brian McCall announced that Dr. Perry Moore has been selected as the system's vice chancellor for academic affairs. He'd been the provost at Texas State University-San Marcos.
Dee Porter, the COO at the Texas Department of State Health Services, has left that perch to become chief of human resources at the Texas Department of Transportation. TXDOT has a new chief information officer in Louis Carr, who was previously with the City of Arlington.
The Texas Supreme Court appointed David Gualtney of the state's 9th Court of Appeals to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, replacing Justice Jan Patterson of Austin.
Gov. Rick Perry appointed Abigail Blackburn of Austin to the Statewide Health Coordinating Council. Blackburn is owner of Blackburn Chiropractic PLLC.
The governor also appointed:
Three members to the Texas Optometry Board, including Mario Gutierrez of San Antonio, a therapeutic optometrist, optometric glaucoma specialist, and president and CEO of South Texas Vision Associates; John Coble of Rockwall, a therapeutic optometrist and optometric glaucoma specialist in private practice; and Larry Fields of Carthage, an attorney and real estate broker in private practice, and a municipal court judge for the city of Tatum.
Four members to the Lower Colorado River Authority, including J. Scott Arbuckle of El Campo, a real estate land manager for Legacy Trust Company; Steve Balas of Eagle Lake, a pharmacist and owner of Eagle Lake Drugstore and Balas Farming Company; John Franklin of Burnet, a program manager of Celestica Aerospace Technologies, and former mayor of Pflugerville; and Bobby Limmer of Llano, a rancher and board certified dermatologist in private practice.
Faith S. Johnson of Cedar Hill to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas Oversight Committee. She is an attorney in private practice.
Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch of Austin to the Judicial Districts Board. He's a name partner in the Enoch Kever law firm.
Deaths: Hubert Green, the lead investigator into the Sharpstown stock-fraud scandal that roiled state government in the early 1970s and the father of Texas Supreme Court Justice Paul Green, after a stroke. The longtime San Antonio lawyer was 84.
Lawrence Alvin Allen Sr., husband of state Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, and father of State Board of Education member Lawrence Allen Jr. He was 76.
Quotes of the Week
Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee: "I'm hearing every bill I can hear that has revenue in it, whether I'm for it or not."
State Board of Education member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, on the management of his home district: "This a case of pride and arrogance. Beaumont ISD is rapidly becoming the poster child for why there is not more support for an increase in public education funding in the Legislature."
Maria Martinez, a member of the conservative group Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas, on proposed legislation to create a guest-worker program that would include cooperation with Mexican state governments, to the House State Affairs Committee: "Do members of the Texas Legislature really want to put national security tasks in the hands of the Mexican government?"
Tiffany Hartley, the widow of David Hartley, who was allegedly gunned down by Mexican gangs on Falcon Lake in September, on why she insists on pressuring the U.S. government to continue searching for her husband's body, to The Associated Press: "We don't want to leave him in the hands of the enemy. If we get his body back, we can at last honor him the way he would want to be honored, at least by his family."
Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, on House Republican leaders' talk of tempering budget cuts: "I think my Republican colleagues are beginning to listen to Texans who are calling their offices, who are showing up at the Capitol or writing to their newspapers."
Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas, to the Austin American-Statesman on controversial higher education reforms questioning the value of academic research at universities: "Our campus is very attentive to this and very worried about it. And I would say that involves faculty, administration, deans and students."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, speaking at the Texas Legislative Conference in New Braunfels: "The problem with California? It's full of Californians." And later, on redistricting, in the same speech: "Since the majority of Texas votes Republican, the maps are going to be Republican."
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, after the Senate Criminal Justice Committee passed a controversial bill to allow concealed carry of handguns of college campuses: "When there is an alcohol-related tragedy on campus, you don't hear claims that giving students more beer is the solution."
U.S. Senate candidate Michael Williams, leading off a fundraising letter: "You've no doubt been bombarded with emails asking for money. Please don't ignore any of them. They're all important."
Contributors: Julián Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, Ceryta Lockett, David Muto and Morgan Smith
Texas Weekly: Volume 28, Issue 13, 4 April 2011. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2011 by The Texas Tribune. 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) 716-8600 or email email@example.com. For news, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (512) 716-8611.
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