The media (and we do include ourselves, thanks) loves the sort of legislative or political story line that goes like a cliffhanger episode of a TV show. And the Lege always seems to provide at least one during the session. Will they finish in time? Will they fail and go into overtime?
The Austin American-Statesman's Jason Embry on Wednesday: "The most important day in this year’s session?"
Texas Monthly's Paul Burka on Thursday: "Today is the most important day of the session."
The lobbyists and officeholders and are no different. End-game talk is all the rage in the Pink Building right now.
Catch your breath. It looked bad last week and early this week. It looks good at the moment. There's more than a week left, and the thing's not over.
But the On The Brink narrative was tempting this week, with the passage of a budget depending on whether the Senate would lower its spending on public education and whether the House could pass legislation making $2.6 billion available to balance the thing. The House's problems were greatly compounded by the end-of-session deadlines. The fiscal matters bills — full of payment deferrals and other accounting magic — are also the best ride available for otherwise dead, ignored and passed-over bills. Almost anything with a number in it is germane, and lawmakers filed piles and piles of amendments — more than 400, according to the folks in the House Clerk's office — in advance of the debate.
There are ways to hack through the brush, but the House Republicans don't want to wade in until there's a budget deal, and the budgeteers wanted to see how much money the House will produce before voting on a budget.
All that's needed in that intersection is a traffic cop, which is another way of saying that this got teed up nicely for Gov. Rick Perry.
It's possible that the conference committee on the budget could reach an agreement that's not acceptable to either the House or the Senate, or a deal that's acceptable to one side but not the other. Republican Senators don't want to cut education more than they already have, and none of the Democrats voted for it in the first place. Representatives, meanwhile, are split every which way. Democrats are against everything. Some Republicans want to hold the line on spending and some voted to move the thing along because of Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts' promise that it would improve. Some have such high regard for the money in the Rainy Day Fund that they won't spend it. Some think the whole account should be poured into schools or Medicaid or both. It's a jangle, and all that Pitts, R-Waxahachie, and Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, had to do was find some thread in there that would unite 16 senators and 76 House members.
A blessing from Perry could give everyone cover, if there's a compromise to be made (it looks like there is one, but there's time for this to come apart and go back together a few more times).
If it's more money they want — whether from the Rainy Day Fund, accounting tricks, car washes or pizza coupons — an okay from the Guv would give conservatives a green light. He might be the only guy in the Capitol who can shield them from third-party groups that have been hounding lawmakers to hold the line. There's already evidence of that. The Senate wanted to use $3.97 billion from the RDF to cover the deficit in the current budget. The House's plug for that hole uses only $3.1 billion in RDF money. That was one of the last sticking points in negotiations. House Democrats tried to add the Senate money to the House bill and lost by a 2-to-1 margin. Pitts told House members to send the measure to conference and promised he'd hold the line at $3.1 billion. The tweets and other social media whirring of the third parties started right away, congratulating and thanking Pitts for the job well done.
If it's the higher spending in the Senate bill that makes a compromise, Perry can join Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in calling that "the largest spending cut in state history" to make lawmakers a little more comfortable. The House came up to the Senate's number on public education — a long distance, since the Senate wanted to cut $4 billion from current spending and the House was after a $7.8 billion cut. That one got a gubernatorial nod, too.
Had Perry groused against any of that, as he has done up to now, we'd have an impasse. It's hard to get the Senate to spend less. It's hard to get the House to raise more money. And it might be impossible to do either thing unless it comes from the middle office.
The budget talks were still underway when we went to press, and it's a shaky and unreliable machine, but they look like they are on their way to a budget deal.
The pieces are the budget itself, the fiscal matters bills, school finance formula bills, perhaps the stalled legislation that loosens class size ratios and teacher firing and furloughing rules, the supplemental appropriations bill for the current budget, and the measure that funds it with whatever amount of money from the RDF.
Is it precarious? Yup. One of the fiscal matters bills — the one with higher education in its DNA — got picked off in the House because the Senate had added legalization of concealed handguns on campuses to it. The House read that as a second subject on the bill (only one is allowed) and sent it back. They can revive the financial parts of that, but it's an example. Anything can happen, and with the clock running out, delays are increasingly poisonous.
Still in the Green Room
As leadership in the House and Senate hammered out the details of a budget deal, a number of education measures hung in the balance.
Lawmakers are waiting to pile amendments dealing with school finance, mandate relief and school vouchers (a last-minute addition from Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville) onto two fiscal matters bills set to hit the House floor. But before they take up those bills, members want to see what the budget will look like.
In the House, Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, is the only lawmaker that has produced a viable school finance plan — and because the proposal from Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, has stalled in the upper chamber, it's currently the Legislature's only school finance plan. But in an interview on the House floor Thursday morning, the Houston Democrat said he was "not advised" on the role his proposal was fitting into budget negotiations.
Mandate relief also has an uncertain future. Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, has legislation that has failed to pass that he intends to hitch to the fiscal matters bills. But Democrats have said they will continue their attempts to derail the measures with parliamentary tactics. And in the Senate, which requires a two-thirds vote to bring bills to the floor for consideration, mandate relief proposals have stalled — though they could also potentially live on as amendments.
Miller said he still intended to attach his school credit proposal — which he said was "not a voucher program" but a "taxpayer savings grant" — as an amendment to the education fiscal matters bill. The measure would provide parents with a credit worth 60 percent of the cost it takes the state to educate their children to put toward sending them to private schools. He said it was different than voucher programs that have crashed and burned in sessions past because it would not cost taxpayers money — and could result in $2 billion in savings. Teachers groups, of course, dispute that.
The Cookie Jar
Was that the fastest $1.2 billion you've ever seen? The comptroller's biennial ride on the white horse to rescue the budget at the end of the session made news for just a little bit before getting swallowed in the bigger tales of the House-Senate impasse on the state's next spending plan.
As it turned out, $700 million of the new money was already in the budget — lawmakers were that sure it was forthcoming — and the rest helped but wasn't nearly enough to close the abyss between the House and Senate at that point in the talks.
One part of the news got lost in the shuffle; Comptroller Susan Combs said she was raising her forecast for sales taxes by $1 billion, for motor vehicle sales taxes by $100 million, and for oil production taxes by $400 million. Of that last number, only $100 million goes into the general revenue account; the rest goes to the Rainy Day Fund.
She closed her letter to lawmakers with this: "The recovery from the recession is underway. Over the upcoming biennium, if employment growth in the state continues at the pace similar to that of recent months, it is expected that the Texas economy — and state revenue — will rebound more quickly than previously anticipated. It should be noted, however, that problem areas persist. Notably, the housing sector of our economy remains sluggish and the unemployment rate, while beginning to moderate, is still elevated."
The new State Board of Education maps quietly became law this week without the governor's signature. That part of redistricting is done, at least the part that happens in the Capitol. It doesn't belong to the ages, but to the courts, if there's a challenge, and to the voters, if the lines hold.
The Senate, without much rancor and after the sorts of arguments you hear in the Legislature when people are building records for court cases, passed its maps, too. The only obvious victim is Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who knocked off a Republican incumbent in November and will get a more solidly Republican district as her reward. She argued that the new maps break up minority communities in Tarrant County and will take that argument as far as she can.
The Senate plan doesn't pair any incumbents or change the mix in the Senate anywhere other than in Davis' case. There were only a few changes to what Seliger proposed a week ago. Travis County's lines were altered a bit, but it would still have four senators where it now has two, with one of them residing in the county. Taylor County remains split between Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay; it was whole before. And Bexar County would have parts of four Senate districts, three of which are anchored by San Antonio incumbents. One more amendment swapped some property between Sens. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, and Dan Patrick, R-Houston. With that done, senators debated for a few minutes and then passed the bill.
Now they'll wait for the House and follow a tradition devised by paranoid and ambitious politicians. Each chamber will vote out the other's redistricting map at the same time, probably with the two presiding officers on the phone. No hanky-panky. No officeholder left behind.
What's not there? Congressional maps. The congressional delegation has 23 Republicans, which is probably two more than it would have after an election held on a normal day, as opposed to the raucous November election that put Francisco "Quico" Canseco of San Antonio and Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi in the United States Congress. The state gets four new seats this year, based on growth in the population that was 89 percent fueled by minorities.
The trick is to draw a map that increases the number of Republicans while recognizing the growth in a population that generally votes for Democrats. Who wants a piece of that? The redistricting chairs — Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton — haven't proposed maps yet. It's too late to get this done. They'd have to introduce and pass a Senate map out of committee, out of the Senate, out of House committee, out of the Calendars Committee and out of the House. This Legislature couldn't pass the King James Bible that fast.
They'll reveal maps before it's over just to give the courts an idea for a starting place. Congressional maps skip the Legislative Redistricting Board, so that bunch won't be playing. And we're told the maps coming out of the Lege will have 25 Republican seats, maybe 26.
Why not draw these earlier? The only legislators who really, really care about the congressional maps are the ones who want to run for Congress. Much of the Republican delegation was on the wrong side of the GOP primary for governor — several supported Hutchison and others stayed out — and Gov. Rick Perry doesn't owe them favors. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, didn't make any Republican friends by holding back more than $800 million in federal education funds for more than a year. His seat is in trouble.
And some of the Republicans who might've jumped in and gone after that money didn't, at least visibly. Now there's no favor they can call in.
You Pick 'em
A number of major appointments remain up in the air.
According to staffers in Senate Nominations Chairman Bob Deuell's office, two stalled nominations stand out. There has been no movement toward approval of Gov. Rick Perry's re-appointments of John Bradley as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission or Gail Lowe as chairwoman of the State Board of Education.
Barring some unanticipated change in the position of the Nominations Committee members, Bradley's term will end with the close of session. Lowe will remain on the board but will have to be replaced as chairwoman.
As for whom the governor will select as railroad commissioner or insurance commissioner, Perry's office says that will come after session. The deadline to submit nominations has passed, and now it is simply a matter of going through paperwork and finding the right people.
Back when there were five weeks left in the session, none of Gov. Rick Perry’s emergency items — voter ID, sanctuary cities, pre-abortion sonograms, a federal balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution and eminent domain reform — had gotten to his desk. But with one week to go, most have reached the finish line.
Bills on voter ID and abortion sonograms made it to Perry’s desk over the hackles of Democrats. Eminent domain reform is there, too, awaiting the governor’s approval before becoming law.
The Senate approved the balanced-budget amendment this week, which, having already passed through the House, put it en route to the governor.
“A constitutional limit on Washington’s excessive spending and borrowing is crucial to getting our country back on track to economic stability and prosperity,” Perry said in a statement after the bill passed.
The sanctuary cities bill is still up in the air — see the next story — and one more item has been added to the emergency list.
Perry added loser-pays tort reform legislation to his emergency list as the House prepared to take up the bill; the status change moved the legislation to the top of the House's agenda. That legislation has made it through the House, as has the sanctuary cities bill. The holdup for the two appears to be in the Senate. The loser-pays bill was last seen in the Senate State Affairs Committee awaiting the release of a committee substitute.
Notice to lawmakers: Don’t mess with Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.
That’s because legislation designated by Gov. Rick Perry as an emergency item is clinging to life with less than two weeks left in the regular session. And the governor has Williams, a member of his own party, to thank for the problem.
House Bill 12, the sanctuary cities legislation filed by Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, underwent a drastic transformation this week, so much so that it no longer deals with local enforcement of immigration laws. It’s now SB 9, an omnibus homeland security bill that was one of Williams’ prized pieces of legislation. SB 9 passed the Senate last month and was referred to the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. And there it stayed, with no sponsor willing to guide it through the lower chamber, with less than two weeks left to go.
But Williams sprung a surprise, taking one of the remaining vehicles he had left, the sanctuary cities bill, as the ride for his own legislation. Williams supports the sanctuary cities legislation, so much so that he filed his own version, SB 11. But that never made it out of committee, and Williams promised fellow senators he wouldn’t conflate homeland security with sanctuary cities. A majority of Senate Democrats supported SB 9 (only two of 12 voted against it), but they all opposed HB 12 and were set to block it from being debated on the Senate floor.
“It’s not a trick play. I wanted to keep these issues completely separate,” Williams said. “I think it’s very important, and unfortunately [Senate Bill 9] hasn’t received any serious consideration on the House side.”
Asked if there was a chance that some form of a sanctuary cities bill would pass, Williams shrugged and said, “It’s getting late.”
It’s unclear when or how, but a deal was struck between Williams and the Democrats that ultimately leaves Perry and the 101 House Republicans who wanted sanctuary cities legislation passed on the short end. Perry said this week there is still time, and there is: The final 11 days of the session are likely to witness a flurry of deals and amendments to revive dying legislation. But the clock is ticking.
As for Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, the chairman of the House committee where the original SB 9 still sits, he’s already earned his gold star for the session. It was his bill, not Sen. Dan Patrick’s, that would require a woman seeking an abortion to first have a sonogram. That was another of Perry’s emergency items.