Good morning, and welcome to the First Called Session of the 82nd Texas Legislature.
Your lawmakers, after 140 days in Austin, didn't finish their budget work for 2012-13 during the legislative session that ended Monday, and Gov. Rick Perry called them back for another crack at it, starting this morning.
Perry and legislative leaders hope to move through a series of bills quickly during the special session that begins today, starting with the fiscal issues that forced the session and continuing on through other controversial legislation, including congressional redistricting, reforms to the state's windstorm insurance program, and legislation loosening state mandates on public education, sources said Monday.
The governor has talked to legislative leaders about including several items in the special session, but not all at once. Instead, they're talking about trying to pass legislation in series, moving quickly and adding items to the call as each item wins passage, according to sources.
Congressional maps "are ready to go [this] morning, if [Perry] wants them" said state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. He wouldn't discuss the specifics of the maps but said that he and his redistricting counterpart in the House, Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, would start with identical maps.
The governor will start lawmakers off with budget measures, asking them to cut $4 billion from what they owe schools and to distribute those cuts, to pull together $3.5 billion in "non-tax revenue" for the next budget, and to approve legislation designed to cut costs in the federal Medicaid programs managed by the state.
Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said he expected that the controversial sanctuary cities bill — which Democrats successfully blocked during the regular session — would be on the agenda. “Negotiating will be a lot harder for them” during the special session, Taylor said.
Perry called the special session after a drawn-out day of talks and meetings that ended with lawmakers in the same spot they were in at the Sunday midnight deadlines: Without the school finance provisions and revenue in SB 1811, the state budget doesn't work. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filibustered until midnight to kill the bill, and senators spent most of Monday talking about whether they could get the necessary four-fifths of the Senate to resurrect it.
The governor promised to call lawmakers back for a 30-day special session if they couldn't pass the fiscal bill, and suggested other issues could be added to the agenda. “We work with a different set of rules during a special session,” Perry said. That prompted speculation about whether he would ask lawmakers to reconsider a major effort at controlling Medicaid costs and interstate health compacts, drawing congressional redistricting maps, approving a ban on sanctuary cities, or rewriting the restrictions on windstorm claims against the state's insurer of last resort.
Senate Democrats, all but one of whom voted against the budget, wouldn't budge. It takes 25 of 31 senators to bring up a bill on the last day of the session and without the Democrats, the votes weren't there.
"As hard as I have tried, we have not been able to get agreement to suspend the rules, so we will be back tomorrow morning," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told the Senate after the Democrats emerged from a late-afternoon caucus.
The House spent the final day of the regular legislative session watching and waiting on the Senate. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said the lower chamber passed everything it needed to and would consider bringing up other legislation if the Senate passed the critical budget measure. “First things first,” he said. “Do we have a budget and school finance formula? And then we'll see where we go.” They didn’t go anywhere.
And that seemed to be just what the Democrats wanted. A special session, they said, would allow more time for public hearings on public education funding. And the timing of the session — after school is out — could mean more input from teachers groups and concerned parents. “We're hoping that the supporters of awful legislation will hear from their constituents — and they'll prioritize education and health and human services before their politics,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.
“Texas families expect us to be leaders for them, in spite of what the consequences may be for us personally,” Davis said during a press conference with House and Senate Democrats.
House Democratic leader Jessica Farrar, of Houston, said a special session would look bad for Perry, who is seen as a potential presidential candidate, though he has said he doesn’t want to run. “We're not in Kansas anymore,” she said.
Republicans said the Democrats made a bad strategic move. The GOP, they said, would have the upper hand during a special session, because in the Senate, the traditional two-thirds rule doesn’t apply.
Dewhurst wrote Perry this afternoon asking the governor to consider several items for the special session's "call," or agenda. And he told reporters Monday that the Senate won't put a "blocker bill" in place during the special session, erasing the normal requirement that two-thirds of the Senate agree to something before it can be debated. That will make several of those issues easier to pass, should Perry agree to add them to the call.
"Given that a small number of Senate Democrats have demonstrated their unwillingness to find consensus on these important legislative items, I can see no other alternative than to operate under a simple majority vote in the special session," he wrote in his letter to Perry.
Dewhurst's wish list would start with SB 1811, the legislation that forced the special session, and move to other issues in the days that follow. That bill raises $3.5 billion in non-tax revenue and puts in place new formulas for state funding of public schools that spread out $4 billion in reduced state aid.
Dewhurst asked Perry to consider a number of other issues, which he listed in his letter: his healthcare bill, SB 8; a Medicaid reform bill considered essential to the state budget passed last weekend, SB 23; interstate health compacts, HB 5; a ban on sanctuary cities in Texas, HB 12; the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association reforms that died during parleys between tort reformers and trial lawyers, HB 272; higher class sizes and other loosened state mandates on public schools, SB 12/HB 400; legislation restricting "intrusive touching" by security personnel at airports and other buildings, HB 1937; and congressional redistricting, HB 900/SB 308. The bill numbers are from the regular legislative session; those issues would get new numbers in a special session.
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said he'd like another crack at legislation that would loosen class-size restrictions and other state mandates on public schools. He called Davis’s filibuster a gift to Perry. “He’s the only one who can set the agenda now,” Ogden said. “You reap what you sow, so we’ll see what happens next.”
What happens next starts today.