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Host of Issues Awaits Texas Lawmakers

With the 83rd Texas legislative session beginning Tuesday, Ben Philpott of KUT News and the Tribune looks at the priorities and challenges facing legislators as they head into the 140-day lawmaking scramble.

Photo Texas Legislature House Floor

The 83rd Texas legislative session begins Tuesday. Here's a short list of the expected session priorities.

It's Always the Budget

The recession and Republican opposition to raising taxes ended with about $15 billion cut from the last budget.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

Now, state revenues are up, but Gov. Rick Perry and other leading Republicans are calling for a constitutional amendment to restrict how quickly the budget can grow.

“As a small-government conservative, I believe that government growth — if any — should be kept to the bare minimum," Perry said in a speech last year. "We have to remember there is no such thing as extra money, not when it’s coming out of the pockets of taxpayers.”

Even at Perry’s “bare minimum,” the budget should grow this session. As the state’s population grows, more people need more roads, schools and water.

Planning for the Future

Water actually got a pre-session boost from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. In a December speech, Dewhurst said he wants to use the state’s economic stabilization fund, known as the Rainy Day fund, to jump-start construction of some water management facilities like reservoirs and cross-state pipelines.

"Bring out about a billion dollars out of the Rainy Day Fund, set it up in the water infrastructure bank so that we can start helping," Dewhurst said.

But critics say it’s going to take much more than that billion to fund a comprehensive plan that keeps the water flowing amid climate change and population growth.

Education Funding in the Spotlight

Texas public education advocates are also looking for more money this session. The 2011 Legislature gave schools about $5 billion less than the state’s own per-student funding formulas would have delivered.

Advocates hope some of that money is restored this year. But major changes to how the state pays for public schools will probably wait until we get a verdict in an ongoing school finance lawsuit. That’s expected in late spring or early summer.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has already proposed a major finance change: funding private school scholarships for low-income families.

“We’re going to allow business to deduct up to 25 percent of what they would pay in the franchise tax, and that money would go to a nonprofit," he said in a press conference last year. "By doing this, we are going to give an opportunity to get a scholarship if they so choose, to send their child to that private school.”

Supporters say this would not be a school voucher, an idea that has failed in the Legislature several times over the last decade. Opponents say that, whatever you call it, it would divert money away from public schools.

What's a Democrat to Do?

Most of the 2013 session priorities are Republican items. So what about the other side of the aisle? The Democrats are the minority in Texas, so maybe the question should be: What, if anything, can they do this session?

“My mantra last session was: maintain sense of humor and try to minimize the damage," said state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin. "That’s what a lot of us have been focusing on the last couple of sessions." 

Naishtat admits it’s harder for Democrats to pass bills but said it depends on the subject. He expects bipartisan support for aging-related bills he is planning.

Power sharing also gives Democrats a chance in Austin.

“In Washington, the majority party has all the committee chairs," said the Tribune's Ross Ramsey. "And in Austin that’s not true. I expect about a third of the committee chairs in the House and something like that in the Senate will be Democrats. So they have some place of power.”

Democrats have enough votes in the Senate to block legislation if it comes to that. There are enough House Democrats, 55, to break quorum and shut down the chamber.

“I would endorse shutting down government, putting pressure on leadership for a short time in hopes of killing the bad bill or getting leadership to back off of the bill," Naishtat said.

House Democrats last used the “nuclear option” in 2003. That year they drove to Ardmore, Okla. If there’s a return trip, we'll will be there to cover it.

And I’ve already checked — Ardmore has a Starbucks.

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