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The 83rd Comes to Town

Lawmakers came to Austin, took their oaths, started organizing and setting the table for the 83rd time, facing legal and fiscal uncertainties in court and hearing from leaders who want to focus on water, transportation and other infrastructure.

It started with a relatively sunny fiscal forecast from Comptroller Susan Combs, who said the state will end the current budget with $8.8 billion, and that it will have $11.8 billion in the Rainy Day Fund at the end of the two years. That’s assuming lawmakers don’t use any rainy day money and that they leave that $8.8 billion alone — which is unlikely, since they’re writing a supplemental appropriations bill to cover Medicaid and other holes in the current budget.

The comptroller’s forecast was a couple of billion more positive than some of the Capitol’s budgeteers expected, fueling Gov. Rick Perry’s pitch for tax cuts or tax refunds. From the government’s standpoint — from the budgeteers’ standpoint — that’s a spending plan. And there is competition.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst took the first real crack at the supplemental bill, saying it will include $4.5 billion to finance Medicaid through the end of the fiscal year, and another $700 million to cover unexpected wildfires and health care costs in the state’s prison system. Not on his list: The $1.9 billion that would replace a missed Foundation School Plan payment in the current budget (which was balanced, in part, by moving one monthly payment at the end of the biennium by one day, into the next budget). Paying that in the supplemental bill would put the spending in the current budget. That would raise the base number that, when multiplied by the state’s adopted growth rate cap, limits how much lawmakers get to spend in the next budget.

It also doesn’t include any replacement money for education. The state’s three leaders are taking the position, for now, that public education cuts made two years ago don’t need patching right now.

Those limits might be pointless in the end; the verdict in the school finance trial that’s now underway could force lawmakers to spend more on public education, busting whatever cap they set.

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Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, wanted to be speaker of the House but showed up in a racecar with no wheels and no engine. His challenge to Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, ended with a personal privilege speech in which he vaguely referred to a culture of retribution that made it difficult to force a vote when victory was uncertain. He never fleshed out those claims, at least publicly, and Straus was elected in a voice vote without objection.

On the other end of the building, the Senate left its two-thirds rule in place — that’s the one some Republicans were worked up about — and instead made a change that takes must-pass sunset legislation out of the hands of Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat who is not beloved in the Republican Caucus. Last year, Dewhurst moved her from the top spot in the Higher Education Committee and put her in charge of Government Organization. That’s where all of the sunset legislation goes, or was, until the new rules were passed. Now those bills go to their respective jurisdictional committees, and the sponsors of those bills don’t have to solicit favorable treatment from Zaffirini, who might turn out to be the most interesting idled senator since Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock busted Ike Harris, R-Dallas, in 1991.

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Last, the three state leaders are back to their weekly breakfasts and since it’s the start of the session, it’s kumbaya time. Perry, Dewhurst and Straus agree publicly that lawmakers shouldn’t rush to spend money and that they should concentrate on infrastructure, water, transportation, education and truth in budgeting. Perry wants money for tax breaks. Dewhurst wants to save money against the school finance verdicts.

Preliminary budgets and working papers should come out next week from the Legislative Budget Board, the House and the Senate.

Texas lawmakers don’t meet for 140 days every two years — they meet during a 140-day period every two years. They take off for weekends, and more. Presidential inaugurations and holidays, for instance. Next week, they’ll meet for three days and then they’ll break for six. The week after that, they’ll hear the governor’s State of the State speech. Then they’ll name committees. Then they’ll start working on legislation.

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The special election to replace the late Mario Gallegos is underway in Houston, with early voting for the eight people — four Democrats, two Republicans, a Green and an independent — who signed up. Election Day is Saturday, January 26.

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The state Constitution doesn’t set the time for it, but it does apparently require senators to draw lots after their districts are drawn to find out who was elected to two-year terms and who was elected to four-year terms. There has been talk of waiting to see what the U.S. Supreme Court does with outstanding redistricting litigation, but tradition would have senators drawing sooner than that. Two year terms could arguably be vexing for Sens. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth. Campbell, a freshman, could face a challenge from San Antonio, where the same business community that ran over incumbent Republican Jeff Wentworth in the primaries would like to bring the seat back to their city. Davis has won twice in Republican territory, but never in a gubernatorial election year without Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.

It might not matter who draws what. The court could order changes that put all 31 Senate districts on the ballot once again in 2014, and the calculations could all change with new maps.

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83rd Legislative Session