Agenda Texas: What's Left to Do?
On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: Water, transportation and education were priorities at the beginning of this year's legislative session, but how much progress has been made on each?
When the Texas legislative session started in January, lawmakers came to Austin with money to spend and a specific set of priorities. House Speaker Joe Straus laid out those goals during an opening press conference with Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
“We’re off to a very good united start, agreeing that education and transportation and water are all very, very important items for the future of this growing state," Straus said in January.
But with less than three weeks left in the session, many of the those goals remain unfinished. To find out what’s left to do, I talked with reporters who specialize in the topics Straus laid out.
Let’s start with water and KUT’s StateImpact Texas reporter Terrence Henry, who said that despite an ongoing drought, "there is a lot left to do with water this session.”
The big plan this session was to spend a couple billion dollars from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to pay for a water infrastructure bank. But the Senate wants voters to decide with a constitutional amendment whether or not to spend the money. The House doesn’t like that idea, but also doesn’t have the votes needed to crack the Rainy Day Fund.
“So the question right now is, well, we’ve only got a couple of weeks left — this is a major funding item, how’s it going to happen? Is it going to get tacked onto something else?" Henry said. "Or is this going to be something where we really don’t see it come together until the clock is approaching midnight on the last day of the session?”
So lots to do on water. And the news isn’t much better from Texas Tribune public education reporter Morgan Smith.
"If you look at end results, everything is still left to be done on education," Smith said.
The House and Senate have each passed legislation on major policy this session, from testing to charter schools and even restoring some of the $5.4 billion cut from public education in 2011. But on each topic the House and Senate have passed significantly different bills.
“And so representatives from both chambers are going to go into conference committee to work out those differences, and then there’s always the question of whether or not the governor is going to be pleased that," Smith said.
And while we’re talking about gridlock, we might as well focus on transportation, which was made a pre-session priority after the Texas Department of Transportation announced it needed about $4 billion extra each year just to maintain the current level of road congestion.
And with less than three weeks left, Tribune transportation reporter Aman Batheja said the agency isn't going to get its money.
“The Senate passed a bill to take $2.9 billion out of the Rainy Day Fund for transportation," Batheja said. "The House has not shown an interest in taking up that bill. In general the House has shown less of an interest in putting money toward transportation this session then the Senate or Gov. Perry."
So what could happen in the last few days? One bill would make sure more of the state’s gas tax actually goes to roads. Another would dedicate future taxes collected on car sales to roads.
“Both those measures would not get us anywhere near $4 billion a year," Batheja said.
Perry recently said he’d call a 30-day special session if his priorities — water and roads — don’t pass. Perry added he also wants to see about $1.6 billion in business tax cuts. The House and Senate have responded with tweaks to the state’s franchise tax.
“But none of that comes close to $1.6 billion," Batheja said. "And given the other budget constraints this session, I don’t get the sense that either the House or Senate is really interested in doing that much tax relief."
So Perry’s 0 for 4, with time running out.
Has your favorite bill made it to the governor’s desk yet? What would make you call lawmakers back to Austin for a special session? Let us know at AgendaTexas@kut.org, and we’re on Twitter: @AgendaTexas.
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