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Munisteri Steps Down, Starting Sprint for Successor

Also, budget writers on both sides of the Capitol are starting work, and speculation heats up over when the House might name committees.

Steve Munisteri campaigning for Texas GOP chairman.

Word came down on Thursday evening that Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri is stepping down to advise U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is weighing a run for the White House in 2016.

His decision to step aside more than a year before his term runs out sets in motion a quick sprint to select his successor.

The election of a new chairman will take place March 7 — the day of Munisteri's resignation — in Austin at a quarterly meeting of the State Republican Executive Committee.

Munisteri told the SREC in September that he would not stay as chairman for another year. At the time, though, he was noncommittal on when he would resign. Four candidates — RPT Treasurer Tom Mechler, Republican National Committeeman Robin Armstrong, Dallas County GOP Chairman Wade Emmert and former Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill — have already announced their candidacies to succeed Munisteri.

Over the past few months, candidates have been lining up endorsements ahead of the chairman contest. The RPT said a candidate forum for the candidates would take place the night before the vote.

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Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, rolled out the chamber’s base budget this week, with hearings laying out each budget article scheduled to begin Monday.

First out of the gate will be the judiciary. The plan is to have Senate budget writers meet Monday through Thursday with Friday held in reserve if they don’t finish their work in the allotted time, Nelson said.

In other budget-related news, state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, said a big priority for House budget writers this session will be to further reduce unspent balances in dedicated fund accounts.

Last session, budget writers reduced that total by $1 billion, an effort paced by the elimination of the System Benefit Fund, a dedicated fee on utility bills that was intended to help low-income Texans pay their bills. The fund’s balance was refunded to utility ratepayers over several years and the fee was discontinued.

Darby said Tuesday at a budget briefing hosted by the Conservative Roundtable of Texas that he wants to trim by another $1 billion the overall balance in dedicated accounts.

It’ll be a little tougher since much of the “low hanging fruit” was taken last session, he said.

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Veteran House budget writer John Otto, R-Dayton, noted at the same Conservative Roundtable of Texas event that state lawmakers have discretion over about 17 percent of the state’s budget with spending levels determined elsewhere for the remaining 83 percent.

That reflects to a large degree that lawmakers have little say on setting spending levels on big cost-drivers in the budget like the Medicaid program.

In this respect, state lawmakers are in the same shoes as their federal counterparts. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the total spent on non-defense discretionary programs was 17 percent of total federal spending in 2013.

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As Senate committees start ramping up, House members are waiting for their committee assignments.

It was explained from the dais on Wednesday that the House would meet Monday through Wednesday of next week. That could suggest committee assignments might not happen until the following week. More often than not, assignments are announced on Thursday afternoons, just before members head home for the weekend.

Traditions aren’t rules, though. Nothing would prevent the speaker from dropping those assignments on a Wednesday afternoon, something that has happened once in recent years. And assignments don't have to be announced on the last day of the work week. In 2007, committee assignments were announced on a Monday.

And the House leadership gave itself some wiggle room by also announcing from the dais that next week’s work schedule is flexible.

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