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Budget Negotiators Push Toward Final Agreements

Also, several bills were sent Thursday to the governor's desk and a union dues bill heats up the Texas House.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, confers with State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, during a point of order called on House...

A key breakthrough happened Thursday on the emerging compromise for this session's tax relief package. The House's tax writing panel, Ways and Means, gave its approval to a $10,000 increase in the residential homestead exemption.

The House, though, moved back the special election needed to make this happen to November. Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said, though, that this move would not preclude tax relief for both years of the budget cycle. There was some initial worry that not holding a September election, as initially called for under the Senate plan, would make it difficult to update property tax bills.

With this issue seemingly resolved, the chambers have taken another step closer to resolving all outstanding issues on the budget. On Wednesday, budget conferees announced final agreements on funding levels for public education, border security and Medicaid.

Budget conferees, meanwhile, met Thursday evening in what House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, said would be the final meeting of the conferees.

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Legislation that would allow the attorney general to request a special three-judge panel to hear litigation involving school finance and redistricting challenges was sent to the governor this week.

As House sponsor Mike Schofield, R-Katy, explained several times during floor debate, SB 455 has its roots in Republican frustration that a district judge in predominately Democratic Travis County has heard the most recent school finance challenges.

Democrats in the House this week tried a couple of times to insert modifying language, one time to guarantee the presence of a Travis County judge and another time to have the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court to recuse himself.

Both efforts failed.

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Another bill that touched off partisan tensions this week was over SB 1968, which would end an automatic payroll deduction for most public employees’ union dues.

House Democrats moved on Tuesday to block a public hearing on the bill requested by State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana. The move didn’t kill the legislation. It just eliminated the ability of people on both sides of the bill to testify publicly.

Democrats the next day relented and allowed Cook to schedule the hearing, which took place on Thursday. It was left pending after the committee took testimony.

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The House on Thursday named its conferees on HB 100, which would authorize a new round of tuition revenue bonds to support the construction of new buildings at colleges and universities across the state.

Those conferees are: John Zerwas (chair), R-Richmond; Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin; Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches; Donna Howard, D-Austin; and John Otto, R-Dayton.

Senate conferees are expected to be named soon.

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Other bills headed to the governor’s desk include:

•    HB 4, which creates a grant program to improve the quality of pre-kindergarten programs in the state.

•    HB 942, which calls for increased facility inspections and tighter storage regulations to reduce accidents in the fertilizer industry, such as the 2013 explosion that killed 15 people and caused extensive damage to the city of West.

It will also shift the task of collecting hazardous chemical reports from the Department of State Health Services, which is currently responsible, to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

•    SB 1902, which would seal the criminal records of some one-time offenders who stay out of further trouble, making them unsearchable by the general public.

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The House on Thursday morning set calendars for both Saturday and Sunday. One of the highlights is SB 200, the HHSC Sunset bill, which would consolidate three of the biggest health and human services agencies. It was placed on the Sunday calendar.

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