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Straus: Next Budget May Not Be as Easy as the Last Couple

Also, Greg Abbott maintains the state's hard line against Iran and a special election is on tap for next week to fill a House vacancy.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus was interviewed by Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith at The Texas Tribune Fest…

With oil prices plummeting, House Speaker Joe Straus on Thursday acknowledged the effect that could have in crafting the next state budget.

"This next one may not be as easy as the last couple. For starters, our revenue outlook is tightening," Straus said during a keynote at the Texas Association of Business' annual conference in Austin. "This is still Texas, and a sharp decline in oil prices will affect our state’s revenue."

He added, "I see no reason to panic although it might have helped if Comptroller Hegar had won the Powerball the other night, but the oil market is worth watching."

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Following his tour of Israel, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter Wednesday to Texas retirement agencies informing them that they are still prohibited from investing in Iran, despite President Barack Obama's announcement last week that the U.S. is lifting sanctions against the Middle Eastern country.

“These sanctions have and will continue to ensure that Texas does its part to prevent taxpayer dollars from aiding and abetting a country that is openly hostile to the United States and its allies abroad,” Abbott wrote.

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A special commission lawmakers created last year to recommend new approaches to student assessment and school accountability met for the first time Wednesday.

Staff from the Texas Education Agency briefed the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessment and Accountability on the evolution of the state’s various testing and accountability regimes. The 15-member panel — made up of lawmakers, advocacy groups, academics, business people and officials from both traditional and charter schools — also took invited testimony from a Harvard University education professor.

Commission Chairman Andrew Kim, the superintendent of the Comal independent school district in New Braunfels, said the panel will meet five more times and likely take public testimony at its next meeting.

The commission must deliver recommendations to the governor and Legislature by Sept. 1.

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On Tuesday, Bexar County voters will choose between Republican John Lujan and Democrat Tomas Uresti to fill the HD-118 seat that has been vacant since the August resignation of Joe Farias.

The opportunity to fill via a special election what is normally a safely Democratic seat with a Republican has attracted the attention of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a national organization dedicated to electing Republican state legislators.

The RSLC’s legislative campaign committee, by the way, is chaired by Straus, also a Bexar County state representative.

"With [Lujan's] background as a local firefighter and a small businessman, John is a great fit for the Texas House,” Straus in a statement released by the RSLC. “I'm grateful that he has stepped forward to serve, and I look forward to welcoming him to our local delegation in the Texas House."

Even if Lujan wins this month, his tenure could end up short-lived. He would still need to win his party primary and the general election contest where the normal demographic advantages enjoyed by the Democratic challenger would accrue.

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The Empower Texans PAC, the campaign arm of the conservative group that has a history of playing a role in Republican primaries, has for years received the majority of its funds from Midland oil man Tim Dunn.

The group, though, this time is reporting that most of its funding over the final half of 2015 is coming from a different West Texas oil man.

The group's latest report includes a Dec. 15 contribution of $500,000 from billionaire Farris Wilks, or 70 percent of the PAC's $714,426 haul.

The donation is the latest escalation of the Cisco-based Wilks family's political involvement. Last year, Farris Wilks, along with his brother Dan, and their wives gave $15 million to a super PAC backing Ted Cruz's bid for the White House.

The Wilks brothers made their fortune during the fracking boom of the last decade.

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Bedford pastor Scott Fisher has received help from a handful of current and former state lawmakers in his challenge to tea party firebrand Jonathan Stickland in the HD-92 primary contest in Tarrant County.

Among those giving money to Fisher in late 2015: Patricia Harless, R-Spring ($5,000), John Otto, R-Dayton ($2,000) as well as former lawmakers Rob Orr ($1,000), Vicki Truitt ($1,000) and John Carona ($2,500).

Harless and Otto announced earlier this year that they are not running for re-election.

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Billed as an opportunity “to see the Republican Party return to its conservative roots,” a collection of socially conservative organizations and their allies is teaming up on a series of training sessions aimed at making their influence felt at this summer’s state party convention.

All three training sessions are being held in Houston-area churches. The first took place Monday in Humble with subsequent events taking place yesterday in Pasadena and on Tuesday in Spring.

On a related note, former Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill has yet to say whether he’s running again for the top spot at the Republican Party of Texas. But according to Conservative Republicans of Texas Founder Steve Hotze, Woodfill’s already made up his mind.

In a note to his supporters promoting those “Take Back our Party” rallies, Hotze refers to Woodfill as a candidate for the job and adds that Cathie Adams, who served as interim party chair from 2009-10, is running for the position of vice chair.

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Abbott has set May 7 for the special election to fill the House seat recently vacated by Sylvester Turner.

Candidates looking to get on the special election ballot have until March 7 to do so. Early voting begins April 25.

Turner resigned his HD-139 seat in order to be sworn in as Houston mayor.

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State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, announced late last week that he has agreed to pay a $500 fine to the Texas Ethics Commission arising from a complaint about his disclosure of gas reimbursements.

In a statement, Hinojosa wrote, "At no point were campaign funds ever used for personal use, and all reimbursements were made on a good faith estimate on mileage ... While I disagree with their conclusions, I respect the decision of the Ethics Commission and agree to pay the $500 fine to resolve this case without further proceedings, as well as to make modifications to my mileage record-keeping accordingly."

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