With just a week to go in the 140-day legislative session, a last-minute flurry of passing bills gears up Monday as legislative leaders move to tie the final bow on the state budget and send legislation to Gov. Rick Perry for his signature.
The pace picked up Friday (the Senate alone passed 55 bills) and will continue this week. Both chambers are expected to work late into the night several days to get bills passed before impending deadlines.
But already, some lawmakers are saying a special session is likely.
“There’s probably an issue or two that the governor wanted addressed that hasn’t been addressed,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Friday night. “If he wants them addressed, we’ll be back.”
A status check of top issues:
Legislative leaders agreed early on that they wanted to spend $2 billion to create a revolving loan fund for local governments to finance water development projects. The sticking point was how to pay for it. A budget deal worked out Friday would ask voters to approve spending money from the rainy day fund. The budget deal and the ballot measure still need votes in the House and Senate.
Perry wants $1.8 billion in tax relief for Texans, but the budget deal worked out Friday includes only $1 billion: $631 million in utility fee rebates from a fund that was intended to help low-income Texans pay their electric bills plus a few hundred million dollars in business tax cuts. It remains to be seen whether Perry will use his veto authority since lawmakers came up short.
The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas apparently will survive its mishandling of three major grants, in what erupted into a statewide scandal last year. Both chambers have passed bills increasing the checks and balances, the agency’s leadership has resigned and budget conferees have recommended almost $600 million in new funding for grants. The only remaining question is whether indictments will result from the ongoing criminal investigation.
One of the most talked-about issues of the session – should Texas accept up to $100 billion in federal money over 10 years to insure up to 1.5 million low-income Texans under Medicaid – hasn’t ever had a formal vote in either house. Calling Medicaid a flawed program, GOP leaders delivered a flat “no” to expansion, then turned aside a “Texas solution” that sought to divert expansion money into private insurance.
Sen. Dan Patrick’s proposal to create tax incentives to help public school students pay for private school failed to launch. Plans to expand the number of charter schools passed the House and Senate, but a conference committee will have to work out differences in the number of charters allowed under each proposal. The House version also requires a majority of charter school governing board members be U.S. citizens.
Testing and accountability
Reducing the number of high-stakes tests needed for graduation has been a top priority for legislators, and both chambers overwhelmingly approved a bill that drops the required end-of-course exams from 15 to five. House Bill 5 also radically changes graduation plans with the aim of giving students more flexibility. Some people — including Perry — worry Texas would be weakening its academic standards.
To shore up the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, school and university employees will gradually increase their contributions, as will the state and school districts. The Senate established a minimum retirement age of 62 for employees with fewer than five years of service, while the House exempted all current employees from the change to retirement eligibility. The changes are expected to improve the financial footing of the fund enough to allow for a 3 percent pension boost for some retirees.
Similar pension changes have been proposed for the Employees Retirement System of Texas. All current employees will be grandfathered from the new minimum retirement age in the legislation that has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House. State employees will receive an across-the-board raise for the first time since 2008: 1 percent in the first year and another 2 percent the next years.
The session generally has been good for Second Amendment advocates. Concealed-handgun licensing courses have been expedited, more judges and prosecutors have been authorized to carry concealed weapons, including off-duty — several high-profile gun bills are stuck in the Senate after passing the House by a wide margin: campus-carry legislation, and bills that would limit state and local police enforcement of new federal firearms laws.
In response to last December’s Connecticut school massacre, bills to ramp up school security with special marshals and to provide state training for school security personnel appear headed to the governor. Proposals to put more armed people in schools in case a gunman opened fire did not pass, nor did a proposal to allow school districts to raise taxes to bolster security.
Public Integrity Unit
A push by some House GOP conservatives to strip the Public Integrity Unit — the state’s chief ethics enforcement office — from the Travis County district attorney’s office has failed to move several times. But in the final week, look for attempts to move the office or cut off its funding in the wake of DA Rosemary Lehmberg’s drunken driving conviction.
Attorney General Greg Abbott wants the Legislature to approve the court-drawn maps for legislative boundaries, to forestall additional litigation. Democrats who challenged the original GOP maps in court, but benefited from the court maps, are resisting.
Proposals for destination resort casinos, slot machines and increased gambling failed to gain traction. Despite a short-lived move by the House to abolish the Texas Lottery, it will survive in good shape.
The two most controversial measures haven’t received a vote in either house. The Preborn Pain Act, seeking to ban abortions after the 20th week, when supporters say a fetus can begin feeling pain, passed a House committee but has not been scheduled for a floor vote. And Senate Democrats bottled up a bill requiring abortion facilities to be certified as ambulatory surgical centers.
Bills to ban smoking in most public places in Texas, as well as a measure to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21, went up in smoke this session. None received a vote in committee, the first step in the legislative process.
Drug-testing welfare recipients
The House has until Tuesday to vote on a Senate-passed bill requiring drug tests for welfare recipients who fail a drug screen or have a felony drug conviction. Three failed tests would result in a lifetime ban on welfare, though benefits for children would continue through a “protective payee,” typically a relative.
The bill, by Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, would prohibit cities from enacting ordinances banning single-use plastic and paper bags. He said the bill was inspired by the City of Austin, which enacted a bag ban this spring. Springer’s bill died in the House on May 10 when it hit a key deadline without a floor vote. Springer could try to attach his proposal to another bill, but chances of that are thinner than a single-ply plastic sack.
University construction bonds
Lawmakers seem poised to approve the first major round of construction bonds for public universities since 2006. The Senate has approved $2.4 billion in bonds for dozens of projects. The House Appropriations Committee approved a similar package Friday, with the full House scheduled to take up the matter Monday. The list includes $95 million for an engineering education and research center at the University of Texas.
Top 10 percent law
The University of Texas wants continued wiggle room under the state’s automatic-admission law and will likely get it. Under current law, the university doesn’t have to accept all applicants who rank in the top 10 percent of their Texas high school class — discretion that will evaporate after the 2015-16 academic year. House Bill 1843 by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, would extend UT’s power through 2017-18.
The state’s higher education agency has had a tough session. Both chambers, responding to complaints from universities, voted to strip the coordinating board of its authority to shut down low-producing degree and certificate programs at public universities and community colleges. The provision is part of so-called sunset legislation that would keep the agency operating for 12 more years.
Lawmakers don’t like the way the University of Texas System Board of Regents has been treating UT-Austin and its president, Bill Powers. A measure passed by both chambers and sent to the governor would scale back the power of all boards of regents. For example, regents could not fire a campus president without a recommendation to do so by the system’s chancellor. No word yet from Perry’s camp on whether he’ll veto the effort to trim the authority of his appointees.
Perry wants students at public universities to have the option of paying the same tuition rate all four years. A measure working its way through the Legislature would require schools to offer the option, but it’s not clear Perry would sign it. The reason: The Senate version includes language limiting the power of regents, including their ability to dismiss campus presidents.