After 140 days, the 83rd session of the Texas Legislature ended Monday to applause, handshakes and hugs.
With a hard-fought, $197 billion budget in hand — the only must-pass legislation under the state Constitution — House Speaker Joe Straus gavelled out first, terming it “a very smooth session.” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst followed shortly before 5:30 p.m., calling it “a very good session.”
Moments later, Gov. Rick Perry called a special session, affording little time to reflect on the accomplishments, or lack thereof, of the regular session:
Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act will not happen in Texas.
Democrats pushed hard to accept up to $100 billion in federal money to insure more than 1 million low-income Texans for 10 years. Republicans pushed back, calling Medicaid a flawed system that would buckle under the added strain. The end came late in the session when a Medicaid reform bill was amended to bar Texas from expanding its Medicaid eligibility rules.
Abortion opponents whiffed this session, gaining no traction on 19 bills to tighten rules or limit access to the procedure, prompting calls to include abortion-related bills in the special session.
For low-income women, $100 million was set aside for primary health care, including contraceptives. It remains unclear, however, how much of that money will be dedicated to family planning. Steep funding cuts in 2011 resulted in an estimated 23,760 Medicaid-paid births to low-income women who lost contraceptive coverage.
Faced with a backlash from parents over standardized testing, lawmakers reduced from 15 to five the number of end-of-course exams needed to graduate from high school.
The uniform 4x4 graduation plan — four years each of math, science, social studies and English — will be replaced with more flexible options that allow students, particularly those not bound for college, discretion in choosing a course of study. They will select an “endorsement,” such as Business and Industry or STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — as a specialty on top of the foundational courses.
For the first time since charter schools were authorized in 1995, there will be new room for the privately managed public schools to expand in Texas. Legislators also gave the Texas Education Agency greater authority to crack down on low-performing charters.
Efforts to provide public school students scholarships or vouchers to attend private school failed to gain traction.
It was a tough session for the University of Texas System Board of Regents, which drew the ire of lawmakers for what many called micromanagement of the Austin flagship and its president, Bill Powers. Legislators did a bit of micromanaging of their own, imposing spending restrictions on UT board travel, food and meeting expenses, as well as on investigations of the system’s 15 academic and health campuses.
Other limits on boards of regents — for example, they could no longer fire a president without a recommendation from the system chancellor — were passed, but could be thwarted by a governor’s veto.
Lawmakers authorized a new UT System university with a medical school in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, allowed UT-Austin to continue limiting admission of top 10 percent students through the 2017-18 academic year and approved Perry’s three nominees to the UT board after they promised they wouldn’t try to oust Powers.
Perry got what what he wanted on tuition policy: a measure requiring universities to offer students the option of a fixed rate for four years.
Teachers and state workers
State employees will receive a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise over the next two years. Correctional officers, troopers and direct care workers in state hospitals or state-supported living centers get bigger raises because of high turnover rates.
Changes to retirement eligibility and increased pension contributions will shore up the financial condition of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and the Employees Retirement System of Texas. TRS members who have been retired since 2004 will be in line for a 3 percent boost in their pension checks.
The Legislature approved transferring $2 billion of rainy day fund money into a low-interest loan program that will help local governments build desalination projects, pipelines and other water projects over the next half-century. But first, voters will have to approve the program.
In a related move, the Legislature decided to remake the state Water Development Board, the agency charged with overseeing water project loans, ousting its executive administrator and replacing the volunteer board with salaried, full-time commissioners. The new board, like the current one, will be appointed by the governor.
A raft of looser gun laws was approved, including bills that shorten the time needed to obtain a concealed-handgun license and that allow Texans to renew those licenses online.
A controversial proposal to allow concealed weapons inside college and university campus buildings did not pass and may well return in a special session. Even so, another measure allowing concealed-handgun license holders to store a gun in the trunk of their vehicle on college campuses did pass.
Also killed was a bill allowing legislators, judges, prosecutors and other officials to carry a concealed handgun almost anywhere they choose.
Lawmakers approved an overhaul of Texas’ massive corrections system to focus more efforts on the successful reintegration of felons when they leave prison. Two private prisons will be closed because the number of prisoners keeps dropping,
A controversial move to buy an empty West Texas lockup, even though more than 12,000 state prison beds are now empty, failed after weeks of back-and-forth arguments, as did a proposal to undo 20-year-old reforms and return parole supervision to the state Parole Board from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Transparency was one of the session’s themes, with lawmakers reforming the state’s cancer-fighting agency and its supporting foundation, as well as focusing on ties between the University of Texas School of Law and its supporting foundation.
A watered-down ethics reform bill streamlines operations of the Texas Ethics Commission, limits politicians from spending campaign contributions for most lobbying for two years after they retire and includes a disputed study on whether the Public Integrity Unit should be moved from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.
A separate “dark money” measure, requiring some politically active nonprofits to disclose their major donors, was vetoed by Perry.
Let Texans Decide, a racetrack group that pushed for resort casinos and gaming at horse and dog tracks, invested heavily in the pro-gambling effort by hiring high-dollar lobbyist and former state Sen. John Montford — who was paid between $250,000 and $299,000 in 2013. State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, also made push for expanded gambling.
But just like last session, and many others before it, gambling legislation failed to go anywhere.
Immigration was a hot topic in the Legislature in 2011. This time, not so much.
There were, however, attempts to address an unexpected consequence of a provision that passed in 2011, requiring proof of legal residency to renew a driver’s license. To protect legal drivers from uninsured motorists, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, tried repeatedly — though unsuccessfully — to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a drivers’ permit and get insurance.
An unsolicited proposal for a 47-story tower at the Capitol Complex prompted the Legislature to require legislative approval for any future public-private partnership (P3) projects in the complex. The Legislature also authorized $325 million in bonds for two new office buildings, one at the North Austin health services complex and one in the Capitol Complex.
The Texas Facilities Commission was continued for two years. That bill includes language requiring P3 projects on state lands to go through local zoning. If there is a zoning dispute, a five-member panel with three state officials and the mayor and county judge will resolve the issue.
Bills that did not pass
• A ban on texting and emailing while driving, vetoed last session by Perry, passed the House but died in the Senate.
• A ban on smoking in most public places and a proposal to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco died in their various committees.
• A proposed constitutional amendment to set a two-term limit for the governor and other statewide officeholders fell far short of the needed House support.
• Classifying anorexia and other eating disorders as a serious mental illness that must be covered by health insurance passed the House after more than a decade of futility — then didn’t get out of committee in the Senate.
• A measure to address end-of-life medical care disputes, particularly when doctors believe it is time to let a patient die but family members disagree, was doomed in the House when conservative Republicans and Texas Right to Life objected.
• A bill limiting Austin’s ability to assess fees against landowners who remove mature trees from the land failed, as did a fee on electric vehicles based on miles traveled on public roads to make up for lost gas tax revenue.
• A drug-testing program for first-time applicants for unemployment benefits passed, but a similar program for welfare recipients was killed by House Democrats.
• The use of aerial drones to photograph Texans on private property could be a misdemeanor, with a fine of up to $500, unless engaged in law enforcement, military operations, firefighting, covering breaking news, responding to hazardous spills and other exemptions.
• The Michael Morton Act, named for the former Williamson County man who served almost 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, will give defendants greater access to prosecution files before trial. Morton took part in marathon negotiations on behalf of the law.
• A ban on sugary drinks in public elementary and middle school vending machines.
• The “Merry Christmas” bill clarifies that public school students, teachers and staff may say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” and offer other traditional holiday greetings, as well as display Christmas trees, nativity scenes and menorahs.
• The Equal Pay Act would give employees more time to pursue pay discrimination claims in state courts but limit the recovery of back pay to the previous two years.