Lawmakers fear agency closures at risk without special session


Highlights

With Sunset bill dead in the House, Straus asked Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to push for passage of Senate version.

Conservatives are urging Patrick to extract concessions from the more moderate Straus.

Negotiations on the budget are progressing, with senators agreeing to tap the rainy day fund.

State lawmakers are worried that last week’s insurrection by tea party-aligned Republicans, which killed hundreds of House bills, might have jeopardized a procedural measure needed to keep some state agencies open.

The struggle to pass what is known as the Sunset Commission scheduling bill is the epitome of legislative inside baseball, but it could play a key role in negotiations over such high-profile issues as transgender bathroom access and the state budget.

With the House version of the sunset bill now dead, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, on Monday asked fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to resurrect it by having the Senate quickly pass its version and send it to the House before a procedural deadline arrives at the end of the week.

Conservatives, however, are urging Patrick to use his power over the bill as leverage to either extract concessions from the more moderate Straus on issues important to the socially conservative wing of the GOP or to force Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session when those issues could take center stage. The regular session ends on Memorial Day.

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House Bill 3302, which would have extended the life of some state agencies set to expire soon under Texas’ Sunset Commission review process, was one casualty of what became known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre,” in which members of the self-styled Freedom Caucus killed hundreds of their colleagues’ proposals by slowing down the House’s work as key bill-passing deadlines passed.

The only hope for the measure is now Senate Bill 310 by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano. The Senate, which initially planned to wait for the House bill to be approved before taking up the measure, hasn’t held a hearing on the bill.

In a letter to Patrick, Straus said he is confident a special session can be avoided if the Legislature adopts two bills: Taylor’s bill and the state budget, SB 1, which is being negotiated by lawmakers from the House and Senate.

“The House wants to finish all of our work in the regular session, and we believe that goal is well within reach,” Straus wrote.

Patrick didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Abbott on Tuesday told reporters that his office and legislative leaders “are working diligently around the clock” to make progress on major priorities without the need for a special session. He said those priorities include property tax reforms and some version of the transgender bathroom bill.

“We are on a pathway where those priorities can be addressed during the regular session, and it’s just a matter of getting everybody on the same page,” he said.

Sunset stalemate

The Texas Sunset Commission periodically reviews all state agencies to decide whether they should continue to exist and, if so, make recommendations for improving them.

The Sunset scheduling measure, called the “safety net” bill, extends the charter of agencies that are set to expire but haven’t yet been reviewed and recommended for continuation.

Most major agencies get their own Sunset reauthorization bills. The House, for instance, on Tuesday approved one for the Texas Department of Transportation.

But some smaller state entities, like the Texas Real Estate Commission, could fall through the cracks if the Sunset scheduling bill fails.

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In holding up the House agenda last week, the Freedom Caucus specifically targeted the Sunset bill, said Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, a member of the caucus.

“We accomplished our mission,” he said.

Leach said he hoped the wrench the caucus has thrown in the end-of-session negotiations will bring the House to the table on Patrick-prioritized bills that limit local government’s ability to raise property taxes, prohibit transgender Texans from using the bathrooms that correspond to their gender identities and make it harder to get abortions.

As for whether a special session will be required to tackle those issues, Leach said, “I haven’t packed clothes to last me beyond the next two weeks.”

Budget progress

The potential derailment of the Sunset bill comes as House and Senate negotiators are making progress on the other must-pass item identified by Straus: the state budget for 2018 and 2019.

A key question is how to settle the chambers’ different approaches to coming up with an additional $2.5 billion to lessen the severity of cuts during a tight budget year.

The House version of the budget pulls $2.5 billion from the state’s $10.2 billion rainy day fund, while the Senate opted to delay a $2.5 billion payment to the state highway fund until the following budget cycle.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, the chamber’s top budget writer, said he and his Senate counterpart, Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, are now looking at using some money from the rainy day fund, formally known as the Economic Stabilization Fund, as well as employing the transportation payment deferral. The details haven’t yet been agreed upon, Zerwas said.

“She’s definitely open to using (the Economic Stabilization Fund) to help finance the bill,” Zerwas said about SB 1, the budget. Nelson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The emerging agreement would settle a key dispute over the budget. Zerwas said the main sticking point is now higher education funding, which the Senate’s budget cut severely and the House left mostly as is.



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