Special Session Is In Full Swing – Education Is Coming Up Short

After Republicans finally reached agreement over the most contentious area of budget negotiations – education funding – Democrat Senator, Wendy Davis, successfully filibustered a key piece of legislation, SB 1811, and forced a special session. Governor Rick Perry called a special session on Monday, May 30. The special session began promptly at 8:00 a.m. the following morning and can last as long as 30 days. The first two items on the governor’s list are the non-revenue and school finance bill, SB 1811, and Medicaid reforms that were part of SB 23.

Democrats may have spoiled the sine die parties, but Republicans hold a majority in the House and Senate, and Governor Rick Perry has the power to determine what issues are heard during the special session. Since he first called a special session, he has already added congressional redistricting to the agenda. There is speculation that he may add a few more Republican “wish list” items that didn’t pass during the regular session, but that remains to be seen.

Democrats and third party groups are making headlines by claiming that the Legislature should use the special session to tap into the Rainy Day Fund to support public education. Texans are getting their first chance on Thursday, June 2 to testify on the school finance plan being debated in the Legislature. However, Lt. Governor Dewhurst warned that the Senate would no longer use the rule requiring two-thirds vote to bring up legislation, so any attempts to block legislation by Democrats won’t be possible.

It appears that the calls to use more from the Rainy Day Fund will continue to be ignored. Lt. Governor Dewhurst stated that “we’re not going to renegotiate the budget. We’re going to move Texas forward.” However, it is rumored that many House members are having second thoughts about the budget they already voted for and its effect on their local school districts. Odds favor that the status quo remains, and the budget that was passed during the regular session stays largely intact during the special. However, assuming that is what happens, it will be interesting to see how the large cuts from the budget play out for legislators when they get home. Legislators have reacted to a November electorate that clearly called for cuts in spending and no new taxes; but will voters be happy with the reality of these cuts? That is the question making many legislators nervous, and if there is significant blow-back from parents and other community leaders, legislators will need to start thinking about ways to restore at least some of the funding cut from this year’s budget.

Keep in mind that many of the cuts for this budget were achieved by pushing large payments to public education into the next biennium. That means next session’s legislators will face a shortfall that will likely need to be covered by an immediate injection of money from the Rainy Day Fund. That Rainy Day Fund has essentially been spent by the next legislative session. If voters demand funding for education be restored going forward, where will legislators get more money to do that and close the gap caused by the ongoing structural deficit caused by the property/franchise tax swap of 2007? That’s the multi-billion dollar question facing legislators and the state as a whole.

To read more on Texas’ special session, please visit the San Antonio Express-News and San Angelo Standard Times.

Will There Be A Special Session? Senate Leadership Thinks So, Gov. Perry Disagrees

The end of Texas’ 82nd Legislative session is May 30 – that’s just over ten days – and the Legislature continues to delay important budget measures. Finance measures that are critical to balancing the budget were delayed in the House on May 18 as lawmakers struggled to reach an agreement. “We’re one day closer to a special session,” Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said after House Appropriations Chairman, Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, postponed the House’s consideration of revenue and education bills. Part of the delay was due to the 200 pre-filed amendments to Senate Bill 1811, which is a Senate education bill that must pass to balance the budget. House leaders are hoping to convince lawmakers to withdraw the amendments before considering the legislation on May 19 – if it happens as scheduled.

Despite Senator Ogden’s pessimistic outlook on the budget wrapping up by deadline, Governor Rick Perry remains optimistic, stating a budget “absolutely” can pass before regular session ends. The main hang up is funding education. Senator Ogden stated that the two chambers should agree where they can and “then go to a special session to work on our disagreements.” Most of the quibbling is between Republicans. To that end, Representative Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, thinks the arguing is a result of the GOP “starting to understand how incredibly deep these cuts are going to go into the public education system […] Reality is sinking in.”

On Tuesday May 17, Comptroller Susan Combs raised her estimate of revenue available for 2012-12 spending by $1.2 billion; but those numbers don’t close the $4 billion gap between the House and Senate on education spending. Governor Perry is pushing the deep cuts of the House but Lt. Governor Dewhurst is siding with the Senate. There is a clear divide between the two chambers and the executive office. Inflexibility on everyone’s behalf is preventing the Texas budget from being solved with the resources at hand, and no one is actively looking for new revenues to end the stalemate … yet. So far, discussion has focused entirely on solving this year’s budget crisis, but some members, particularly in the Senate, and even outside business interests are concerned about how Texas will grapple with a similar revenue shortfall next session when further cuts and accounting measures will not be as much of an option.

To read more about the delays in the House, visit San Antonio Express and The Houston Chronicle. For details on the new revenue estimates and the budget divide, please visit Star-Telegram.

Budget Update: Senate Finally Passes Its Budget After Week Delay

The Texas Senate has finally passed its budget for the next biennium after Senate Finance Committee Chairman, Steve Ogden, has been trying to gather a two-thirds majority for days. Senate leaders decided to use a procedural maneuver to avoid the seemingly impossible two-thirds agreement in the chamber. Republicans bypassed Democratic opposition by using a special Senate rule that allows House bills to be considered on Wednesday and Thursdays only with a majority approval, and the Senate budget proposal originated in the House. Senators voted along party lines on Wednesday, May 4 with a 19-12 vote to approve the budget plan.

The delay in the Senate’s decision was caused by the Rainy Day Fund and whether or not the state should use more of the emergency money to close budget shortfalls. Republicans argued that the reserve fund should be left untouched in case there is a state emergency, but Democrats disagreed and claimed that without the money, schools and public services would be underfunded. Senator Ogden offered an amendment that removed the rainy day money from the budget, which garnered additional conservative Republican support but lost some Democrats. The compromise allowed the budget to move forward, but the Senate and House still need to review their non-tax revenue measures. Nonetheless, the Senate has remained true to its promise that it will make cuts to the budget and not raise taxes; and at least that is something the House and Senate will have in common when both chambers meet to debate the Texas budget.

Now the bill is headed to the House-Senate conference committee to be debated by select Senators and Representatives before it is sent to both chambers for final approval. However, some leaders believe the Senate has surrendered much of its bargaining power by removing the additional rainy day funding and splitting the vote along party lines. The House bill already proposes using $3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund and given the Republican majority in both houses and Governor Perry’s commitment to preserving reserve funds, it is probable that the two chambers will need to utilize new, non-tax revenue sources and not the Rainy Day Fund to close the budget deficit for the next biennium.

House Appropriations Chairman, Jim Pitts, has confirmed that members will look at non-tax revenue bills the week of May 9th. The Texas Legislature’s time is running short to dig up enough revenues without raising taxes and their list of options is short.

To read more about the budget, please visit The Statesman or Quorum Report.

House Passes Redistricting Maps And The Senate Continues Budget Debate

After much deliberation that lasted into the early morning, the House passed its redistricting map around 3:00 a.m. on Thursday, April 28 with a 92-52 vote. Legislators’ emotions peaked and the debate was heated as many of them fought to keep their legislative seat. The new maps turned several Republicans and a few Democrats against each other by pairing some of the current districts, which means two current legislators will be running against their colleague for one seat in the next election. More can be read about the long redistricting debate at The Texas Tribune’s website. The new House redistricting plan protects most of the Republican two-thirds majority, yet some Republican members want the map to increase conservative seats and limit the number of losses. However, Republican leaders have so many seats to defend that they cannot draw enough safe districts to protect every incumbent in future elections. Empower Texas has more details on the House redistricting maps.

In the other Texas chamber, the Senate Finance Committee is struggling to gain the necessary votes it needs to debate its budget plan on the Senate floor. The main reservation is the provision to use an additional portion of the state’s Rainy Day Fund to pay for more spending. The Statesman’s website provides more detail on the Senate’s budget dilemma. Governor Rick Perry has already stated he will not support additional money from the Rainy Day Fund for balancing the state budget, and the House has already proposed using $3 billion from the $9.4 billion emergency reserve to pay for the left over deficit from last biennium. The current debate over using Rainy Day Funds centers around whether the next two year budget should use these funds. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst has sent some mixed signals on the issue. His latest position seems to be that he supports using $3 billion for the budget, but only as a “contingency”. In other words, he’s betting that the news from the Comptroller will improve, and there will be no need to use these funds as the economy improves and more revenue flows into the state’s treasury over the next several months. The Senate has decided to postpone redistricting until it has passed its budget plan.

Senate Crafts Their Budget Proposal, Promising Not To Increase Taxes

Over the past few weeks, the Texas Legislature has been occupied with constructing a budget for 2012-2013 that will alleviate the current budget shortfalls and not cause problems in the future. The House passed their $164.5 billion budget on April 3, and meanwhile, the Senate has been diligently working to craft their less intense budget plan while upholding their promise not to raise taxes. The Senate budget is alleged to be close to $16 billion more than the House plan.

On Tuesday, April 19, the Senate Finance Committee unveiled $4.8 billion in ideas to help solve the budget deficit. These included anything from accelerated tax collection, property sales, changes in unclaimed property programs, and other measures that can be read in detail at the Texas Tribune’s website. The Senate is not willing to consider deep budget cuts like the House because they want to ensure there is enough funding for their top priorities: public education and Medicaid.

The Senate is set to consider whether or not to use additional funding from the Rainy Day Fund on Wednesday, April 20. However, Governor Perry has already warned he will veto any proposal that uses more money from the $9.4 billion emergency account and the House opposes the idea as well. House Appropriations Committee Chairman, Jim Pitts stated that the House may be willing to support up to $4.5 billion more than what has already been spent if it goes toward education and as long as revenue could be found without increasing taxes.

Nothing has been finalized, but the Senate is scheduled to have their budget plan complete and sent to the House by May 1, leaving bother chambers with one month to compromise. It is important to point out that both chambers of the Texas Legislature have made every effort to solve the state’s budget crisis without raising taxes for the citizens of Texas.

Tea Party Groups Speak Out On Expanding Gambling

Earlier this week, Texas Insider wrote an article following the first House Licensing Committee hearing this year. The hearing prompted an immediate response from an organized faction of five Tea Party groups who wrote a letter to Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst strongly opposing the expansion of gambling in Texas.

The Tea Party groups wrote in support of cutting wasteful spending, but stressed that using casinos and racinos to generate revenue has failed miserably in other states like Illinois, Colorado, and Maryland where revenues generated from casinos were much less than anticipated and not spent on their intended programs. It is crucial that Texas follows the pattern that history has shown and not legalizing gambling in the state because it will only lead to more serious problems in the future.

Please read the full letter and article at Texas Insider’s website.