83rd Legislative Session

Straus calls third special session unnecessary

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus doesn’t appear to be on board with Gov. Rick Perry’s plans to call another special session. In a statement released following today’s vote, Straus said lawmakers made it clear the bill being considered doesn’t do enough to solve the state’s transportation woes. “Texas needs a much more comprehensive approach to funding our growing state’s growing transportation needs, and another 30-day special session will not change that,”  he said.

Here is Rep. Straus’ statement in its entirety.

“I would like to thank the Members who worked so diligently in an effort to address some of our transportation needs during these two special sessions. As today’s vote shows, Members have become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of diverting and indefinitely dedicating funds away from the Rainy Day Fund to roads.  These funds were never intended to be a stable, long-term way to address our transportation needs.

“Diverting a capped amount of money from the Rainy Day fund to repair roads is much like using a Band-Aid to cover a pothole; in the end, you still have a pothole and you’ve spent a lot of money without solving the fundamental problem.  Legislators know that Texas needs a much more comprehensive approach to funding our growing state’s growing transportation needs, and another 30-day special session will not change that. Until members are free to consider real options – beyond simply shuffling taxes from one purpose to another – we will not find a responsible solution to this issue.

“One of the hallmarks of this year’s regular legislative session was the way legislators came together to develop long-term, responsible policies to meet Texas’ growing needs. Developing a similar long-term, responsible plan to truly address Texas’ growing transportation needs is going to take much more time and an approach that focuses on the best solution for the people of Texas.”

Perry calls House transportation vote ‘disappointing’

Gov. Rick Perry had promised to call lawmakers back for a third special session if they failed to pass transportation funding. It appears now, he might follow through with that threat.

The House Monday voted down the proposed constitutional amendment.  It is not clear if the bill’s supporters will be able to get the 16 votes necessary to reconsider the proposed constitutional amendment.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst seems to have the support and is waiting for members to return to town before taking it up. Dewhurst announced Monday that the Senate would take up the measure Tuesday.

Gov. Perry issued this statement:

“It is disappointing that some members of the House today needlessly delayed our state’s ability to deal with the added strain our increasing population and surging economy are placing on our roads and highways. Should the Legislature adjourn without addressing our growing transportation needs, they’ll be abdicating one of the most essential roles of state government, potentially sapping our economic momentum.

This was an opportunity to utilize hundreds of millions of dollars in existing revenue to move forward on numerous projects across our state and begin dealing with the effects of our economic growth, and just as importantly, provide much-needed relief to working Texans everywhere who spend hours in traffic every day. Legislators have been in Austin for nearly seven months now, and to go home without dealing with one of the most pressing issues facing all Texans is simply unacceptable. I join Texans across the state who appreciate the 84 members of the House who voted today to keep Texas moving.”

House defeats transportation bill

The Texas House of Representatives Monday failed to approve a proposed constitutional amendment to funnel more money into transportation. House Joint Resolution 2 was defeated 84 – 40, falling far short of the 100 votes needed to get it on the November 2014 ballot.

The Senate and House had been at odds over how best to come up with that money, without raising taxes or fees. The final compromise would would funnel about $848 million into future road projects by diverting money that currently goes into the Rainy Day Fund into transportation. A major point of contention has been the idea of a trigger point, or minimum balance, for the state’s savings account.

While they failed to pass the main bill, lawmakers did approve a key provision to the final deal. HB 16 gives the Legislative Budget Board the power to set the minimum balance every two years, as opposed to adding a hard and fast dollar amount to the state’s constitution. The Senate also approved that provision. They seem to be at least one vote short, however, of signing off on the final deal.

 

 

Senate passes key part of transportation funding plan

After some tense exchanges over a minimum balance, and with barely enough members to form a quorum, the Senate managed to approve part of a plan to direct more money to the state’s transportation needs.

House Bill 16 would allow the Legislative Budget Board to set a minimum balance for the state’s Rainy Day Fund, and it would authorize a joint panel to look into how transportation money is being spent. The bill passed by a vote of 19-4.

Sen. Dan Patrick was one of two lawmakers who spoke against the bill.

“I do not want to see our state in the future not have a reserve fund for economic issues, which it was designed for,” Patrick said.

The Senate had approved a previous version of the bill that included a minimum balance, or floor, in the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which would cut off the redirection of money to the State Highway Fund if the balance fell below $6 billion. That amendment, by Sen. Patrick, was eventually scrapped, a move Sen. Patrick referred to as “caving.”

Sen. Robert Nichols defended the change, saying it was a conservative bill with built-in protections.

“There seems to be a misinterpretation that when we vote on this, that we’re giving power to the LBB to spend out of the Rainy Day Fund,” Nichols said. “If you continue to put money in there, and you don’t take money out, that’s your protection.”

Meanwhile, Senators still have to approve the main part of the plan. House Joint Resolution 2 is the mechanism that would split half of the money bound for the Rainy Day Fund into the State Highway Fund. If passed, it would go before voters in November 2014.

Hearings set to consider Wallace Hall Jr. impeachment

Impeachment hearings for University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall Jr. will begin at the State Capitol. The House Transparency Committee today voted to move forward with proceedings to determine if Hall abused his authority.

The resolution, filed by Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, alleges Regent Hall broke state law by not revealing potential business conflicts when applying for the UT Board position. The same measure also says the regent is abusing his authority by making unnecessary open records requests, targeting UT President Bill Powers. 

The hearings could begin as early as late August or early September. A witness list will include the UT Chancellor, Hall and President Bill Powers among others. A special prosecutor will be appointed by the committee as well as an investigator. There have only been two successful impeachments in Texas history.

 

Lawmakers make transportation breakthrough

A standoff over transportation funding appears to be over. Friday, lawmakers reached a deal that will funnel about $845 million dollars into future road projects. The Senate and House had been at odds over how best to come up with that money, without raising taxes or fees.

The final deal is similar to the plan already passed by the Texas Senate. It would divert half the oil and gas production revenue that currently goes into the Rainy Day Fund into transportation.

The major sticking point during negotiations had been over whether the Rainy Day Fund should have a minimum balance, meaning the funding for roads would dry up if the fund dropped below a certain level. In the deal worked out today, the Legislative Budget Board would manage that detail.

Of course, the entire deal is dependent on the voters. They would have to approve a constitutional amendment to make the changes. As part of the deal, lawmakers agreed to push that vote until November, 2014. Voters will already be casting ballots on another constitutional amendment this year to fund water.

The House and Senate are set to reconvene on Monday to approve the deal.

Branch announces for attorney general

Republican Rep. Dan Branch formally announced his candidacy for Texas attorney general Tuesday. Branch, who represents the Dallas area, made his plans known at Southern Methodist University.

Branch has served in the Texas House since 2003. He is an attorney who formerly worked for the Texas Supreme Court. He has promised to fight federal regulations and decrease the number of frivolous lawsuits in Texas.

Branch will face fellow Republican and current Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman in the GOP primary. State Sen. Ken Paxton is also rumored to be planning a run for the seat.

Of the three, Branch has raised the most money, with $4 million in his campaign war chest.

Republicans are vying for the seat that is soon to be vacated by Attorney General Greg Abbott. Abbott announced earlier this month that he would run for governor. That announcement came on the heels of Gov. Rick Perry’s decision not to run for reelection.

So far, no Democrats have filed for statewide office.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

House rallies support for transportation funding amendment

The Texas House has formally approved a plan that would funnel $800 million into Texas roads. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Pickett,  would change the way gasoline tax is distributed. Currently, five cents of the 20-cent gas tax goes to pay for public education. Under this plan, all 25 cents would be funneled into transportation projects. The education money would be made up, elsewhere.

Transportation funding was all but passed last special session, but the bill ultimately died after it was placed on the Senate calendar after the abortion bill. As a result of Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster, a final vote never took place.

The legislation is now headed to the Senate, which has already approved its own version of the bill. The Senate resolution, however, includes some key differences. Notably, the bill guarantees that $6 billion will remain in the Rainy Day Fund. House Democrats have vowed to block such a provision.

Voters would still have to approve either plan.

Perry signs controversial abortion reform bill

Gov. Rick Perry has signed into law new stricter abortion regulations. Among other things, the law will ban abortion after 20 weeks and require upgrades to existing abortion clinics.

Clinics have until September of 2014 to transform their operations into surgical centers. Opponents say the expensive upgrades, along with a component of the bill requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, will force all but five of the state’s 42 existing clinics to close.

Supporters of the legislation have maintained that the regulations will help improve safety and women’s health. “This is an important day for those who support life and for those who support the health of Texas women,” said Gov. Perry.

The abortion legislation has sparked weeks of protests at the State Capitol. Lawmakers failed to pass the bill during the first special session. Sen. Wendy Davis’ 11 hour filibuster and outbursts from the Senate gallery pushed the vote past the midnight deadline. Republicans were able to easily push the through legislation last week. The law officially takes effect in October.

 

Battleground Texas raised $1.1 million in effort to turn Texas blue

Battleground Texas announced Monday it raised $1.1 million dollars in its effort to to shift the state’s political landscape. The organization, whose mission is to make Texas competitive in state and national politics, launched in February. Its staff includes some of the architects of President Obama’s presidential campaigns.

Officials say they’ve received donations from more than 3,500 individuals. Most of the money was raised in small amounts, with an average contribution of about $45. Organizers say the numbers underscore the strong grassroots showing. “It’s really remarkable the kind of grassroots energy we’re witnessing in Texas – and it’s humbling that so many Texans have contributed their hard-earned dollars to support our plan to turn the state into a battleground by treating it like one,” said Executive Director Jenn Brown.

Battleground Texas also held its first fundraiser in Washington, DC last week.