Capital Tonight: Watson calls for tougher hit-and-run penalties

A high-profile hit-and-run trial is coming to a close in Austin, but its impact on the community will likely be talked about much more this legislative session.

Democratic State Sen. Kirk Watson has just filed a bill that would attach stricter penalties to drivers who fail to stop and render aid after hitting a pedestrian. We spoke to Sen. Watson Thursday about what he hopes the bill will achieve.

Although House lawmakers voted to pay off nearly $4.5 billion in Medicaid debts Thursday, the question of future spending is still up in the air. Capital Tonight’s Karina Kling spoke to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who’s making headlines by urging state lawmakers to say yes to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

The man who could ultimately determine the fate of Eastside Memorial High School took the time to visit the at-risk campus Thursday, after the school’s class president sent him a personal invitation.

Click the image below to see more from Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams’ visit.

House approves Medicaid IOU bill

The Texas House of Representatives approved its Medicaid supplemental spending bill today. Last legislative session, lawmakers did not set aside enough money to fund the program through the end of this year. House Bill 10 closes that $4 billion gap.

The bill had bipartisan support, and today’s vote was unanimous. Democrats had sparked a small floor debate last week over a Republican-supported rules change. The measure prevented them from setting aside some of the money in the Medicaid bill to help offset the $5.4 billion in education cuts made in 2011.

Those lawmakers eventually withdrew their amendments. House Speaker Joe Straus has promised that education funding will be addressed in a separate appropriations bill in the next few weeks.


Texas roads get failing grade

If you’ve ever been stuck on Interstate-35 and thought, “This could not possibly be any worse,” you’re not far from the truth, at least according to one group.

The Texas section of the American Society of Civil Engineers has released a new report card, interpreting all aspects of the state’s infrastructure through a traditional letter grade scale.

Texas roads and highways get a D.

The report card took seven factors into account, including capacity to meet current and future demands, funding, condition and protection against possible threats.

Here’s a breakdown of the results:

Roads & Highways: D

While the report credits transportation officials with looking for alternate ways to fund new projects (we assume that includes toll roads), it says “funding for traditional projects has declined,” along with overall maintenance. Because of that, the report says Texas now ranks 42nd in highway spending per capita, compared to other states. In 2008, it ranked number 17.

Bridges: B –

The good news is that, although Texas has more bridges than any other state by far, our grade is better than the national one, which is a C. The bad news is that the number of “structurally deficient” bridges is expected to rise in the next 10 years. The ASCE report credits TxDOT with eliminating the worst offenders, but says more funding is needed to maintain the department’s goal.

Transit: C +

The state’s grade has improved since 2008, thanks to new buses, carpooling efforts and passenger rail. It also ranks higher than the national grade. Still, the ASCE report says Texas is “heavily dependent” on federal money when it comes to light rail transit.

 So what’s being done to fix these problems?

Both the Governor and Lieutenant Governor have mentioned transportation as an issue to work on this legislative session, and budget proposals from both the House and Senate include increases for transportation funding. One new solution floating around was brought up by the Texas Association of Business last year. They’re backing a plan to increase the vehicle registration fee by $50. By their estimate, it would generate “as much as $14 to $16 billion” in bond money for transportation projects.

Bill filed to restore $5.4B in education funding

The first shot in the battle over school funding has been fired.

Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam is sponsoring a bill that would restore all of the $5.4 billion cut from the state’s public schools in 2011. Burnam says Texas’ better economic picture means there’s now funding to undo the cuts, which the Texas Legislature approved during weaker economic times.

More than 600 school districts have sued the state over the cuts. If the courts side with them, it will be up to the Legislature to remake Texas’ funding system. But no ruling is slated to come until after the Legislature adjourns for the year.

In the meantime, Gov. Rick Perry is calling for restraint when it comes to the projected budget surplus. He says public education has been funded at a “rather substantial level” over the last decade.

“As a matter of fact, from 2001 to 2012, public education funding went up 70 percent. Population enrollment went up 23 percent,” Perry said in an interview with Capital Tonight, Thursday.

Rep. Burnam’s assesment is less optimistic. A report prepared by his office says class size increased in nearly 7,000 elementary classes statewide.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Gov. Perry gets specific on tax relief

In an interview with Capital Tonight, Gov. Rick Perry repeated his suggestion that some form of tax relief could come out of the legislature this session, and went into more detail about what the end result might look like.

“During the last year, as I’ve talked about implementing a budget compact, I talked about specifically putting into place a permanent exemption from the business tax for small businesses. Those businesses that are a million dollars or less in receipts,” Gov. Perry said.

The governor made a brief mention of tax relief on the 83rd Legislature’s opening day, but he hadn’t named specific plans until now. The call for lower taxes comes just three days after a new report from the State Comptroller’s office, predicting 12.4 percent more money will be available for this session’s budget than for the last one.

But the rosier numbers won’t necessarily mean a full restoration of education cuts.

“Listen, the state’s growing,” the governor said. “I think anybody that says we’re not going to put any more money into education, that’s just false on it’s face. But the idea that we’re going to stand here today before we’ve even had one hearing — to say ‘Oh, we’re going to restore full funding.” There may be some people out there saying that, but I will suggest to you that they don’t know how this process works, and frankly, they’re being irresponsible.”

You can see an extended interview with the Governor tonight at 7 on Capital Tonight.

Comptroller’s revenue report now available

The State Comptroller’s full revenue estimate for the next biennum is now available to the general public.  By law, the full Biennial Revenue Estimate has to be posted at before the budget work can begin at the Capitol.

Monday, Combs announced that the legislature will have about $101.4 billion dollars to work with this legislative session.  That includes a surplus over more than $8 billion dollars left over from the current budget cycle.

So if you’re in the mood for a little light reading on this rainy day, here it is.


Capital Tonight: Lawmakers, state leaders weigh in on budget projection

State Budget Preview

Monday morning, Comptroller Susan Combs released the state’s biennial revenue estimate. The $8 billion surplus stands in stark contrast to the 27-billion dollar shortfall lawmakers faced in 2011. While some are cautiously optimistic, some democrats are highly critical of the State Comptroller’s office. Click on the video link at the end of this post to hear more from Comptroller Susan Combs.  We also have reaction from Senators Wendy Davis and Kirk Watson.

Lobbying Texas

Lobbying and the Legislature go hand in hand. Tonight, we begin an ongoing segment called “Lobbying Texas.” The Texas Classroom Teachers Association is deeply immersed in the key issue of education.  Lonnie Hollingsworth Jr., the Director of Legal Services and Governmental Relations, weighs in on the projected budget surplus.

On the Agenda

Texas is unique in the sense that caucus do not rule the legislative agenda. So is this a good thing? Harvey Kronberg offers his opinion in his segment, “On the Agenda.”




Education lobby reacts to budget projections

Mention a budget estimate that’s about 12 percent higher than the last time state lawmakers met, and it’s not hard to get reaction from those lobbying for a cause. And arguably the biggest cause to confront lawmakers this two-year budget cycle is the future of public education funding.

The day before the 83rd Legislative Session convenes Tuesday at noon, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, representing more than 50,000 teachers, believes the funding cuts of the past session should be fixed thanks to the fiscal conditions of an estimated $101.4 billion available this biennium, announced by Comptroller Susan Combs on Monday.

“If the legislature was willing to tap into the Rainy Day Fund in a major way, it could restore the cuts made to public education last time,” Lonnie Hollingsworth Jr., TCTA’s director of legal services and governmental relations, said. “Unfortunately, no one is really talking about that.”

The comptroller indicated there’s currently about $8 billion dollars in the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account. If left untouched, that figure is estimated to climb to about $12 billion by the end of the next budget cycle.

Another issue the TCTA is monitoring is school choice. That includes the proposed idea of lifting the cap on charter schools, and the possibility of someone introducing a voucher plan.

“The problem with charters is they need to be vetted,” Hollingsworth said. “There needs to be someone at the state level to make sure that the entities that are going to be operating those charters are going to do a good job.”

Hollingsworth added that with cuts to the Texas Education Agency itself, that oversight may be impacted.

As for any voucher plan that might be introduced, Hollingsworth said the cost would either come out of the state’s overall budget, or directly out of the budget for Texas public schools.

Newly-appointed Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Dan Patrick indicated late last year that he preferred to hear directly from teachers rather than from teachers groups. Patrick argued the two often contradict each other on this issue. Patrick at the time, also alluded to the idea of a “teacher’s choice” plan that could be unveiled this session, but did not go into details.

State comptroller releases revenue estimate

Lawmakers will return to the State Capitol for the 83rd Legislative Session tomorrow, but they already know how much money they’ll have at their disposal as they craft a budget for the next two years. 

Comptroller Susan Combs released the 2014-2015 budget estimate this morning.  She says Texas will generate $92.6 billion in revenue over the next biennium.   About $3.6 billion of that goes directly into the Rainy Day Fund.  Combined with the nearly $9 billion left over from this biennium, lawmakers will be working with an estimated $101.4 billion.

“Texas experienced a very strong rebound from a severe recession,” Combs said Monday. “The state’s robust economic recovery led to better-than-expected revenue collections in major taxes such as the sales tax, oil and natural gas production taxes and motor vehicle sales taxes. The outlook for both the economy and state revenue is for continuing expansion as the fast-growth of the economic recovery gives way to moderate, sustained growth.”   

The Rainy Day Fund currently stands at about $8.1 billion.  If no money is withdrawn, it’s expected to have about $11.8 billion by the end of 2015.