State Capital Highlights

By Ed Sterling, Texas Press Association —

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers finally passed Senate Bill 1, a state budget for fiscal biennium 2014-2015, on May 26, the 139th day of the 140-day regular session of the 83rd Texas Legislature.

Next stop will be Gov. Rick Perry’s desk for the $197 billion budget – which came in at about $7 billion more than the estimated budget for the current fiscal biennium. Perry had asked lawmakers to make about $2 billion in tax reductions, but the budget he will be looking at brings in cuts totaling an estimated $1 billion.

Various other legislation also on the way to Perry, for example, changes student testing requirements, benefits charter schools, increases Medicaid funding, allows issuance of campus “carry” permits and much more. Among bills Perry already has vetoed was one that would have identified individual citizens who donate to so-called “dark money” organizations. The veto period will end June 16.

In passing the budget on the Senate side, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, credited his committee and each member of the Senate for producing a “fair and reasonable” document. House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who along with Williams was the main architect of the budget on the House side, credited his committee for its work.
One of piece of legislation that passed in the final week of the session does not require any action by the governor is Senate Joint Resolution 1, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that will appear on the Nov. 5 statewide election ballot. Voters will decide if they want to finance water infrastructure improvements by amending the constitution to create a state water implementation fund in the state treasury, outside of the general revenue fund.

The money, $2 billion initially, would be withdrawn from the state’s so-called Rainy Day Fund, a savings account built up primarily from natural gas tax and oil production tax revenue, that may be used to respond to emergencies such as those caused by wildfires, hurricanes and drought. The transfer of funds out of the Rainy Day Fund requires enabling legislation, in this case, HB 1025.

Supplemental bill passes House Bill 1025, the supplemental appropriations bill, covers various funding shortages in the current state budget until Aug. 31, the last day of the fiscal year. The bill, heavily amended in the Senate, is undergoing scrutiny in the House.

Authored primarily by Chairman Pitts and Chairman Williams, HB 1025 includes $450 million to repair, maintain and improve state roadways in areas impacted by energy exploration and development, such as the Barnett Shale in North Texas and the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas. Money to repair county roads, however, is not included in the legislation.

HB 1025 also would put $200 million in new money into public education. Combined with the education funding increases already in the budget bill, that works out to between $80 and $400 more per student in nearly every district in the state.

Lawmakers also passed HB 500 by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville. The bill revises exemptions and deductions under the business franchise tax and expands the kinds of businesses that qualify for a reduced-tax rate for retail trade. HB 500 also excludes a number of expenses from being counted as revenue and revises “cost of goods sold” deductions.

Disasters are proclaimed
In a disaster proclamation he signed on May 21, Gov. Rick Perry certified that the severe storms and tornado outbreak that occurred on May 15 have caused a disaster in Ellis, Hood and Johnson counties.

The proclamation directs that all necessary measures both public and private as authorized by state law be implemented to meet the disaster.

On May 20, Perry renewed the emergency disaster proclamation he originally issued on July 5, 2011, certifying that exceptional drought conditions posed a threat of imminent disaster in specified counties in Texas. The number of specified counties in this 30-day extension of the proclamation was 201, or nearly 80-percent of Texas’ 254 counties.

Meanwhile, a federal, state and local investigation of the April 17 deadly fire and explosion at farm supply and fertilizer facility in the small town of West continues.

DPS patrols to increase
Texas Department of Public Safety on May 21 announced plans to increase trooper patrols this Memorial Day weekend.

Friday, May 24, through Monday, May 27, more troopers than usual were assigned to look for drunken drivers, speeders, seat belt violators and other traffic violators statewide.


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