State Capital Highlights Feb. 5, 2015

By Ed Sterling, Texas Press Association

AUSTIN — On Jan. 28 the main work of the Texas Legislature started when the state budget-writing Senate Finance Committee met at the Capitol.

Financial figures for the committee to use as a guide come from the 10-member Legislative Budget Board, a permanent joint committee of the House and Senate that develops budget and policy recommendations for appropriations, completes fiscal analyses for proposed legislation and conducts evaluations and reviews to improve the efficiency and performance of state and local operations.

In its budget estimate, the Legislative Budget Board recommends a $205 billion state budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal biennium. The current 2014-2015 budget is estimated at $202 billion. The biggest chunks of the 2016-2017 recommended budget are $77.5 billion for education, $75 billion for health and human services and $30 billion for business and economic development.

As set forth in state law, the 10-member “LBB” is co-chaired by the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, and the speaker of the House, and includes the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee; the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee; three members of the Senate appointed by the lieutenant governor; and two other members of the House appointed by the speaker. As of Feb. 1, the chairs and lists of members of House committees had not been named.

Sen. Jane Nelson, the first woman in the history of the Legislature to chair a standing budget-writing committee, was appointed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to preside over the 15-member panel. Nelson, R-Grapevine, said Senate Bill 2 would be a “responsible” budget and she encouraged committee members to voice their individual priorities during the budget-writing process.

She also said the panel would spend a week on tax-relief bills.

New governor’s work begins

In the days following his inauguration on Jan. 20, Gov. Greg Abbott set right to work.

On Jan. 21, “to prevent, detect and investigate fraud, abuse and waste” he named Stuart W. Bowen Jr. as inspector general for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

On Jan. 22, he submitted to the Texas Senate for approval Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos as Secretary of State, Jerry Strickland as chief of the Office of State-Federal Relations and David Mattax for reappointment as commissioner of the Texas Department of Insurance. He also named appointees to the University of Texas System, Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University boards of regents.

On Jan. 23, he set Feb. 17 as the date of special runoff elections for Senate District 26 and House Districts 17 and 123. He also traveled to Edinburg to speak and be present for the announcement of a nearly $3 million grant to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine grant by United Health Foundation. The medical school is to open in 2016.

On Jan. 27, he released a statement in defense of former governor Rick Perry, who is facing felony charges related to his vetoing the budget of the state’s Public Integrity Unit when the head of the unit ignored his demand for her resignation after she had been arrested for drunken driving. Abbott said, “The Texas governor is endowed by our constitution with the authority to veto legislation, and it is outrageous and inappropriate that a governor would be prosecuted for exercising that authority.”

On Jan. 28, in a letter to all state agency heads, he called for higher standards in the state’s contracting and procurement process, including specific reforms aimed at restoring the public trust in the contracting process.

This comes in the wake of a series of investigative stories by the Austin American-Statesmen detailing a multi-million dollar no-bid contract between the Health and Human Services Commission and an information technology security firm.

On Jan. 29, he proposed to eliminate the Texas Emerging Technology Fund and establish the New University Research Initiative “to make meaningful and effective investments in job creation.”

Correction / Clarification

In this column last week, I erroneously reported Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, as having voted against a proposed Senate rule change in floor procedure, allowing a three-fifths majority of the 31-member body (19 senators) to bring a bill to the floor for debate, rather than the traditional two-thirds, or 21 senators.

Estes was present but did not vote on the rule change. I regret the error. The rule change was adopted on a vote of 20-10.