State Capital Highlights April 2, 2105

BY ED STERLING, TEXAS PRESS ASSOCIATION

House, Senate continue with primary task: adopting budget
AUSTIN — The House Appropriations Committee on March 24 unanimously approved the General Appropriations Act (House Bill 1) — the first hurdle toward passing a state budget for fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

The committee’s chair, state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, and the 27-member committee’s work earned the praise of House Speaker Joe Straus, who said HB 1 is “a responsible, disciplined plan that sets the right priorities for a growing state. It addresses education and transportation, it increases transparency and it will allow the House to provide meaningful tax relief.”

HB 1 awaits consideration by the full House and a long list of proposed amendments to it will be debated on the House floor in the coming days.

SB 2, the Senate version of the state budget, is still under construction in the Senate Finance Committee. Differences in SB 2 and HB 1 must be reconciled by the two bodies in order to become enrolled as  law.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s biennial revenue estimate for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 suggests $113 billion in state funds will be available for general purpose spending. Lawmakers’ promises of fiscal conservatism suggest a finished state budget well under the available amount.

Senate passes tax-cut bills

Senate Bill 1 and Senate Joint Resolution 1 were passed by the Senate last week and have moved to the House for consideration. The bills, by Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, seek to tie the homestead exemption to home prices and allow homeowners to write off 25 percent of the average home price in Texas in any given year.

This is projected to reduce property taxes in the state by $2.1 billion over the next two years. Because this change in the law will require an amendment to the state constitution, voters will get a chance to decide on this issue in September, according to Senate documents.

Two other Senate bills seek to reduce the franchise tax. Nelson’s SB 7 reduces the overall rate by 15 percent and cuts the ‘EZ Rate’ used by businesses that make less than $20 million, by 40 percent. SB 8 by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, would exempt businesses that make less than $4 million in annual revenue from the franchise levy. Currently, only businesses with less than $1 million in revenue are exempt. More than 60,000 small businesses would no longer have to pay the franchise tax  if SB 8 becomes law.

House passes cell phone bill

On a vote of 104-39, the House on March 26 passed legislation regulating the use of a portable wireless communication device while operating a motor vehicle.

Committee Substitute House Bill 80 sets a fine of at least $25 and not more than $99 for the misdemeanor offense involving the operation of a vehicle by a person under 18 years of age while using a wireless communication device or the operation of a motorcycle or moped by a person under 17 years of age who holds a restricted motorcycle or moped license while using a wireless communication device. The bill enhances the punishment for such offense to a fine of at least $100 and not more than $200 for a previous conviction of an offense relating to the operation of a vehicle by a person under 18 years of age.

One of the bill’s many effects is a requirement that the Department of Public Safety include in driver’s license examinations a test of the applicant’s knowledge of the effect of using a wireless communication device or engaging in other actions that may distract a driver.

TxDOT launches campaign

Texas Department of Transportation on March 27 launched an impaired driving awareness campaign titled, “Drink. Drive. Go to Jail. De Veras.”

The bilingual effort runs through May 23 to overlap with Easter, Fiesta and Cinco de Mayo. The Spanish phrase, “De Veras,” meaning “For Real,” is a common expression used by Spanish speakers when responding to expressions of disbelief, TxDOT Media Relations explained. Recent census numbers show that 38 percent of the Texas population is Hispanic, the media office added.

Unemployment rate decreases

Texas’ seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell to 4.3 percent in February, down from 4.4 percent in January, Texas Workforce Commission reported on March 27.

The rate decreased thanks to the statewide addition of 7,100 non-agricultural jobs during the month of February.