State Capital Highlights April 30, 2015


House, Senate state budget conferees roll up sleeves
AUSTIN — With barely more than a month left in the regular session of the Texas Legislature, it’s time for the House and Senate to do whatever can be done to reach an all-points agreement on House Bill 1, the state budget for fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

A widely reported sticky area in the estimated $211 billion budget is over which taxes to cut and how much to cut. House and Senate conferees will meet this week. From both ends of the Capitol, the budget has a ways-and-means inertia to it, with House leaders pushing for cuts in the state sales tax rate and the state franchise tax. 

Senate leaders favor more emphasis on cutting homeowners’ property tax rates, a job traditionally in line with the normal functions of local governmental bodies. 
School districts, for example, get most of their revenue from local property taxes, and under the Senate plan, the state would have to make up for revenue lost to property tax cuts. 

The House plan, touted to provide some $5 billion in tax relief through other means, includes the first-ever reduction in state sales tax, with a 30-cent reduction in rate from the current 6.25 percent to 5.95 percent. 

Wherever such matters settle, the state’s checkbook must balance. Tax cuts will have to be “paid for” by corresponding cuts to budget items, such as health care, education, transportation and public safety.

Last week, House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick picked five members each for the conference committee on HB 1: House Appropriations Chair John Otto, R-Dayton; Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin; Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston; Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock; and Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston; and Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound; Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston; freshman Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham; and Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown.

Abbott challenges haze rule
Gov. Greg Abbott on April 22 submitted comments to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Planning Section over the agency’s proposed regional-haze rule.
Abbott said the EPA’s proposed action “is unlawful on multiple fronts, and perhaps most egregiously it would impose a $2 billion burden in compliance costs and threaten the reliability of Texas’ energy grid — without any discernible benefits.”

The governor is arguing that the EPA: (1) does not have the authority to regulate “invisible” haze; (2) oversteps its statutory authority by imposing a compliance cost on Texas; (3) discriminates against Texas by imposing a different standard than it has on California; and (4) is basing the proposed rule on outdated data from 2009.

Senate OKs body camera bill
The Texas Senate on April 23 passed SB 158, legislation authored by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, that creates a framework for the use of body cameras by police officers. 
The cameras, to be worn by officers to record interactions between them and members of the public, may help “restore credibility and trust in our law enforcement agencies,” West said.

While West’s bill does not mandate that police departments adopt the use of body cameras, it does create a grant program at the Office of the Governor that local law enforcement agencies can apply for to help offset the cost of purchasing equipment. 

During floor debate, West said that documenting encounters between police officers and citizens reduces complaints against police, incidents of lethal force and lawsuits against law enforcement. “People act different on camera,” he said.

Injection well hearings planned
Southern Methodist University on April 21 announced an SMU-led seismology team has found that “high volumes of wastewater injection combined with brine extraction from natural gas wells is the most likely cause of earthquakes occurring near Azle, Texas, from late 2013 through spring 2014.”

On April 24, the oil and gas industry-regulating Texas Railroad Commission directed the agency’s hearings division to initiate proceedings requiring the operators of two disposal wells in the area of Azle, 17 miles northwest of Fort Worth, to “show cause” why the injection permits for the wells should not be cancelled and the wells ordered shut-in, due to an alleged connection raised by new seismic research between ongoing operation of the wells and seismic activity in the vicinity.


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