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Agreement on state budget evades House, Senate

by | May 21, 2015 | Opinion

By Ed Sterling

June 1 is the last day of the 84th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature. From now until then is all the time that remains for the House and Senate to decide if they’re going to agree on a 2016-2017 state budget.

Both chambers could be ordered to meet around the clock until an agreed-upon budget is passed, if House Speaker Joe Straus and/or Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick deem it necessary or worthwhile. Any proposed agreement would originate in a House Bill 1 conference committee composed of five House members and five Senate members. House members are: Appropriations Committee Chair John Otto, R-Dayton and Vice Chair Sylvester Turner, D-Houston; Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin; Sarah Davis, R-Houston; and Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock. Senate members are: Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound; Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Joan Huffman, R-Houston; and Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.

As reported repeatedly since March, the main obstacle toward agreement on a budget is the two bodies’ disagreement over how to cut state taxes. The Senate voted to cut ad valorem taxes while the House voted to cut the state sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5.95 percent. Both bodies want to cut the business franchise tax, which would please Gov. Greg Abbott, who made that task one several stated priorities for the Legislature to accomplish.

If the Legislature is unable to adopt budget in the regular session, the governor may call a special session.

Governor signs 29 bills

Even though the Legislature has not achieved its required, primary task — final passage of a state budget — one House bill and 28 Senate bills, as of May 15, had managed to survive the bicameral squeeze chute and earn the governor’s signature.

That lone House bill was HB 181 by primary author Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, and joint author Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth.  The bill, which took effect May 13, intends to reduce printing costs and the cost of correcting errors on individualized high school diplomas.

Here are three of this session’s 28 successful Senate bills, beginning with SB 125 by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and sponsored in the House by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston. The legislation, effective Sept. 1, amends the Family Code to require the Department of Family and Protective Services to conduct a developmentally appropriate assessment 45 days after a child enters conservatorship. The assessment must include a screening for trauma and interviews with individuals who have knowledge of the child’s needs.

SB 293 by Senate Finance Chair Nelson and sponsored in the House by Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs. The legislation, which took effect April 8, amends state statutes to expand the definition of “site selection organization” for purposes of selecting a site in Texas for certain events that are eligible to receive funding from the major events trust fund, to include ESPN or an affiliate, NASCAR and the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

SB 835 by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, addresses those who make fraudulent claims of military service. The legislation, effective Sept. 1, amends the Penal Code to increase the penalty for the offense of fraudulent or fictitious military record from a Class C misdemeanor to a Class B misdemeanor. A Class B misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of not more than $2,000, confinement in jail for a term not to exceed 180 days, or both.

School finance bill fizzles

Bill movement deadlines hit the Legislature last week. For example, during House floor debates on May 14, House Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, pulled down his school finance reform bill when it became clear that opposition to it would drag on long enough to prevent consideration of a mountain of other bills.

“Like many of you — I have other bills on this calendar — bills that are important. We could kill all day with this bill, easily,” Aycock said.

In its 24 pages, HB 1759 addresses a range of issues, with language amending laws governing equalization of wealth level of school districts, taxation and funding formulas, transportation allotments, academic acceptability standards and consequences, and more.

Deciding such high stakes issues defaults to the courts when the Legislature does not act on them. A case brought by some 600 Texas school districts alleging unfairness in the state’s law funding public education was decided in the school districts’ favor by a Travis County state district court last August. The State of Texas appealed the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. The case is pending.

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