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First day of bill filing for 86th Legislature is November 12, 2018.  The 86th Legislature convenes on January 8, 2019.

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Sunday
Jun112017

Analysis: Raising money while making laws in Texas special session

A special session of the Texas Legislature reveals a hole in the state's ethics laws, allowing elected officials in Austin to make laws at the same time they're raising campaign funds — from the people most interested in those new laws.

BY ROSS RAMSEY JUNE 9, 2017 

The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t put ethics on the list for lawmakers to consider during their special session this summer. But he set them up to put their ethics on display for the rest of us.

Lawmakers will be able to raise money during the session. Don’t think they won’t. By putting 20 issues on the list, the governor all but guaranteed the presence of lots of lobbyists. There will be fundraisers galore.

The National Conference of State Legislators is in Boston this year. In August. During the special session. Road trip, anyone?

Look at the list of issues the governor put on the call and think of the people who’ll be attracted, if for no reason but to protect their own interests. Here’s looking at you, lobbyists.

Texas officeholders aren’t allowed to accept political contributions during regular legislative sessions and for certain periods before and after one. For the 85th Legislature, that blackout started on Dec. 10 of last year and will end on June 19. Expect a frenzy to start that Monday, as political folk hit their benefactors to write big checks before the end of the month.

There’s a mid-year campaign finance reporting deadline, see, and they want to flex their fundraising muscle — especially to show potential rivals how strong they are at the beginning of the 2018 electoral cycle.

That blackout and the rush that follows are regular features of a legislative session year.

But the ban on taking money while they’re passing laws doesn’t extend to special legislative sessions. The same interests asking lawmakers for consideration are allowed to give those lawmakers political money throughout. Another way to look at it: The lawmakers asking for money are the same people considering proposals made by the potential donors.

Unseemly, isn’t it?

If it makes you feel any better, lawmakers decided a few years ago to stop accepting checks in the Capitol building itself. It’s less convenient, but they’ll never again have to weather the bad headlines they got when East Texas chicken magnate Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim doled out $10,000 checks on the Senate floor during a special session on workers’ compensation.

When it’s over, lawmakers will be required to file special reports to show the contributions they received while they were in special session. At least we’ll know what they were doing during some of the hours when they weren’t passing laws.

And even though they’ll be in session, Austin won’t be the only place you’ll find Texas lawmakers this summer.

Not all lawmakers go to conferences, but a lot of them go to the annual meetings of the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Legislative Exchange Council. This year, both fall during the Texas special session — coincidentally the hottest part of the summer — and will be held in the cooler climes of Denver and Boston.

Both have seminars and other work-related meetings, along with the perks common at most conventions. There’s a reception at Fenway Park, a James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt concert. And fooling around during a four-day conference might just be more enjoyable than debating and taking testimony on the 20 issues the governor put on the special session agenda. Watch for lawmakers taking mini-vacations — and for the ethics reports detailing how much Texas lobbyists spend at those events.

The lobbyists who show up at those gatherings would be there with or without a special session in Texas, but Abbott’s special-session call spoiled what might have been an offseason for them.

Special sessions can be diminished versions of regular sessions, with limited agendas that many of the regular legislative courtiers don’t care about. With his expansive list of issues, Abbott made sure a lot of those lobbyists will have to suit up this summer — i.e., any outfit with an interest in property taxes, public education or local regulation.

Lawmakers looking for dinner partners and political donors won’t have far to go this summer, whether they’re in the Capitol or at out-of-town conferences. Almost everybody who was in Austin to lobby for the 140-day regular session will be back for the special. One way or another — whether they’ve got something at risk or something to gain — they’ll be on call, feeding, entertaining and filling the campaign coffers of your elected officials.

https://www.texastribune.org/2017/06/09/analysis-special-session-promises-seminar-texas-political-ethics/

 

Sunday
Jun112017

Here's what Gov. Greg Abbott has said — or not said — about special session items

Some of the 20 topics Gov. Greg Abbott is asking the Texas Legislature to consider during a special session have been his priorities since his State of the State Address in January. On some of the other topics, though, he's been relatively quiet. 

BY ANDY DUEHREN JUNE 8, 2017  

The Texas Tribune

When Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he was calling back the Texas Legislature for a special session, he promised to “make it count,” setting a wide-ranging agenda of 20 issues for lawmakers to consider beginning July 18.

Some of the topics, including school finance reform and property tax reform, have been on Abbott’s legislative wish list since his State of the State address in January, while others have received little or no recent mention from the governor.

Abbott stipulated that lawmakers must first pass “sunset” legislation to reauthorize several key state agencies before he will allow them to turn to the other topics, which range from municipal annexation to a controversial “bathroom bill.” Abbott's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning. 

Here’s a look at Abbott’s previous comments on those topics.

Public schools — and bathrooms

Easily the most controversial topic of the regular session was Senate Bill 6 — the "bathroom bill" — which would have required transgender Texans to use bathrooms in government buildings and public schools that match their “biological sex” and prohibited local governments from adopting or enforcing local bathroom regulations. While Abbott remained silent on SB 6, he did signal support for another bill — House Bill 2899 — that would have nixed existing municipal and school district trans-inclusive bathroom policies and prevent locals from enacting any new policies. He nodded to HB 2899 during his special session announcement.

Two of Abbott's items focus on public school teachers: one that would raise their salaries by $1,000 and one that would grant school administrators more flexibility over teacher hiring and retention. Abbott discussed local school control and teacher quality during his 2015 State of the State address: “We can bring out the best in all of our teachers by getting rid of these one-size-fits-all mandates and trusting our teachers to truly educate students in the classroom ... We must also return genuine local control to the school districts in Texas.” In 2014, before he was governor, Abbott called for paying teachers up to $2,000 more per year if their students performed well on Advanced Placement tests. More recently, he’s been quiet on raising salaries for teachers.

After the Texas Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the state's school finance system was constitutional — but critically flawed — Abbott backed school finance reform in his 2017 State of the State address in January: “Both the House and the Senate are right to tackle the vexing issue of school finance now rather than putting it off ... It is time to construct an entirely new system. With a sense of urgency, we must create better ways to fund education.”

One contentious issue that contributed to the demise of school finance reform efforts during the regular session was "private school choice" for special-needs students. Abbott added it to the special session agenda after having endorsed the idea in December 2016. "It would be far more efficient to provide that money to parents for them to choose which school is best for their child, knowing that, in the City of Houston, for example, where there are hundreds of schools, there may only be 10 that have the resources and capabilities of addressing the special needs of that particular parent's child,” he said. He also generally backed "school choice" during his 2017 State of the State address.

Property taxes and local regulations

Efforts to change the process for property appraisal and tax rate increases collapsed during a standoff between the House and Senate during the final days of the legislative session, but lawmakers are set to have another shot in July. Abbott called for rollback elections for property tax increases during his State of the State address in 2017: “We have to remember, property owners are not renting their land from the city. That is why we need property tax reform that prevents cities from raising property taxes without first getting voter approval.” 

Abbott also asked lawmakers to address local regulations on spending, trees on private land, construction project rules and permitting. The governor has broadly criticized local regulations but has not addressed all of these items recently. Earlier this year, he publicly pushed for an end to local rules regulating what property owners do with trees on private land, but he has been quiet on local construction rules (his special session call includes "preventing local governments from changing rules midway through construction projects"). In a 2015 opinion piece in Forbes, Abbott wrote that he wanted to “speed up the permitting process to help businesses get their projects done faster,” which echoes his comments in his call for a special session.

Abbott wants the Legislature to address municipal annexation rules during the special session after a Democratic filibuster killed a bill meant to allow Texans to vote if a city wanted to include their property in its borders. He’s been quiet on that issue.

Although he just signed a bill instituting a statewide texting-while-driving ban, Abbott has asked lawmakers to pass legislation during a special session stating that the statewide ban overrules any local regulation on the issue. He advocated for such a pre-emption during the session.

Abortion, health and medicine

The special session agenda includes three items relating to abortion policy in Texas: barring taxpayer funding from subsidizing health providers that perform abortion, requiring women to obtain separate insurance policies for non-emergency abortions and increasing reporting requirements for when health complications arise during abortions. During his 2017 State of the State address, Abbott promised to embrace any legislation that “protects unborn children and promotes a culture of life in Texas.”

At the end of his Tuesday announcement, Abbott asked the Legislature to extend a task force dedicated to studying maternal mortality in Texas. Abbott has not been particularly vocal on the topic in the past; a previous statement to the Tribune from spokesman John Wittman said Abbott is “committed to reducing the maternal mortality rate.”

He also put legislation that would strengthen patient protections relating to do-not-resuscitate orders on the agenda. He's been quiet on that topic.

Government and elections

During the special session, Abbott wants lawmakers to prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars for collecting public employee union dues. He addressed the topic during his 2017 State of the State address: “We must end the practice of government deducting union dues from paychecks of employees. Taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to support the collection of union dues."

The Legislature used part of its regular session to pass a bill that curbs voter fraud at nursing homes and widens ballot access to elderly Texans who live in them. Abbott wants further action during the special session asking for a bill "cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud." In late 2016, after the state began investigating alleged mail-in ballot voter fraud in Tarrant County, he tweeted, “We will crush illegal voting."

https://www.texastribune.org/2017/06/08/what-greg-abbott-said-special-session-agenda/?utm_source=Texas+Tribune+Master&utm_campaign=66617cc1b6-trib-newsletters-the-brief&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_d9a68d8efc-66617cc1b6-101185189&mc_cid=66617cc1b6&mc_eid=9004ae583b

 

Sunday
Jun112017

Analysis: A governor taking back the spotlight

Gov. Greg Abbott snatched the spotlight from his rivals with a long, long list of priorities for a special legislative session — one that takes care of must-do legislation and buries everything else. 

BY ROSS RAMSEY JUNE 6, 2017 

The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott’s call for a special July-August session gives you a clue — through the timing and the subject matter — as to what problem he hopes to solve.

He wants to erase the notion — a popular idea in the Texas Capitol — that he’s not in charge.

Abbott laid out a bewildering list of ideas for lawmakers to consider in a special session, but put his real emphasis on only one — unpassed legislation that would keep the Texas Medical Board and a handful of other agencies in business after the end of the current budget cycle.

That effectively buries the priorities of his unofficial rival, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who stalled that agency-preserving legislation in an effort to win passage of a couple of pet issues — a “bathroom bill” and restrictions on local property tax increases.

And it puts Abbott back in charge. The regular session belonged, in large measure, to the lieutenant governor: He had an expansive agenda and his issues, for the most part, framed that 140-day venture.

Now the agenda belongs to the governor again. Abbott’s focus is first on the thing that must be done; then and only then, he said, can lawmakers work on an astonishing, almost ridiculous (given the allotted time) avalanche of issues — including Patrick’s, somewhere in the pile — that he’s willing to add to the agenda.

If the point of a special session is to reach agreement on something — property taxes, bathrooms, school finance, the issue of your choice — there’s no reason to start unless you can see the finish. That would be a good reason not to call a one-issue session on the bathroom bill, which stymied lawmakers earlier this year.

That issue is on Abbott’s list, but it must compete with others in that unruly crowd of priorities. Instead of asking lawmakers for the agencies and nothing else, he offered them a shot at everything in the pantry in return for the only bills that have to pass.

The timing of the special session isn’t surprising. It gives lawmakers six weeks to chill out, but it will take place as they are raising political money and making their calculations for the coming electoral season. The session, running from mid-July to mid-August, would end before the new fiscal year starts on Sept. 1 and comes in time to endanger incumbents and embolden challengers. Candidates will file for the 2018 elections from Nov. 11 to Dec. 11, presumably taking the results of the regular and special sessions into account. The primaries are on March 6 of next year.

The surest outcome in bringing the Legislature to Austin on so many issues will be to draw distinctions — to show who’s on what side. That can be politically useful entering an election year. But if you’re looking for policy solutions — for new laws, for remedies to problems, for tax relief — it’s not a formula for success. Some of these things might never come to a vote. Having this many issues in one month would press even a cooperative Legislature, and the 85th hasn’t exhibited many signs of collaborative harmony.

Texas lawmakers left Austin last month in foul humor. That last day, with its pushing and shoving among some of the men on the House floor, was no “Come, let us reason together” celebration.

This all started with the Senate’s hostage-taking, with Patrick’s promise to stall must-pass bills to force votes on restroom restrictions for transgender Texans and on local governments’ ability to raise property taxes without voter approval. He didn’t win on either issue — and he engineered the failure of legislation that would have kept the Texas Medical Board and other agencies operating through the state’s next two-year budget.

Abbott was stuck. He had to call lawmakers back to keep those agencies open. Calling lawmakers back always opens the window for supplicants inside and outside the Legislature who didn’t get what they wanted out of the just-ended regular session. Since lawmakers unclenched their fists and went home on Memorial Day, Abbott has heard calls for special session consideration of restrooms, property taxes, annexation laws, redistricting and even the things that made his list.

He could have stopped his special session call at the agency bills, doing what’s compulsory and leaving the discretionary issues to the 86th Legislature that convenes in 2019. It would only take a couple of days.

Bada-bing, bada-boom.

Everything else requires prep work. The bathroom issue has been in public political discussion for a year. Conservative voters and businesses are split, and the Republican majority in the Legislature is split, too. Importantly, Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus disagree on it, and nobody from Abbott on down the line was able to reconcile their views before the end of the regular session.

In fact, if you rank the potential special-session subjects in order of their likely success, Patrick’s top issue — the bathroom bill — sits solidly in last place. The sunset bills that would rescue those state agencies are comparatively easy.

Anybody hoping to pass other bills will be hacking through a thicket. Abbott’s list is extensive — and diffusive, knocking the focus away from any one particular issue by surrounding it with a daunting inventory of distracting legislative playthings (the descriptions are the governor's):

  • Teacher pay increase of $1,000      
  • Administrative flexibility in teacher hiring and retention practices
  • School finance reform commission
  • School choice for special needs students
  • Property tax reform
  • Caps on state and local spending
  • Preventing cities from regulating what property owners do with trees on private land
  • Preventing local governments from changing rules midway through construction projects
  • Speeding up local government permitting process
  • Municipal annexation reform
  • Texting while driving preemption
  • Privacy
  • Prohibition of taxpayer dollars to collect union dues
  • Prohibition of taxpayer funding for abortion providers
  • Pro-life insurance reform
  • Strengthening abortion reporting requirements when health complications arise
  • Strengthening patient protections relating to do-not-resuscitate orders
  • Cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud
  • Extending maternal mortality task force

They’ll have 30 days for all of that, and they can’t start until that “sunset” legislation has passed. It’s almost a guarantee that some of those ideas will wither on the vine — and it gives both the House and the Senate ample opportunity to starve legislation they don’t like.

“If they fail, it’s not for lack of time,” Abbott said at the end of his announcement. “It would be because of a lack of will.”

That might be generous: It’s an awfully long list.

https://www.texastribune.org/2017/06/06/analysis-governor-taking-back-spotlight/

 

Sunday
Jun112017

A Closer Look at the Final Texas 2018-19 Budget

The Texas Tribune

BY EDGAR WALTERS AND CHRIS ESSIG 

JUNE 6, 2017

Clashes between the Texas House and Senate dominated the 2017 legislative session, and the state budget process was no exception. After weeks of negotiations over how much to spend on public schools, border security, health insurance for the poor and disabled, and other services, the two chambers approved a $217 billion budget in late May. If Gov. Greg Abbott signs it, the new budget will go into effect on Sept. 1.

Here’s a look at how the two dueling budget proposals compared and what the two chambers ultimately settled on, using information from the Legislative Budget Board.

Total budget

2016-17 budget$216.4 B

Senate proposal$217.7 B (+1.3 B)

House proposal$218.1 B (+1.7 B)

2018-19 budget$216.8 B (+0.4 B)

Two years ago, lawmakers passed a budget of just over $209 billion. This session, they backfilled some expenses, and the current budget grew to $216.4 billion.

The 2018-19 budget spends less than $500 million more over the next two years. At $216.8 billion, the budget is also less than both chambers' initial proposals. Before the Legislature reached a final agreement, the Senate proposed a $217.7 billion budget, compared with the $218.1 billion budget proposed by the House. General revenue, the portion of state funds that lawmakers have the most control over, makes up about half of the budget at $108 billion.

After passing tax cuts and a large investment in state highways in 2015, the Legislature this year struggled to find funding to pay for public programs. In the final days of the legislative session, the House and Senate reached a compromise to tap two alternative sources of funding to shore up the budget: withdrawing $1 billion from a savings account known as the Rainy Day Fund and using an accounting trick to free up nearly $2 billion dedicated to the highway fund.


Medicaid funding

Senate proposal$63.9 B

House proposal$63.2 B

2018-19 budget$62.4 B

Lawmakers agreed to spend $62.4 billion on Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled and one of the Legislature’s largest funding requirements. About 40 percent of Medicaid funds come from the state, with the federal government paying the rest of the bill.

The budget that lawmakers passed this year spends nearly $2 billion less on Medicaid than the previous two-year budget. Lawmakers have said they expect to face a Medicaid shortfall of at least $1 billion when they return for their next regular legislative session in 2019. At that point, they are likely to cover the shortfall via a supplemental budget bill.

After lawmakers made deep cuts in 2015 to a therapy program for children with disabilities, the new Medicaid budget includes some funding to increase payments to speech, physical and occupational therapists. The funding will restore about 25 percent of those cuts.

Related story: Legislature opts to largely maintain cuts of therapy services for disabled children


Public education funding

Senate proposal$42.0 B

House proposal$42.1 B

2018-19 budget$42.7 B

Public schools are another of the Legislature’s largest expenses, and the vast majority of that spending goes through the Foundation School Program. In the next two years, Texas public schools are expected to grow by more than 80,000 students annually.

While the $42.7 billion for the Foundation School Program in the 2018-19 budget is more than what was proposed by the House or Senate, it does not include an additional $1.5 billion that was the subject of debate between the two chambers. The House sought to tie the extra state dollars for public education to school finance reforms, but negotiations failed after the Senate added a provision that would have subsidized private school tuition for some students — a move the House opposed.

Overall, state spending for public schools fell by about $1.1 billion, with local funds making up most of the difference. While the state share of public education spending falls, growing local property tax collections are expected to add about $1.4 billion to school funds.

Lawmakers did not approve extra funding for expanded pre-kindergarten programs, despite Abbott’s advocating for the funding. Instead, they required school districts to use $236 million from their existing funds to implement strict, “high-quality” standards for pre-K programs.

Related story: Texas school districts cut costs to avoid closure as state funding cuts loom


Child Protective Services and foster care funding

Senate proposal$3.4 B

House proposal$3.5 B

2018-19 budget$3.5 B

Lawmakers responded to a crisis in the state’s child welfare system with a roughly $500 million funding boost, which mostly went to Child Protective Services. The budget provides about $300 million to continue pay raises for many frontline caseworkers, including the 800 or so who were hired after an emergency order last year. Another $88 million will pay to hire an additional 500 caseworkers in 2018 and 600 more in 2019. And $95 million will go toward raising payments to foster care families and other providers.

Related story: Abbott signs bills aimed at addressing crisis in child welfare system


Border security funding

Senate proposal$800 M

House proposal$653.1 M

2018-19 budget$800 M

The final budget includes $800 million to maintain a surge in border security funding that lawmakers approved in 2015, which pays mostly for the stationing of state troopers in counties near the Texas-Mexico border.

That was a victory for the Senate, which favored a plan to spend as much toward the issue as the state does in the current budget, which would be enough to hire 250 new troopers and 126 additional support staff. The House sought to reduce the border funding to $653 million, which would have continued funds only for existing troopers.

Though they disagreed over how much to spend, conservative lawmakers in both chambers said the state needed to largely maintain its recent increased level of border security funding despite a Republican president in the White House who has vowed to dramatically boost federal border security efforts.

https://apps.texastribune.org/final-budget-2017/?_ga=2.71656147.1922815347.1496570119-123540926.1485062526

 

Monday
Jan232017

Analysis: Legislators start with a $5.3 billion difference of opinion

Texas Tribune

Ross Ramsey

Jan. 18

  • In their first-day numbers, the Texas Legislature's two chambers didn’t even agree on the size of the current budget. The House baked in some supplemental expenses that the Senate left that out.  

The Texas Senate and the Texas House have done their big reveal on the state budget — more of a ring-and-run in a Capitol giving most of its work week to a national holiday and a Trump inauguration — and they are billions of dollars apart.

They have 18 weeks to play this out, but the first days of the legislative session offer a decent preview of the battle ahead.

So far, this finance puzzle has three pieces.

• Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar released a Biennial Revenue Estimate, telling lawmakers they will have $104.9 billion in state funds in 2018-19 — less money to spend than two years ago. He said there would have been $4.7 billion more than that, had lawmakers and voters not dedicated that amount to transportation projects. Hegar said the state’s Rainy Day Fund is on its way to a record-busting $11.9 billion balance. And he said lawmakers have $1.5 billion in surplus funds for the current or the next budget.

• The Senate, which gets to lead on the budget talks this year — it alternates from session to session — opened with a relatively stark offering, which includes general state spending of $103.6 billion and overall spending, which includes federal and other funds, of $213.4 billion.

• The House quickly followed with a $221.3 billion budget that includes $108.9 billion in general state spending. That’s $5.3 billion more than the Senate’s proposal, and it’s also considerably higher than Hegar’s outer limit.

It’s important to remember that the budget has to balance before it’s signed — but it doesn’t have to balance when it’s proposed.

The House and Senate are coming at this from different directions. The Senate approach is to put lots of programs in peril and then figure out which ones need the most help, if any at all. Its budget’s biggest scrimps are in health and human services, where it proposed $2 billion in cuts; in public education, $1.5 billion in cuts; and in higher education, $690 million in cuts. The actual cuts would be bigger in health and human services, where costs are driven in part by population increases. The Senate’s proposed budget doesn’t include any money for that. The Senate does account for population growth in schools, but counts on increasing local property values for much of that funding.

The House’s approach puts the spending needs in front, which would force lawmakers to find the money or cut the programs. They would spend $1.5 billion more than the Senate on public education, contingent on changes in school finance laws, and the House budget accounts for growth in Medicaid caseloads where the Senate's does not. House leaders say they don't have higher taxes in mind, but would balance their budget with a combination of cuts, deferrals (a fancy word for regularly employed government accounting tricks) and the state’s burgeoning Rainy Day Fund.

That fund started as a cash-flow device, designed to grow in good times for use in bad times — the way chipmunks use nuts. It has become a sacred bovine in recent years, with lawmakers saying that money shouldn’t be used for ongoing expenses; they think of it more like a savings account than a cash-flow account. The House appears ready to challenge that.

This was state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, speaking to reporters on Tuesday: “This is a time where we could use some money to smooth out those rough edges of a cyclical budget, of trying to plan two years in advance and try to allocate resources two years. [The Rainy Day Fund] was designed to accommodate these times that we're in right now. It has been raided and reduced to near zero three times in the past. ... It's become this scared cow, if you will, that seems to be untouchable, and I think we need to rethink that.”

There’s more to come. For one thing, lawmakers think the current budget is at least $1.5 billion short of what it requires — in other words, that expenses and emergencies have run that much higher than expected when the budget was put together in 2015.

In their first-day numbers, the two chambers didn’t even agree on the size of the current budget. The House baked in some of those supplemental expenses, adding $1.2 billion for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The Senate left that out.

That’s the setup. Here’s the procedure: The Senate will pass its budget and send it over to the House, which will pass their version and send it back. Each side will appoint negotiators to hammer out the differences, and the result will be the next state budget.

They’re supposed to finish before the end of the regular legislative session, on Memorial Day. They have to finish — to agree, that is — by Aug. 31 — the last day of the current budget year.