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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. 


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.



A Closer Look at the Final Texas 2018-19 Budget

The Texas Tribune


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.



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.




How will Texas energy — and environment — fare under Trump?

President-elect Donald Trump may be seen as a boon for fossil fuels and a burden for renewables. But energy experts and clean energy groups say his victory may not be a win for Texas oil and gas — or a totally bad thing for wind and solar.

November 12, 2016

by Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune

Donald Trump’s upset win this week was generally cheered by the Texas oil and gas industry and lamented by environmentalists who found a major ally in the Obama administration amid long-suffering efforts to protect the state’s air and water and promote renewable energy sources. 

The reactions largely make sense: Trump has vowed to lift restrictions on oil, gas and coal production and greenlight controversial energy infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. The man he has selected to lead his Environmental Protection Agency transition team is a climate change skeptic. And he has indicated he will repeal or abandon a slew of environmental regulations President Barack Obama has rolled out during his final term in office, including a state-by-state plan to fight climate change by shifting away from coal power to natural gas and renewables — a policy Texas is challenging in court. 

Trump also has criticized wind power for killing birds and railed against renewable energy subsidies. 

But energy experts and renewable energy groups say Trump’s victory may not be a win for the Texas oil and gas industry — or a totally bad thing for wind and solar. It all remains to be seen, though, they say, given Trump’s lack of detailed policy proposals and penchant for changing his mind. 

“I think anybody that tells you anything specific doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” said Blaine Bull, a spokesman for the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, a group that supports natural gas, solar and wind energy. “There is the paradox that is Donald Trump.” 

While Trump’s policies have been vague for the most part, the places where he has been certain are actually problematic for the Texas oil and gas industry, said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. 

For one, Webber said, the main priority of Trump’s energy plan is to help revive the coal industry, whose biggest competitor is natural gas — and Texas is the nation’s top natural gas producer.  

“If Trump does market intervention to protect coal from natural gas, that is bad for natural gas, and natural gas is a major part of Texas industry,” Webber said, noting this is better news for big coal-producing states like West Virginia.  

The natural gas industry is also “a major beneficiary” of rules like Obama’s Clean Power Plan that seek to clean up carbon emissions from the power sector, Webber said, “so by releasing or removing some of those regulations in protecting coal would be bad for natural gas.” 

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which says the power plan would lead to higher power prices and threaten electric reliability, would disagree with that, as would most of the state’s Republican leaders, who have painted it as tremendous federal overreach. 

Austin lawyer Michael Nasi, who represents power generators who rely on coal, said such regulations also have increased the cost of power generation for natural gas in some cases and “all warrant serious revisitation.” 

Trump surely will change many of the Obama administration’s new environmental regulations, which were mostly put in place via executive order or Environmental Protection Agency rulemaking, said Bull of the energy coalition. That is clearly bad news for environmentalists.  

Beyond that, though, he said it’s almost impossible to know what to expect because of Trump’s personality and the many mixed messages he espoused on the campaign trail.  

“One week he says 'Drill, baby, drill,' and then the next week he says, 'Well, you know, I think local voters ought to decide whether they want drilling in their communities,'” he said. “So it’s like, 'Alright, where he’s going to be?' He may pleasantly surprise those who are interested in clean energy.”  

And if Trump doesn’t renew subsidies when they expire in a few years, Bull said it may not matter much — at least for wind, which is expected to be fairly profitable by then. 

“There’s money to be made in solar and wind, so perhaps he sees that,” he said. 

That hope was reflected in a statement by The American Wind Energy Association following the election that said it was “ready to work with President-elect Donald Trump and his administration to ensure that wind power continues to be a vibrant part of the U.S. economy.” 

Kathleen Hartnett White, a Trump energy adviser who formerly chaired the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and is being considered for a position in his administration, said that — like her — the president-elect is focused on the importance of “taking advantage of the vast energy resources we have as a means of stimulating economic growth and job creation and human welfare.” Also, she said, dialing down regulation in collaboration with Congress. 

 But Webber said Texas isn’t going to benefit much from Trump’s proposal to lift restrictions on energy production because that is centered on increasing access to federal lands, which are limited in the state. While production likely would increase in states that have more federal land, that would mean more product on the market and lower prices that would hurt profitability of Texas oil and gas operators. 

"So oil and gas companies in Texas that are active in many states might benefit in those other states, but the Texas oil and gas production might have a disbenefit," he said. 

And then there’s the border wall.  

 Texas sells millions of dollars’ worth of natural gas to Mexico every year, and Mexico is looking to expand its own energy production. If Trump throws up a physical, or figurative, barrier, Texas could lose out, he said. 

“Oil and gas companies have been pushing for open markets for decades,” he said. “The wall is a step in the other direction.” 

    This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at


Trump win leaves Texas health leaders wondering about Obamacare repeal

Dallas Morning News

November 10, 2016

Written by Sabriya Rice, Business of Healthcare Reporter

Industry groups in Texas are trying to brace for the impact of a potential Obamacare repeal, but say they have few details to go on.

A "full repeal" of the Affordable Care Act has been a cornerstone in the campaign of now president-elect Donald Trump, who has said he may ask Congress to do so within his first 100 days of office.

Urgency to ditch the health care law was reiterated Wednesday by GOP constituents.

It's “high on our agenda," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters. “I would be shocked if we didn't move forward and keep our commitment to the American people."

However, like many across the nation, providers  are seeking more details about the nuts and bolts.

“There is considerable uncertainty about what the future of health care looks like,” said Ted Shaw, president and CEO of the Texas Hospital Association.

Trump needs to quickly “put some meat on the bones,” added Joel Allison, president and CEO of Baylor Scott and White Health.

Still, the need for change has been evident, especially given the tumultuous year for both providers and consumers. Texas, which has the highest number of people without health insurance in the country, remained one of a handful of states to not expand Medicaid.

Insurance companies cited major financial losses and reduced their options for individual marketplace plans in Texas or exited altogether. Meanwhile, consumers are facing fewer affordable health insurance options amid soaring premiums, co-pays and other out-of-pocket costs.

“Health care has to transform, no matter who’s in the White House,” said W. Steve Love, president and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council. But with early projections pointing to democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, emphasis had been on improving the health care reform law, not repealing.

A repeal that does not include a replacement plan, which includes the ACA provisions that gained widespread support and reduced the number of uninsured, could be problematic, leaders say.

For example, the elimination of pre-existing condition clauses, the focus on prevention, and allowing parents to keep their children on their health insurance policy until age 26 were generally seen as positive.

The law also provided incentives for providers, that supported price transparency, innovation and encouraged them to move away from the fee-for-service structure that rewarded volume instead of value.

"I wouldn't expect that to stop," said Trevor Fetter, chairman and CEO of Tenet Healthcare.  "But we've also been pursuing those things because that is the direction that health care is going in, and not just because of the Affordable Care Act."

Trump has said he will work with Congress to roll out a series of reforms to broaden health care access, make it affordable and improve the quality of the care.

House Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan,  unveiled a plan earlier this year to replace the law.

A positive is that there’s now an opportunity to go beyond just support or dislike of Obamacare, Shaw said. “Instead, we must fully invest ourselves in what it means to be healthy, what it means to provide health care, and how we want to pay for it.”

Any plan to change the law would also be subject to the legislative process, which requires support of both the House and the Senate.

“So, there’s going to be a lot of dialogue,” Allison said.

But even without a lengthy repeal, executive power could immediately “bring Obamacare to its knees,” warns Seth Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

“Trump has a big stick to wield to get his way with respect to health care,” he said. “And his advisers are going to make him aware of the stick. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t use it in some way.”

In an opinion piece posted Wednesday on, for example, Chandler pointed to “cost-sharing reductions,” or payments given to insurers to help keep deductibles and co-payments low for marketplace plans. 

If Trump decides to withhold that money, insurers could start to drop silver plans sold during the 2017 benefit year.