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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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Friday
Jul082016

State Leaders Ask Agencies to Cut Budgets by 4 Percent

  by Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

  July 1, 2016

 Texas' top elected officials are asking state agencies to scale back their budget requests by 4 percent, seeking to further rein in state spending for the 2018-2019 cycle. 

In a letter dated Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus said agencies should propose the 4 percent reduction as a "starting point for budget deliberations."  

"Limited government, pro-growth economic policies and sound financial planning are the key budget principles responsible for Texas' economic success," the three wrote. "It is imperative that every state agency engage in a thorough review of each program and budget strategy and determine the value of each dollar spent." 

The letter hints at some priorities for lawmakers heading into next session, making several exceptions to the 4 percent cut. They include funds for public schools, border security, Child Protective Services and mental health resources. The exemptions also include public-employee pensions, Medicaid and dollars needed to meet debt service requirements for bond authorizations. Agencies are also being asked to submit information about zero-based budgeting, a practice in which all expenses must be justified in a new cycle. Patrick and state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who chairs the Finance Committee, have been proponents of zero-based budgeting.  

Overall, the letter makes a plea for holding back the growth of state government as Texas continues to deal with a downturn in the oil and gas industry.   

"Due to the slowdown in parts of our economy, some difficult decisions will be required to balance the next state budget, and the process of making those decisions begins now," Straus said in a separate statement. 

The directive to agencies is the first step in the process of coming up with a spending plan for the next two years. Later this summer, agencies will send their requests to the Legislative Budget Board, which will review the proposals ahead of the 2017 session. 

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/07/01/state-leaders-ask-agencies-cut-budgets-4-percent/.

Friday
Jul082016

Analysis: No Political Benefit if Voters Can't Feel Tax Relief

 

  by Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

  July 1, 2016

 

If a state officeholder of any political persuasion promises to cut your property taxes, demand proof.

They made their most recent attempt during last year’s legislative session with a constitutional amendment increasing the homestead exemption. Their hope was that school property tax bills would drop.

Voters approved the amendment in November, giving the average homeowner a $126 tax break.

Hey, if you can’t make it rain, make it sprinkle.

Lawmakers tried the rain thing back in 2006, rewriting property and franchise and other tax laws to bring relief to taxpayers.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican who was Harris County’s tax assessor-collector at the time, watched the benefit get swallowed by “appraisal creep” — the steady increase of property values in a booming state.

This is the problem for Texas lawmakers. They want to get a leash on property taxes statewide, even though there is no state property tax. It requires them to restrain local governments. The local governments, with plenty of evidence, point to expensive state government mandates that drive up their costs.

Your governments, taken together, operate as a circular finger-pointing squad.

Bettencourt and other state lawmakers are working on new proposals for state-imposed limits on increases in local property taxes.

But Texas lawmakers don’t set property tax rates or control increases in the market values of taxable real estate — so they’ve never really been able to keep their promises of relief.

Relief itself has a definition problem. What lawmakers mean isn’t necessarily what you mean. “Relief is when you limit the increase in the tax,” Bettencourt says. “A cut is when you actually lower it.”

What Bettencourt and his colleagues are suggesting is relief.

“The real answer is that the rate of increase becomes livable because what we’re at now is not,” Bettencourt says. “Whether it’s Lubbock, the Valley, you name it, Houston, go wherever you want to go — they just can’t stand the rate of increase.”

Texas puts a heavier load on property owners than all but a handful of other states. We’ve all heard tales of people — particularly those on fixed incomes — whose rising property taxes forced them out of their homes and into cheaper digs. The prosperity in Texas hasn’t helped in this regard, since it has fueled fast increases in property values in many parts of the state.

Politicians in office have attempted to respond to that.

• Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sent the Senate Finance Committee this homework assignment (among others) to complete before the next legislative session begins in January: “Study the property tax process, including the appraisal system, and recommend ways to promote transparency, simplicity, and accountability by all taxing entities;” and this: “Examine and develop options to further reduce the tax burden on property owners.”

Imagine, if you’re especially good with small numbers, the Texas taxpayers whose need for property tax relief was fulfilled by the increased homestead exemption now written into the state Constitution.

• In the House, property tax relief appears in the instructions on school finance for the Public Education Committee, in a directive on special district bonds and how to pay them off and in House Speaker Joe Straus' charge to the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee: “Review aspects of the property tax system that contribute to rising property tax levies and taxpayer dissatisfaction. Examine whether the current system allows taxpayers meaningful participation in determining local property tax rates. Explore changes to the appraisal process that could improve the accuracy of appraisals.”

• State leaders would also like to know who ate their previous homework, as you can see in another of their interim projects: “Monitor implementation of the increased residence homestead exemption as approved by the voters in Proposition 1. Determine the amount of property tax relief for homeowners, taking into account increases in appraisals and local property tax rates. Additionally, determine the cost to the state to make up the revenue loss for school districts.”

The political benefits of that constitutional amendment were even smaller than the average $126 tax cut. Imagine, if you’re especially good with small numbers, the Texas taxpayers whose need for property tax relief was fulfilled by the increased homestead exemption now written into the state Constitution.

If voters can’t feel relief, there’s no political benefit.

If lawmakers do something property owners can feel, they will feel the result at the polls.

Sure, other things are more important to voters, like immigration and border security. But if you go to town halls with Bettencourt or anyone else in the Texas Legislature, you’ll hear about property taxes.

Maybe nobody in office will ever get credit for mending property taxes, but they are getting the blame. This is going to be a problem for incumbents until voters are pacified.

And it’s going to be a problem for the voters until the lawmakers find a genuine remedy.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/07/01/analysis-convincing-texas-property-taxpayers-theyv/.

Friday
Jan292016

Report: Not Enough Done Since West Explosion

 

by Kiah Collier

Texas Tribune

Jan. 28, 2016

 The Texas Legislature’s efforts to beef up state oversight and avert deadly disasters like the 2013 West fertilizer plant explosion have been “not entirely adequate,” the federal Chemical Safety Board says in its final report on the disaster.

The 265-page report, released Thursday, describes in extensive detail every misstep leading to the disaster nearly three years ago that killed 15 people — mostly first responders — and injured more than 260 in the tiny, Czech-settled town of West. The accompanying list of recommendations — targeting agencies at every level of government along with professional organizations and the fertilizer plant owners — is extensive and reveals that any inaction to prevent future ammonium nitrate-related catastrophes has not been limited to the state Capitol. 

Many of the safety board's recommendations are for federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, despite an executive order already issued by President Obama that such entities improve safety at facilities handling the explosive material. 

The West disaster "is one of the most destructive explosions ever investigated by the CSB,” safety board chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland said in a statement. The safety board “found that limited regulatory oversight, poor hazard awareness, inadequate emergency planning, and the proximity of the facility to nearby homes and other buildings all led to the incident’s severity.”

Whether the report will result in any changes is questionable, however. The safety board has the power to investigate chemical accidents but has no enforcement authority.

The report found that 83 percent of the 40 facilities in Texas that store fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate still are located within a quarter mile of a residence. The statistics are similar for other states, it noted, warning of future disasters across the nation absent further action.

The April 17, 2013 catastrophe in West began with a fire at the locally owned Adair Grain and West Fertilizer Company and ended with a massive explosion that leveled a substantial portion of the small town 18 miles north of Waco on Interstate 35. Dozens of homes, an apartment complex, a nursing home, the town’s intermediate school and the fertilizer depot itself were destroyed or severely damaged.

Volunteer firefighters responding to the blaze were unaware that the ammonium nitrate stored inside could explode, and lacked training on how to handle such hazardous materials, the safety board report concluded, going on to recommend further training. If the incident had occurred during the day, when school was in session, hundreds of people likely would have died, the safety board found.

The exact cause of the explosion was never identified, although state fire investigators pinpointed either arson or faulty electrical systems. Several lawsuits against the plant are still pending. 

Despite the death and devastation, Republican state lawmakers have been skeptical of imposing additional regulations on the fertilizer industry or making other changes to protect the public.

After West, some legislation passed authorizing fire officials to inspect ammonium nitrate facilities and fine them as much as a few thousand dollars if they found hazards. But more substantial bills filed by Democrats never gained traction, including one that would have imposed penalties for improper storage of ammonium nitrate and created a rule-making authority on ammonium nitrate facilities. 

The changes to state law so far are “important first steps in recognizing the potential catastrophic hazards of (fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate) under certain conditions,” the safety board report says. “However, they are not entirely adequate.”

One bill passed last year, House Bill 942, “simply codified existing state hazardous chemical reporting requirements," rather than strengthening them, according to the report, which is dedicated to the 15 people who died in the West explosion.

State agencies and entities targeted in the report include the Texas Department of Insurance, the Texas Commission on Fire Protection, the State Firefighters’ and the Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas. 

The safety board will present its finding to the public Thursday evening in Waco. 

 

Friday
Jan292016

TxDOT Planning $1.3 Billion to Reduce Traffic in Largest Cities

 

 By Madlin Mekelburg, The Texas Tribune

 January 27, 2016

The Texas Transportation Commission unveiled a $1.3 billion plan Wednesday targeted at reducing traffic congestion on some of the most clogged Texas roadways. 

 The plan calls for the Texas Department of Transportation to direct funds for 14 roadway projects specifically designed to relieve gridlock around the state's five largest cities: Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth. 

 “On average, Texas drivers are losing about 52 hours annually and over $1,200 annually,”  said J. Bruce Bugg Jr.,  a member of the Texas Transportation Commission. “In order to tackle this, what we decided to do is focus on the five major metropolitan areas." 

In September, Gov. Greg Abbott called on the commission to develop a plan to address traffic congestion, citing the potential for "business growth and job creation" if roadways were less crowded.  

The largest amount of state funding — $262 million — is going toward relieving congestion on parts of I-35 and U.S. 67 in Dallas. Another $210 million is also going toward I-10 in Houston. 

The proposal also allocates $148.6 million toward three different projects on I-35 in Austin, a portion of which topped TxDOT's most recent annual list of the 100 most congested roadways in the state. 

While TxDOT regularly allocates funding for road projects around the state, the size of Wednesday's announcement and the focus on the state's five largest cities was unusual.  

Bugg said the agency is focusing on cities because they are home to two-thirds of the state's total population, which means they also possess some of the most jam-packed roads.  

"Kind of a corollary of being home to two-thirds of the Texas population, those five major metropolitan areas are also home to 99 percent of Texas’ top 100 congested roads," Bugg said.  

Bugg said Wednesday's proposal is only the initial phase of a larger effort by TxDOT to clear Texas roads, something that would require further funding down the line.  

"Our goal and objective of this initial phase of funding is to get projects working as soon as possible so that Texas taxpayers that get behind the wheel of their car everyday will understand that we’re serious about showing Texas taxpayers congestion relief as soon as possible," he said. 

State lawmakers have taken multiple steps since 2013 to address a shortfall in funding for road construction and maintenance, collectively adding billions annually to the state's highway fund. The most recent change came in November, when Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a change to the state’s Constitution to direct some of the taxes collected on car sales to road construction and maintenance. 

 This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/01/27/commissioner-unveils-anti-congestion-initiative/.

Friday
Nov132015

Straus Forms Select Committee on Mental Health

by Johnathan Silver, The Texas Tribune
  November 9, 2015
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus announced Monday he's formed a select committee on mental health to take an all-encompassing look at the state's behavioral health system. 
The committee will review and make recommendations on issues including substance abuse, care for veterans, identifying illnesses early and improving delivery of mental health care, the speaker said in a news release. 
“We have taken some major steps to address the state’s mental health needs,” said Straus, R-San Antonio. “It’s important not to look at these issues in isolation, but rather to take a comprehensive view of how to improve the system. Many legislators asked that we take a closer look at various issues related to mental health, and it became clear that one committee should look at all of those issues together.” 
The announcement comes after Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked lawmakers to study several issues related to mental health before the Legislature next meets in 2017. Patrick directed senators to look into jail safety standards, diversion and treatment programs, mental health and de-escalation in the criminal justice system, and mental illness in the state's foster care system. Straus asked a committee studying law enforcement issues to look into mental health crisis and confrontation in the criminal justice system. 
The mental health discussion in Texas has been reignited by several high-profile deaths this year, including the hanging death of Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail and the shooting death of a Harris County sheriff's deputy by a man with a criminal and mental illness background. 
The panel will include members of the Appropriations, County Affairs, Insurance, Public Health, Corrections and other committees. State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, and state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, will serve as chairman and vice chairman, respectively. State Reps. Greg Bonnen, Garnet Coleman, Sarah Davis, Rick Galindo, Sergio Munoz, Andrew Murr, Toni Rose, Kenneth Sheets, Senfronia Thompson, Chris Turner and James White will make up the rest of the committee, according to Straus' office. 
 
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/11/09/straus-forms-select-committee-mental-health/.

 

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