Legislature Taps Rainy Day Fund & Major Events Bill Gets Closer to Passage
Unlike many others, Texas legislators did not take last week off for Spring Break, and the result of their being in Austin was a little bit of movement on the major issue facing them – the state’s $27 billion budget shortfall. But it was just a little movement. That still allowed plenty of time to advance other pending crises, such as the lack of ability to carry guns to work and on college campuses, and the effort to strike down voter fraud that no one, so far, has proved actually exists.
Perhaps most significant for North Texas; bills that would expand the state’s ability to reimburse local communities for the costs of hosting major public events received an uncontested hearing in a House committee last Thursday and may get amended and approved on first reading in the Senate today.
Arlington Senator Chris Harris and Representative Diane Patrick filed SB309 and HB 735 respectively, which would open up the state’s Major Events Trust Fund to reimburse local communities – ideally, this one – for hosting the Academy of Country Music Awards and either, or both, political conventions by the major parties. Money can only be returned to the cities for documented public costs – such as law enforcement – and only if the event generates more sales tax revenue than those costs. In other words, there has to be a net gain to the state above the reimbursed costs, said Robert Wood, director of local government issues for the Texas Comptroller’s office.
Opposition has come chiefly from conservative activists who oppose the state spending money on these events, even though the money the state spends is not actually part of its budget and therefore doesn’t contribute to the shortfall.
The other significant event of the week was a small step forward in the impasse over using the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, commonly known as the Rainy Day Fund, to help close the gap in the state budget that expires in August 2011. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts won the PR battle with Governor Rick Perry, filing a bill to use the fund and then holding the committee at ease when Perry’s staff failed to show up to testify. Pitts even had the committee clerk leave the room and call the governor’s office, where apparently no one was able to answer the phone.
After another two days of backroom negotiations, Perry reversed his public opposition and issued a statement supporting use of $3.2 billion from the fund to solve this year’s budget shortfall. He remains steadfastly opposed to using the fund to fix the 2012-2013 shortfall. It does lead some to wonder what the Economic Stabilization Fund’s purpose is, if not to ease the current crisis.
House Appropriations unanimously approved the bill last Tuesday. It has not yet been placed on a calendar for hearing by the full House.
The Senate approved, by a 30-1 vote, SB 321, prohibiting employers from disciplining employees who are licensed to carry a concealed handgun from bringing guns – not weapons, just guns – to work. The prohibition extends only to guns left in vehicles in the parking lot; employers may still bar employees from bringing them into the workplace. Some workplaces, such as schools, are exempted. Many companies prohibit employees from having guns anywhere on their property, but if the gun stays in a vehicle there is little proactive enforcement, so many don’t see the bill as a significant step. It does raise a question about how a conservative legislature can so easily decide to intervene in the relationship between an employer and an employee, when in many other cases such intervention is decried as government activism and a slap at an employer’s privacy and property rights.
A bill allowing licensed handgun carriers to carry weapons on the property of the state’s public universities is moving through the state House.
And, in a session when the expectations of transportation activists have been severely curtailed, a few bills that attempt to move the needle on funding issues are up for hearings this week in the House Transportation Committee. The most significant, HJR 64, banning diversions of gas tax money from the state highway fund for use in other areas, is the one most advocates believe has to pass before a dialogue about increasing revenue through a gas-tax increase or some other means can even begin. Representative Joe Pickett of El Paso, the committee’s chairman last session, brought the diversions bill forward. It faces a rough road ahead, because if diversions were ended, the highway fund would be $500 million better off but the state’s general budget would lose the same amount of money. When you’re looking for $27 billion, it’s hard to imagine budget writers giving up that revenue, at least this time around. Plus, it requires a change in the state constitution, which means Pickett needs 100 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate.
Two other transportation bills of interest, HB 2255 by Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Phillips of Sherman and HB 2675 by Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, would, respectively, extend public-private partnerships for toll projects and study the possibility of skipping a gas-tax increase all together and consider a fee based on miles driven. The latter is considered the future of transportation funding, charging drivers for their actual use of the road, including when and how much they drive. Gas tax revenue per vehicle is steadily declining as more fuel-efficient cars enter the fleet, and alternative-fueled vehicles pay nothing at all.