Legislative Session Off To A Slow Start

Posted by Jon Weist, on Mon January 28 2013 at 03:15 AM

Two weeks after electing a Speaker of the House and then breaking for a presidential inauguration, the wheels in the Texas Legislature slowly started to turn last week. 

Senators found out what committees they were on and when they would be seeking re-election (unless there is more redistricting, which is always a possibility). House members found out….that they might find out this week what their committee assignments might be.

State leaders, in meetings mid-week with CEOs and Vice Presidents from the eight largest Chambers of Commerce in Texas, mostly stuck to the script about their priorities and, therefore, the priorities for Texas. They weren’t all on the same page of that script, but they mostly repeated what they had been saying in speeches and media events since the November election.

There is general agreement that, after a legislative session two years ago that focused on making government smaller and ramming through a conservative social agenda, the emphasis needs to be on fundamental state responsibilities, such as water and transportation infrastructure, addressing the workforce needs of the state’s employers and fixing the testing systems in public schools that have created a lot of extra work and not much extra learning.

Those, along with preserving economic development opportunities and addressing some of the growing demands for health care availability, largely mirror the agendas of the Metro 8 Chambers of Commerce, of which the Arlington Chamber is a member.

When you get below the surface, however, and talk about how you get there on those items, the general agreement on priorities starts to look a little shaky. All agree something needs to be done, but in most cases there isn’t a clear path to figuring out what that is.

The exceptions are water and education, the latter only because all agree when it comes to financing public schools, this legislature will mostly punt until the finance lawsuits against the state are settled. There is no agreement on how much, if any, of the money cut from public ed last time should be restored.

On water, things are moving. Leaders in both chambers seem favorably disposed toward taking a billion or two from the Economic Stabilization Fund (the Rainy Day Fund) and using it to kick-start development of water projects. A bill to that effect is already filed in the House and a Senate version appears likely to appear soon.

After that, it gets a little murky. A sustainable source for paying for transportation infrastructure seems as elusive as ever even with most members coming around to realizing something needs to be done. Calls for more bonded indebtedness or a one-time distribution from the rainy day fund haven’t gained momentum and mostly fall far short of what’s needed.

There will be changes to the state’s public-school testing regime—reducing the number of tests, letting school districts decide how much the test counts toward a final grade, substituting technical courses for some of the math and science requirements are all on the table – but again, there is a lot of conversation still to go. Representative Diane Patrick of Arlington filed one of the testing reform bills last week, and there are others moving as well.

There has not been as much discussion about restoring cuts to higher education even though most universities have seen the state’s share of their income fall below 20 percent.

And then, even with a substantial budget surplus, there is the matter of how much should be spent, and, just as importantly, how much can be spent. All of that is wrapped up in complex, not-well-understood formula to derive a spending limit. Last session, with cuts to every program, the limit was not an issue. With major increases in most revenue streams in the last two years, the Legislature is nevertheless limited to spending an amount figured by, in a grossly oversimplified explanation, a percentage over how much was spent last time.

Figuring out the percentage is part of the fun, and there is a lot of disagreement on how that percentage comes out. It’s a number that is comprised mostly of population growth and inflation, but figuring out which state spending that number applies to has become a bone of contention. For instance, to cite just one complication, if the one-time expenditures from the rainy day fund cited above are made, do they count towards the spending limit, which would reduce how much is available to fix public and higher ed, health care, etc? Currently, the Legislative Budget Boards says rainy day fund spending does count, and those who disagree are consulting attorneys to challenge that ruling.

The spending limit issue does illustrate on policy position that the Chamber has taken, that is opposition to hard caps on the growth of property value appraisals or caps on local government spending from one year to the next. In a rising economy, those caps look benign, but when spending is slashed because of a recession, the adopted percentages make it difficult to recover, even for basic programs such as education, health care, prisons at the state level and staples such as street repairs and public safety at the local level. The base on which you figure those percentages is smaller, making growth harder to achieve (which for some is the point). Even at its most generous, the state budget for non-dedicated spending in the next cycle will be less than the budget from four years ago because of the large cuts in 2011 and the cap imposed by the spending limit, whatever it turns out to be.

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