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Lege Lines

Committees, school finance, and more

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 8, 2013

House Committees Fill Up On Jan. 31, Speaker Joe Straus finally released his list of House committee appointments, meaning lawmakers can finally start moving bills in the lower chamber. In a session where the Senate is expected to push hard to the right, there is a surprising shortage of hardline conservatives on either the budget-building Appropriations committee or Public Education. That's a good sign for education advocates hoping to derail Senate plans for school vouchers. In the Travis County Demo­cratic delegation, Dawnna Dukes keeps her important seat on Appropriations and retains her vice chair position on Culture, Recreation & Tourism (expect local filmmakers hoping for a restoration of film subsidies to breathe a sigh of relief). She's joined on Appropriations by Donna Howard, who is also on Higher Education and is vice chair of House Admin­istration. Dean of the delegation Elliott Naishtat gets his own vice chair post on Public Health, as well as a seat on Human Services. Eddie Rod­ri­guez will serve with the county's sole Republican rep, Paul Workman, on both Business & Industry and Economic & Small Business Develop-ment. In a surprising move, Mark Strama gave up his seat on Education and used his seniority appointment (the legislative equivalent of tenure) to head to Ways & Means, and Straus appointed him to International Trade & Intergovernmental Affairs. That could be good training if, as speculated, he is seriously considering a run for mayor of Austin (see "Council: Raise Your Hand If You're Running for Mayor").

How Much for Schools, and When? Even though it will almost definitely be appealed, lawmakers are already battling over how they should respond to Judge John Dietz's Jan. 4 ruling that the current school finance system is unconstitutional. Although a full overhaul of the system seems unlikely at this point, Democrats are pointing to Dietz's ruling that the system is critically underfunded. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Lare­do, whose district now covers Southeast Austin, said the decision "reflects the need to fund our public schools more adequately and fairly." Austin Rep. Donna Howard said lawmakers should start by reinstituting "programs that are known to improve student outcomes, such as full day Pre-K and the Student Success Initia­tive." Both agreed that the full $5.4 billion cut last session must be restored. However, prior to Dietz's ruling, Senate Finance Com­mit­tee Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Wood­lands, said he had only set aside a maximum of $2.2 billion extra for the next budget cycle.

Changing the Fight Against Cancer Two bills have been filed to fix the controversial Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. The fund was one of the few initiatives backed by Gov. Rick Perry that drew bipartisan support. Now, in the wake of a highly critical auditor's report, there is bipartisan concern about how the $3 billion institution is run and how its funds are managed. On Jan. 5, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who wrote the original CPRIT legislation in 2007, proposed sweeping reforms in Senate Bill 149, and Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filed SB 386, which she says will "mend it, not end it." Both measures draw extensively on the auditor's report. One recommendation has already been implemented: In a step that could have consequences when they run for office in 2014, both Comptroller Susan Combs and Attorney General Greg Abbott have been removed from its board.

No Rain Means More Rainy Day Fund Need State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon delivered a dire warning to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Natural Resources Committees: Texas has only seen about two-thirds of its regular rainfall this winter, setting 2013 for the worst drought year since the 1950s. He forecast that this may be the year when urban populations finally see the kind of shortages that farmers have faced for the last few years. When it comes to water, lawmakers are finally taking the impact of climate change seriously. Even the "big three" – Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Speaker Joe Straus – say they'd back using the Rainy Day Fund to pay for infrastructure, and Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, has proposed drawing $2 billion out to create a water infrastructure bank. However, with the Texas Water Develop­ment Board estimating the state needs $53 billion in reservoir, pipe, and conservation investment, Nielson-Gammon's warning suggests it may be too late.

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