81st Lege

Ike, governor's race, and Wall Street

Repairing the wreckage from twin storms – Hurricane Ike and the financial maelstrom on Wall Street – will likely dominate the 81st session of the Texas Legislature, according to a panel discussion at the William P. Hob­by Policy Conference, sponsored by progressive advocacy organization the Center for Public Policy Priorities. The storm analogy came courtesy of moderator Patricia Kilday Hart (Texas Monthly), who with Ross Ramsey (Texas Weekly) spoke with Sen. Kirk Watson, Rep. Patrick Rose, and Rep. Dan Gattis.

Another worry was that the race for the governor's office – while not occurring until 2010 – could overshadow the session. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's potential resignation to run for governor could initiate a domino effect of jockeying and angling for higher office, leaving the session bereft of leadership. "When the elephants dance, the villagers get trampled," said Ramsey. Add the possibility of a House speaker's race – plus a sunset review of huge state agencies and issues such as health care and property taxes – and you have the makings of a momentous, trying session.

Aside from Hurricane Ike's costs – an estimated $2.1 billion in wind damage alone – and Wall Street's gyrations, there's even more fiscal uncertainty: Gains from the "margins tax" levied on businesses last session in order to lessen property tax are still unknown. Hard estimates aren't arriving until Christmastime; however, early projections have revenues coming in under anticipations. Taxes were on Watson's mind, including redress to the state's gas tax: While it's supposed to primarily fund roads, Watson noted that funds are increasingly being diverted to unrelated projects such as the Lufkin Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Are we gonna fix some of the things we said we were gonna fix last time?" asked Watson. The perennial question of property-tax reform will also likely be addressed, said Gattis.

A sunset review of two troubled state agencies – the Texas Department of Transport­a­tion and the Texas Department of Insur­ance – could provide lawmakers the cover to address Republican-wary topics such as public transportation and health insurance. Rose, for instance, foresaw legislation "allowing small businesses to pool their purchasing power" for lower insurance rates. But Repub­lican Gattis went one step further, wishing for TDI to perform an "examination of a public/private [insurance] company" where profit wasn't the primary motive. With billion-dollar bailouts on Wall Street's horizon, apparently government spending on health care just doesn't scare like it used to.

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election, Legislature, Kirk Watson, Patrick Rose, Dan Gattis

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