Special Session Could End in Fireworks

Governor wants a short and sweet special session

If Gov. Rick Perry gets his way, the legislative special session that starts on July 1 will be over before the July 4 holiday.

If he can pull it off, it will be the shortest special session of his tenure as governor – all seven specials he has called since taking office in 2000 have run for almost the full 30 days allowed by the Texas Constitution. But this time Perry's staff has engineered a highly restricted call, dealing with three pieces of outstanding business from the regular session.

The greatest acrimony is not over why Perry called the special session, but when and how. The regular session finished on June 1, and Perry announced on June 9 that lawmakers would need to come back – but he didn't provide a date. The prevalent rumor was work would start right after Independence Day weekend, but when he issued the call on June 25, he only gave legislators six days' notice that they needed to return to the Capitol. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said there were rumors that Perry was working on "a very short time frame [with] the Fourth of July holiday as an incentive to get this short order of business done." However, she said, "It certainly would have been nice to get a little more warning."

The big issue now is transportation. First is Senate Bill 1, releasing the $5 billion in Texas Department of Transportation general obligation bonds that legislators failed to authorize in the regular session. Lawmakers also failed to pass the TxDOT Sunset bill, as well as the Department of Insurance, Racing Commission, Office of Public Insurance Counsel, and State Affordable Housing Corporation Sunset bills: so SB 2 saves the agencies from closure.

The need for those measures was clear and well established, but Perry has extra business in mind. While ignoring pressure from conservatives to bring back the divisive matter of voter ID and bipartisan calls for reforming the Children's Health Insurance Program, Perry added the establishment of the Texas Transportation Revolving Fund to SB 1. That could be risky for a short session since the original language, filed in the regular session as SB 1350, never made it to the House floor and lawmakers may want a full debate. Finally, there's SB 3, another issue arising from the failure of the TxDOT Sunset bill. In 2007, the legislature passed a moratorium on comprehensive development agreements for new toll roads but granted exemptions for a handful that were already in negotiations: SB 3 continues those exemptions for four years.

While there's little disagreement that these are all major issues, the legislation proposed, especially the Sunset bill, is raising questions. To keep the agencies open, Perry proposes bringing back the terms of House Bill 1959 – the Sunset Safety Net bill. Simply extending the life of those five agencies and adding them to the 2011 Sunset schedule – when the massive Health and Human Ser­vices Commission is up for review – would make that cycle impossibly huge. So the proposal reschedules what agencies would be reviewed in 2011 and 2013, to rebalance the workload. Sunset Advisory Commission Chair Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, called this "the shortest path to ground: to reauthorize those agencies, come back in two years and pass the reforms that were contemplated in the full Sunset bill."

But HB 1959 was a stop-gap measure introduced at the last minute purely because the main Sunset bills didn't pass. In terms of governmental oversight, it's like losing a tire, putting a doughnut on your car, getting to the mechanic, and, instead of buying a new tire, getting a replacement doughnut. That's frustrating for Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who, as vice chair of the Senate Com­mit­tee on Transportation & Homeland Security, said he spent the regular session "up to my elbows" in the TxDOT Sunset process. Perry's plan restarts the process, and an exasperated Watson said, "We just did it."

Isett counters that, even without a full bill, Texas Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi can still use the Sunset review to reform TxDOT: "We've clearly shown the direction we want them to follow, and, to the extent that they implement those recommendations, it's that much less legislation we have to pass next time." When all five agencies come back in 2011, he said, "We've already done the full-blown review, so we'll just have to look at what's changed."

Yet even with both Republicans and Democrats publicly saying they don't plan to sabotage the session, there's no guarantee that all this legislation can be handled in three days. Perry may be planning for an early sine die, but, Watson warned, "If you come back, who knows how it extends?"

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special session, Rick Perry, Texas Department of Transportation

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