Special Session: In and Out in a Jiffy

Lawmakers passed two key bills – then they went home

Kirk Watson
Kirk Watson (Photo by John Anderson)

The first (and possibly last) special session of the 81st Legislature was a model of efficiency: Two major pieces of legislation passed in 31 hours, with unanimous votes in both House and Senate. But this was only achieved by lawmakers refusing to touch two extra issues that Gov. Rick Perry placed on the agenda and using the constrained time frame he had chosen against him.

When the Senate ended the regular session on June 1, it was clear there were two pieces of unfinished business that might trigger a special session: authorizing the issue of the first $2 billion of the $5 billion in bonds approved by voters in 2007 and passing Sunset legislation for the agencies that didn't get the legal authorization to continue operating in the regular session. So when Perry called lawmakers back for what he hoped would be a three-day session (in on July 1, out before July 4), lawmakers were forewarned. Senate Transportation & Homeland Security Commit­tee Vice Chair Kirk Watson, D-Austin, explained, "There was a strong, significant consensus that, if you're going to call us back, let's take care of the two things that need to be taken care of, then get out."

However, it was the additional measures on the call that concerned lawmakers. The first was Perry's request to allocate $1 billion of the $2 billion to establish the Texas Transportation Revolving Fund, issuing loans for local transport projects. The second was Perry's request to extend and alter the terms for the handful of private-equity toll-road projects, primarily in North Texas, exempted from the 2007 moratorium on comprehensive development agreements, or CDAs. Both met a cool response from legislators. Watson observed, "There was a general feeling that, when you've got problems with the funding of transportation, the idea that the one thing you throw out there is privatized toll roads just isn't the way to go."

The bonds went into House Bill 1 and the Sunset fix into Senate Bill 2 (see "Rejiggering the Sunset Process") and both passed easily. But the new fund, which was added into HB 1, and the CDA reforms in HB 3 both faltered quickly. Lawmakers made a simple calculation: Stick around and take up all measures in depth, or stick to Perry's accelerated schedule and leave some measures pending.

At the end of the first day, House Transpor­tation Committee Chair Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, was cautiously optimistic about getting everything to the floor ("Well, we've got 30 days," he said, referring to the maximum duration of a special), but the revolving fund stalled first. A similar measure had passed the Senate as SB 1350 in the regular session, with Watson voting for it because it put a little more money into local funding. Yet he still had concerns, calling it "Band-Aid stuff [that is] clearly taking money that the voters authorized for state transportation projects." And although SB 1350 had passed out of the House Trans­por­ta­tion Committee, the other members had never seen it. Rep. Valinda Bolton, D-Austin, bluntly explained their concerns the day before the special started: "If you know anything about it," she said, "you know more about it than we do." Ultimately, House members were wary of establishing a new fund with a $1 billion treasury on two days' debate and instead placed the cash with the State Infrastructure Bank. Bolton put the decision down to "a trust issue, at least in part," and suggested that if the governor wants the fund, there should be a full interim study and a proper debate next session.

The CDA exemptions in SB 3 met similar concerns, but members were also on the receiving end of direct lobbying by anti-toll groups like Texans Uniting for Reform & Free­dom. Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said members had been "inundated" with calls from opponents; when the bill stalled out without a vote, TURF board mem­ber Hank Gil­bert proudly announced, "We killed Goliath," and called it a victory over Perry and the toll-road lobby.

Watson placed the responsibility for both failed measures with Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for not consulting with lawmakers ahead of time, giving them less than a week's warning about the start of the special, and misreading their willingness to rush complex and contentious legislation through without serious debate. Since the bonds could be issued and the funds spent, and the CDAs in question were safe until 2011, Watson said, "The burning platform didn't really seem to be on fire."

So will Perry call another special session? It seems unlikely. He said he was "pleased" with what this session achieved and gave no indication of bringing the CDAs, the revolving fund, or any other issues back early. Before heading off for the interim, House Speaker Joe Straus said, "His parting words at breakfast the other day were, 'We'll see you in 2011.'"

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