Lege Lines: The Score

How the 83rd did on water infrastructure, the budget, education, the environment, and transportation

Lege Lines: The Score

Since January, the News staff has been covering a range of legislative issues of particular interest to Chronicle readers. As part of our ongoing coverage, here's a wrap-up of some bills that did or did not make it through the 83rd regular session – a few still awaiting the governor's signature, others still out in the cold. While redistricting is the central issue of the current special session, if Gov. Perry expands the call, we'll follow these continuing stories. – Michael King

Budget: Fake Dogma, Real Numbers

In 2011, Republican lawmakers swaggered out of the Legislature crowing how their conservative budget had cut spending. As this 83rd Legislature wrapped up its business, lawmakers reversed the program-slashing trend of two years ago and coincidentally proved that the old cuts were smoke and mirrors. Two years ago, the Legislature approved a $173.5 billion appropriation for the 2012-13 biennium, so the Tea Party could claim to its constituents that it cut the budget by 7.5% from the 2010-11 figure of $187.5 billion. However, by the time all the deferred payments, supplemental appropriations, and assorted accounting tricks had gone through the system, the actual biennial budget was $189.9 billion – a 1.3% increase. Not that it did many state agencies any favors: They had been forced to cut provisions and fire staff based on the projected appropriations, not the actual expenses. This time around, lawmakers approved a 3.7% increase in future spending. Now the enigma, as always in Tex­as budgets, is what the real spending looks like in two years time. – Richard Whittaker

Water: More in the Kitty, Less in the Lakes

Don't let the clouds fool you. The recent, unexpected downpours only briefly disguise the fact that Texas is in a massive drought. For the second year in a row, the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies large areas of the Panhandle, saw near-record declines as farmers drained the reserves to irrigate crops. Meanwhile, infrastructure is crumbling in the ever-expanding cities. In a sign that common sense may be slightly overcoming conservative anti-spending dogma, this year lawmakers landed the one-two punch of House Bill 4 and Senate Joint Resolution 1: Combined, they create the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas. The measure still needs approval by voters in a Nov. 5 constitutional election: If they say yes, the state will transfer $2 billion into SWIFT. From there, it will be allocated as loans to local water entities to cover deferred maintenance and increased infrastructure needs.

There are a lot of needs to cover. In 2012, the Texas Water Development Board estimated the state needs to invest $53 billion in water projects over the next 50 years. Ken Kram­er, water conservation committee chair of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the $2 billion "seed funding" for future projects. Is $2 billion to be loaned and reloaned enough? Kramer said, "I don't think anyone can make a judgment on whether that funding is sufficient." However, he is optimistic that the money will go to the right places first. Unlike the state's five-year water plan, which simply lists every project, HB 4 "sets up a process for prioritizing projects that require state funding."

Even with bipartisan support, the SWIFT legislation was one of the last measures to survive the session, as it was briefly held hostage by Democrats hoping to use its passage to leverage extra school spending. There were actually several competing legislative vehicles working though the process but, out of all the rival bills, environmental advocates like Kramer were most supportive of HB 4. In the period before the adoption of a new state water plan (scheduled for 2017), the bill mandates that SWIFT allocate 30% of the cash disbursed to conservation projects (10% to rural and agricultural communities, and 20% to urban centers). Kramer praised the Legislature for making deferred maintenance and leaking pipes a priority, rather than relying on more pipes for aquifer drainage and more reservoirs. He said, "I don't think there's any magic percentage in terms of conservation, but if you put more emphasis on conservation, it costs less than infrastructure." – R.W.

Education: Did We Learn Anything?

In raw numbers, an extra $3.9 billion for public schools goes a long way to filling the gap left by the $5.4 billion cut enacted by lawmakers last session. But it's not about how much extra pie there is: It's about how it gets cut up between the state's more than 1,000 school districts. Due to the "Robin Hood" recapture system, the state's "property rich" school districts (including AISD) give more to the state and receive less than the "property poor" ISDs (the large majority). This time around, the poorer districts get an extra $267 per student in 2014, rising to $359 for 2015. Property rich districts do nowhere near as well, with $125 in 2014 and $138 in 2015. As a member of the House Appropriations committee, Rep. Don­na Howard, D-Austin, was part of the negotiations over the split. She backed using tiered funding to deal with equity disparities but, she said, "at the same time, the vast majority of our Central Texas schools don't benefit from the formula." For example, even though 60% of AISD students are eating free or reduced lunches, the district only receives $103 extra in 2014 and $105 in 2015 because it is considered "property rich." That would have been much less if urban lawmakers hadn't convinced their fellow legislators to split the money using the weighted average daily allowance, rather than just the standard funding formulas. Under WADA, Howard said, the Central Texas ISDs "would get something. If they'd just put it through the formulas, our schools would have seen a pittance."

On the rule-making front, the biggest single change may be the sweeping changes in graduation requirements and school accountability in HB 5. AISD Director of Intergovernmental Relations Edna Butts said, "it goes from 15 end-of-course exams to five, and that's a huge deal for us." By increasing the number of paths to graduation, she said, "it gives kids options, a little like how you choose a major in college." Despite fears of a veto, Gov. Rick Perry signed the bill on June 10.

Some new education laws won't affect AISD: For example, SB 1458 by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, requires school districts to pay into the state's Teacher Retirement System. However, that won't hit AISD's books because there is an exemption for districts that already pay into Social Security. By contrast, SB 1114 by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, could help many students' records, including those at AISD, by making it tougher to issue police citations to students and minors. Butts was scheduled to deliver a legislative briefing to the AISD Board of Trustees on June 10, but said it will be several weeks until AISD, its peer districts, the Texas Assoc­iation of School Admini­strators, and the Texas Associ­a­tion of School Boards can really review every new requirement. "Hopefully," she said, "there's nothing that will be a surprise." – R.W.

Transportation: On the road in special session

As a member of the House Appropriations committee, Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, was part of the negotiations over the split on school finance.
As a member of the House Appropriations committee, Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, was part of the negotiations over the split on school finance. (Photo by John Anderson)

In Texas, the state transportation system has only one definition – highways – but there were high hopes at the start of the session that were deflated by sine die. Perry this week added transportation to the call of the special session, meaning the Texas Depart­ment of Transportation may receive more than the roughly $800 million in funding – a fraction of the $4 billion it says it needs to maintain and repair roads – it was handed in the regular session. With state lawmakers' aversion to increasing the gas tax or vehicle registration fees, it's unclear how TxDOT will muddle along without more funding. The state agency's loss was toll road boosters' gain, as lawmakers passed bills that will lead to more public-private tollway partnerships at the local level. – Amy Smith

Environment: Good Water, Bad Gas

The notable passage of the state's first major long-range water plan (see "More in the Kitty, Less in the Lakes," left) marked the session's biggest bipartisan endorsement of Texas' natural resources (with undeniable concerns about the program turning into a boondoggle for pipeline companies). Beyond that, the Lege took a couple of additional steps forward on some environmental issues and continued backsliding on others, while a fair number of good and bad bills went nowhere. A few highlights:

• Water: Pending the governor's signature, Homeowners Associations will no longer be able to block property owners from replacing grass with drought-resistant, water-conserving landscapes. On its face, Senate Bill 198 (Sen. Kirk Wat­son, Rep. Dawnna Dukes) may not sound like a big deal, but HOAs are notorious for making homeowners' lives miserable for straying from the homogeneous, water-hogging playbook.

In another win for the little people, House Bill 1461 (Rep. Jimmie Aycock, Sen. Troy Fras­er), requires water utilities to notify customers if they're losing water from leaky pipes. The bill drew opposition from a water company, the Associ­a­tion of Water Board Directors, and the cities of Fort Worth and Corpus Christi, but passed out of both chambers and now awaits the governor's signature.

The 2011 record-breaking drought served as the central argument behind the session's water-conservation bills, but not all of them had legs. Lon Burnam's HB 3604 was one of those that made it to the governor's desk. It adds more teeth to requirements that certain water suppliers and irrigation districts not only develop conservation and drought contingency plans – but actually implement them when the governor declares a drought disaster. Other water-saving proposals weren't as fortunate. Watson's failed SB 199 would have required power plants to evaluate their water usage and submit annual reports to the Texas Commis­sion on Environ­mental Quality.

Air: Continuing a series of gifts to the oil and gas industry, new legislation (HB 788 by Rep. Wayne Smith) now shifts the responsibility of permitting for greenhouse gas emissions to the TCEQ instead of the Environ­mental Protection Agen­cy, Rick Perry's Enemy No. 1. All that's needed now is the governor's John Hancock.

Trees: In April we reported on two bills that would have given property owners more leeway in removing trees from their land (see "Then There's This," April 5). One bill in particular, HB 1377 (Rep. Lois Kolkhorst), would have overridden local heritage tree protection rules. The bill drew strong opposition from enviros and city leaders across the state, including letters from Austin and San Antonio mayors Lee Leffingwell and Julian Castro. Homebuilder lobbyists were only able to move the bill as far as Calen­dars, where it stalled. That was also the final resting place for Paul Workman's HB 1858, which would have allowed property owners to remove a tree if they believed it posed a fire risk. – A.S.

LGBT: Close Enough for Comfort

As the saying goes, "almost" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Add to that list LGBT equality. The 83rd Legislature did not give cause for an equality victory lap – but it did offer some significant movement. "Almost" not only counted, but marked the most productive term for pro-LGBT legislation since the 2001 passage of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

An unprecedented 31 pro-LGBT bills were filed during the session. Quixotic attempts to extend anti-discrimination laws to include gender identity and sexual orientation, to repeal the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and to allow the easy change of state ID gender markers died early deaths in committee. However, some less far-reaching legislation gained traction. For the first time in 12 years, three equality-minded bills made it out of committee with some measure of GOP support. Key among those supporters was Dallas Sen. John Carona, who helped usher out of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee Sen. José Rodriguez's measure to remove unenforceable language about homosexual conduct from the Texas Penal Code, and Sen. John Whitmire's bill to extend statutory rape protections to same-sex minors. A "Romeo and Juliet" companion bill, authored by openly pansexual freshman Rep. Mary Gonzalez, cleared House committee.

Anti-LGBT bills were less plentiful, but they did make for a handful of close calls. Most highly publicized was Arlington Rep. Bill Zedler's effort to defund college LGBT centers on the grounds that they promote "high-risk behavior for AIDS, HIV, Hepatitis B, and any sexually transmitted disease." A national uproar and several petitions erupted before Zedler withdrew the bill from the House floor. Stall tactics helped two other bills languish. New Braunfels Sen. Donna Campbell's anti-transgender bill would have barred documents without photos, including affidavits of gender reassignment, from being used to obtain marriage licenses. Muenster Rep. Drew Springer's bill would have allowed the attorney general to withdraw funding from school districts that offer domestic partner benefits.

That the closest anti-LGBT call required a great deal of maneuvering was itself a sign of progress. Fort Worth Rep. Matt Krause originally filed HB 360 with language allowing student groups at state universities to restrict membership based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. A diluted version cleared committee but never received a vote. Late in the game, Krause attached the language to a popular Senate education bill, where it was adopted by the lower chamber. With only a few days left before sine die, the Senate could not agree on the amendment's scope, and removed it before sending the bill to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.

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