Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, always keeps members waiting for committee assignments, so it was nearly close of business last Wednesday, Feb. 4, before he let the House know which airless hearing room they'll be locked within for the next four months. Unlike the Senate, where only two of the 13 committee chairs went to Dems, Straus continued to be far more bipartisan, leaving the minority party in charge of about a third of his 38 bodies. No chairs for the Travis County delegation, but local Democrats Dawnna Dukes and Donna Howard both retained seats on the all-important House Appropriations Committee.
Speaking of Appropriations, the first gentle jabs in the budget wars began Feb. 9, at the opening meeting. While Senate Finance has been meeting almost daily for the last two weeks, this was the first time that all 27 members of the House budget-building body were in the same crowded room, and they still didn't all have name plates in front of their desks. "The next couple of months, while packed full of work, will fly by," warned Chair John Otto, R-Dayton, before delicately hinting at the inevitable partisan fights to come by a friendly scolding to Vice Chair Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, to not pretend he had little to say on the budget. "I'm going to be a person of very few words," Turner jokingly defended himself, "in the next couple of minutes."
As Appropriations got down to business, Chief Revenue Estimator Tom Currah told members they should have around $113 billion in general revenue funds to spend over the next two years. "That's about a 9.5 percent increase over what we expect to finish this biennium with," he said. He attributed that increase to an expected 3% growth of the Texas economy over the next two years: strong, but down a little from the previous biennium, due to declining oil prices. However, sales taxes (which account for over half of all state tax revenue) and the vehicle sales tax are both performing well. Here's how that calculation breaks down: The comptroller expects there will be a remaining balance of $7.5 billion, plus $110.4 billion in estimated revenue over the 2015-17 biennium. That comes to just under $118 billion, but $2.5 billion of that goes to the Rainy Day Fund, and another $2.5 billion to the State Highway Fund, leaving $113 billion in available GR cash.
Appropriations hearings are infamously long-winded, miserable experiences. Ever tried splitting the bill for lunch? Try the same deal for a $113 billion state budget. The sight of exhausted lawmakers at 3am, passing a testimony slip along the bench, trying to find someone awake enough to read the citizen's name, is not unheard of. Sagging blood sugar on the dais can be catastrophic, so Chairman Otto made sure to tell his fellow Appropriations members that snacks and sodas will be provided in the back room, and that he personally was paying for breakfast for this week's three 7am hearings. Moving forward, he said, "Any donations to ensure we have enough provisions will be greatly appreciated." But one group of people can definitely keep their contributions in the pantry, with a stern warning from the chair that no food or drink would be accepted from lobbyists while the committee is in session.
There's a broader push to crack down on lobby influence, as well. Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, has filed House Bill 972, which would hack away at lobbyists' ability to hide their, ahem, altruistic generosity to starving lawmakers. Geren's measure would lower the point at which lobbyists must submit a detailed expense report to the Texas Ethics Commission, cutting that trigger point from 60% of lawmakers' per diem (currently $150 per day, rising to $190 this session) to a flat $50. So no second dessert with that steak, we're guessing.
Never mind that House members are tired of threats from open-carry advocates, and UT System Chancellor Admiral Bill McRaven says he's opposed to campus carry, the Senate Committee on State Affairs will hear Senate Bill 11 (campus carry) and SB 17 (open carry) at 9am on Feb. 12... Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Comptroller Glenn Hegar want the Major Events Trust Fund (which helps subsidize the U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race and other events) moved out of the Comptroller's Office and over to the Governor's Economic Development and Tourism Division. While several bills have been filed to alter eligibility and oversight, no lawmaker has proposed the shift yet... Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has pledged to keep the National Guard on the border past March, when funding for their deployment ends. Speaker Joe Straus politely but pointedly reminded him, that's commander-in-chief Gov. Greg Abbott's call, not his... Our long voting nightmare is almost over: The four remaining special election run-offs are scheduled for Feb. 17. Last lawmaker seated must bring breakfast tacos for Appropriations.
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