Lege Lines: Gov. Abbott Takes the Stage
Abbott delivers the State of the State and lawmakers get a per diem boost
Before a rare joint Legislative session, on Feb. 17, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered his first State of the State address to the Lege, and designated his five emergency items for the session:
1) Extra funding for quality pre-K programs (though, with only $182 million more cash proposed, it's nowhere near enough to actually pay for full-day pre-K statewide).
2) More emphasis on higher education, with half a billion dollars to attract top-flight researchers, and extra support for two-year and vocational degrees.
3) An extra $4 billion a year for transportation (meaning highways).
4) Increased border security – and at this point Abbott took the time to tell lawmakers that the previous night he had ordered National Guard commander, General John Nichols, and Texas DPS director, Colonel Steve McCraw, to maintain their current border deployment.
5) And finally, sweeping ethics reform.
As for his budget, Abbott wants a 3% cut in spending in all departments and, with typical conservative zeal, he proposes cuts of $2 billion in the franchise tax, and $2.2 billion in property taxes, and promised to veto any budget that didn't provide it. Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa was diplomatically supportive of the broad sweep of his plan, but savaged the governor for failing to tackle affordable health care "or creating more family-supporting jobs so more hardworking Texans can join the middle class."
While Abbott was in the House, laying out his agenda, there were long lines outside the Legislature from community and professional groups, waiting to make their case for pending legislation. The Texas Physical Therapy Association had gathered an estimated 800 students and practitioners to push for House Bill 1263 by Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, which will allow qualified and insured physical therapists to accept patients without a referral from a doctor. As they waited in the cold to get through the security check points at the Capitol doors, they were serenaded with "You've Got a Friend in Me," courtesy of the Austin Harmony Chorus. They were braving the chilly wind for Senior Day at the Capitol, as the Texas Senior Advocacy Coalition prepared to make its case for more senior-care funding to lawmakers. Top of the TSAC priority list: a 10% increase in Texas Senior Corps funding; increased Medicaid reimbursements; funding local guardianship and money-management programs for elderly and disabled Texans; proper dental care for residents of Skilled Nursing Facilities; and, perhaps most vitally, extra cash for the desperately overstretched Long-Term Care Ombudsman, needed to provide real representation for residents of assisted living facilities. With bipartisan representation at Senior Day from Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-North Richland Hills, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Attorney General Ken Paxton, that agenda may have some serious traction.
Brother, Can You Spare a Per Diem?
The Texas Ethics Commission has approved a raise in the per diem for lawmakers, from $150 to $190. Think that's exorbitant? Quick reminder: Lawmakers are only paid $600 a month, and you try surviving in Austin on a yearly income of $7,200 (side note: There's a popular story in legislative circles that, during the Tea Party revolution of 2011, at least one new radical freshman was shocked that their salary was so low, having confused Congressional and state House salaries). That salary cap is set in the constitution, but the TEC gets to set the per diem each session. Lawmakers receive that cash every day of the regular session and any special sessions, without needing to provide receipts, but it has to cover all their basic living expenses. That means that, if the Legislature met every day for a whole year, their pre-tax earnings would be $76,550 plus traveling expenses. But since the legislature only meets for 140 days every two years, even this boost means that lawmakers will make only $33,800 this year (again, pre-tax) and, unless there's a special session next year, only $7,200 in the 2016 off-year. Wonder why only independently wealthy people run for office? There's your answer.
Community Schools, Community Lunch
Abbott also raised the dreaded specter of school choice, the education reform movement's delicate euphemism for charters and vouchers. However, "school choice means different things to different people," Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, told a lunchtime gathering of Austin Voices for Education and Youth. Specifically, it could mean opportunity for community schools, where whole neighborhoods come together to support their local public school (see "The Heart of the Community," Feb. 28, 2014). Rodriguez is currently drafting two bills, one defining community schools, and a second that would allow the commissioner to consider turning a troubled school into a community school (currently, the commissioner can only order reconstitution or closure).
The results are in for the Feb. 17 special election run-offs. Republican lawyer Leighton Schubert took House District 13, while fellow GOPer and former Caldwell County Commissioner John Cyrier won HD 17; Another lawyer, Democrat Diego Bernal, won HD 123; And Rep. José Menéndez beat fellow San Antonio Democrat Trey Martinez Fischer in Senate District 26, which means another special election in Menéndez's old HD 124 seat. The first non-budget House bill reached committee this week, with HB 77 by Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso, getting its first hearing in Health and Human Services on Feb. 16. The measure proposes a study of the Dallas Men Against Abuse program, to see whether its strategies to reduce domestic violence can be replicated statewide... Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, vented on Facebook that the way the city of Austin had closed streets for the Austin Marathon prevented her staff from getting to the Capitol "without inconvenience" (she thinks that's bad, try taking the bus on race day)...