My five cents...
by Sen. Robert Nichols, Senate District 3
Here at the Capitol it is spring outside, and flowers are beginning to bloom. Inside of the Capitol it is a different story as bills begin to wilt and die. With less than 40 days left in the session, almost every bill that has not had a hearing at this point will not pass. As we near the last four weeks of session, members are fighting for their bills.
Five things that happened this week at your Texas Capitol are:
1. Budget conference committee members chosen
On Monday Speaker Straus announced the names of five House members chosen to sit on the much-watched budget conference committee. They will be joined by the five Senate members chosen last week by Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, and together these ten members will work out the differences between the two chambers' budgets.
The House passed their version of the budget, totaling $194.8 billion, earlier this month, while the Senate passed their version at $195.5 billion in March. The conference committee's challenge is to come up with a compromise between the two which will be acceptable to both chambers and ultimately signed by the governor.
2. Railroad Commission Sunset bill passes out of committee
I am proud to report that on Tuesday the Senate Natural Resources Committee unanimously passed out SB 212, my bill dealing with reform for the Railroad Commission. This agency oversees Texas' oil and gas industry and is run by three statewide-elected commissioners.
Among other changes, SB 212 includes ethics reform of the commission as they regulate one of our state's biggest industries. The three commissioners have staggered terms, meaning no two are up for election at the same time, and under the conditions of this bill they would only be able to accept campaign contributions during the time they are actually up for re-election. In addition, they would be prohibited from accepting donations from anyone with a contested case before the commission and would be restricted from running for another office during the first four-and-a-half years of their six-year terms, unless they are willing to resign.
The bill now heads to the Senate floor.
3. Electricity surcharge money to be returned
Early this week the Senate passed SB 1655 to return funds generated from an electricity surcharge back to ratepayers. This payment would consist of a one-time credit of $120 to customers in certain deregulated areas of the state.
In 1999, the System Benefit Fund was established and a maximum fee of 65 cents per megawatt hour began being charged to individuals in deregulated parts of the state. That money is then used to provide discounts for low-income individuals. However, the fund has only been spending a portion of the money they take in for this purpose; the rest has been used to balance the budget.
SB 1655 still has to pass the House, and a portion of it will have to be approved by constitutional amendment, but my hope is that we will ultimately be able to give this money back to the customers who overpaid.
4. Constitutional amendment
On Tuesday the Senate unanimously passed a constitutional amendment, SJR 1, that asks Texas voters to approve spending $5.7 billion of the Economic Stabilization Fund (commonly referred to as the rainy day fund) for water projects, highways and schools. At its current growth rate, the fund would have about $11.8 billion in two years if left untouched.
Specifically, the proposed $5.7 billion would be allocated to give $2 billion to long-term water planning and projects, $2.9 billion to transportation to avoid taking on more debt through road bonds that are currently planned and $800 million for public education to help restore some of the money schools lost last session.
It takes a two-thirds vote by each chamber to pass a constitutional amendment, but if passed, voters will have a chance to vote on the measure November 5th.
5. House votes against Lottery Commission before voting for it
A very unusual thing happened in the House on Tuesday: Representatives first voted against HB 2197 to reauthorize the Lottery Commission, 65-81. However, after considering the hole it would make in the state budget ($2.2 billion over the next 2 years), they voted again and decided to keep it, 91-53. The bill will now make its way to the Senate, but I wouldn't "bet" on the same thing happening here!