A View from the 81st Legislature
by State Senator Kel Seliger
As the 81st Legislature kicks off this week, it is difficult to tell what, after the budget, will be the most notable issues to mark the session. For me, they will be issues related to water, groundwater conservation districts, and authoritative oversight.
But first will come the budget. Based upon the Comptroller's estimate of early January, the State will have available $77.1 billion for general purpose spending as opposed to the $86.2 billion in the 2008-09 biennium. There are numerous other funds that will be utilized to arrive at a state budget that will be something over $155 billion, but it is clear that spending ability is going to be limited. One thing is clear, the working people of the state of Texas do not believe that they are undertaxed, and so I believe our emphasis must be on the spending side of the ledger.
It is clear that with inflation and enrollment growth alone, we must put more money into public education. Some of the other clear priorities are health care, criminal justice, transportation, higher education, and others that, at the very least, are affected by inflation.
I will introduce some important and effective legislation dealing with water issues. Now, it is a long process to bring areas that use groundwater and are not in conservation districts into the regulatory fold. Some of these are called priority groundwater management areas, and we hope to streamline this process. We must deal with the realization that our "Ogallala Strategy" is planned depletion. And so, we must plan and conserve as if the future of the Panhandle and the South Plains depends on a conservation-based strategy that ensures that the industrial and agricultural viability of our area for the long term. To do that, we must have some authority that ensures that our local regulatory entities implement plans that really do conserve the precious water.
As healthcare has grown to be about 30% of the state's budget, Texas still has a large percentage of its population, adult and child, uninsured. We must address this challenge and, in the long term, address the cost of healthcare which is the underlying challenge for the entire system.
As a former local official, I am always sensitive to issues like local control, which I believe is essential to good government. We must make sure that if a state mandate for cities, towns, schools, or counties is such a good idea, then the state should fund it instead of further taxing the local community.
There are presently 158,000 individuals incarcerated by the State of Texas in a large, complex and expensive system. The number of unfilled jobs undermines the security of the system and must be addressed to see that this system is safe and effective. At the very least, we must pay a wage that will allow us to retain a workforce upon which the system depends.
The Texas Youth Commission has gotten a lot of attention over the last two years, and this legislature will be very important in determining the future of the juvenile justice system. There has been a proposal to combine TYC with the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, which currently serves 95 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system. If this is to be considered, it must be done carefully. One option is a phased-in approach, which would simultaneously decrease the population of TYC while providing additional funding to county probation departments to serve more youth locally. Additionally, I think we must address some individuals whose needs and conditions would indicate more effective treatment in a state hospital setting than in a correctional one.
Clearly, there are many more issues to be confronted in the 81st Legislature. But it is important to realize that no matter how hectic the next 140 days may be, representative government is still interactive. As these issues develop, it is very important to know how our approaches, ideas, and solutions will work to serve Texans, so I hope the people, schools, businesses and others in the 31st District will communicate with me and our staff so that we all play an effective role in a process that affects and should serve all Texans.