Preview of the 83rd Legislative Session
On January 8, the Texas Legislature convened for its 83rd Regular Session. It was an honor to stand among my family and friends and take the oath of office to represent Senate District 16 once again. I am looking forward to getting back to work and to representing constituents, new and old alike. Since the Session has now begun, I offer this preview of some of the major issues the Legislature will likely consider. As the Session progresses, I will continue to update you on these and other issues. As always, please feel free to contact my office to ask questions or share your views on any issue to come before the Texas Legislature.
Budget and the Economy
Constitutionally, the Texas Legislature is required to pass only one bill: the General Appropriations Act, commonly referred to as the budget bill. The budget is drafted for the next biennium, or two-year period, in this case 2014-2015. The Texas economy ranks as the 16th largest in the world and it is essential that the state spend its money wisely. For these reasons, the budget bill is one of the most important items the Legislature will consider.
When the Legislature met in 2011, the recession had left the state to the difficult task of tackling a $15 billion shortfall just to keep state services at current levels. On January 7, the day before we gaveled into a new Session, Comptroller Susan Combs had much better news for legislators. In the Biennial Revenue Estimate, she projected that the State would have $101.4 billion available for general purpose spending for the 2014-2015 budget, which represents a 12.4 percent increase in revenue compared to the last biennium. An additional $8.8 billion surplus from our current budget will significantly boost the amount of money available to lawmakers for the coming budget. While this is encouraging news for the state, it is important to note that not all of this money will be available to budget-writers. In order to pass the 2011 budget bill without raising taxes, the General Appropriations Act of 2011 withheld payment of some large obligations, requiring the payments to be made at a later date. These debts are now due and are estimated to represent nearly $5 billion in outstanding obligations. These items will be paid through a Supplemental Appropriations bill, which must be passed this Session and will most likely be considered early in the Session. In addition to paying past debts, it is estimated that the new budget may need to be increased by as much as $12 billion just to fund social services and school enrollment sufficiently to account for the state's population growth. Keeping these things in mind, as well as the conservative leadership of both the House and Senate, I expect the Legislature will pass a very conservative budget for the 2014-2015 biennium as reflected in the budget bills filed this week (HB 1 and SB 1). I will be sure to keep you updated when details emerge. return to list
The courts are in the process of hearing a lawsuit where the question of whether Texas' school funding is adequate and equitable is at issue. Six separate school finance lawsuits have been filed and a majority of the state's school districts have joined one or another of the suits. The six lawsuits have been consolidated into one and are being heard in a single trial. The cases are unlikely to be resolved prior to the end of the Session and I do not expect the Legislature to change the funding formula prior to a decision from the court. However, many lawmakers are interested in restoring some of the cuts made to education funding in the General Appropriations Act of 2011.
There are other important education issues that I expect to be discussed at length in the coming months. Proposals to change the STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) test, sometimes referred to as "end-of-course exams", have already been filed. Texas began implementation of these tests last year and parents and educators alike have already voiced concerns. Opponents have questioned the required number of end-of-course exams, claiming the approach puts too much pressure on students and causes teachers to teach solely to the test. Also, Texas Education Agency Commissioner, Michael Williams, recently announced the decision to suspend the requirement that ties STAAR scores to course grades.
"School Choice" reform will likely be one of the most contentious issues of the Session. School choice can mean a number of things, including proposals to expand virtual schools, to increase the number of charter schools allowed under the current statutory cap on such schools, or to institute a voucher or tax credit program. As a member of the Senate Education Committee, I will be following this important issue very closely.
Career and workforce training and education for high schoolers is another issue that has received a lot of attention over the last several months. As Chair of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, we heard testimony over the interim from businesses that are looking to hire workers but have found a shortage of adequately skilled workers. Although there are career and technology education courses available for high school students within their current curriculum, many people would like to see these opportunities expanded. I am working with both business interests and education advocates to look into possible legislation to address this issue while still maintaining a rigorous academic curriculum. return to list
Changes could be made yet again to the TEXAS Grant Program, the state's leading financial aid program for higher education. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has proposed changes that would decrease funding for the program and distribute a smaller amount of money to a smaller number of students. Lawmakers may also consider offering a four year fixed-rate tuition to prospective students. The Governor has voiced support for this concept and a proposal has already been filed in the House (HB 29). return to list
Health and Human Services
You may have seen some items in the news lately regarding the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, more commonly known as CPRIT. The agency has been criticized for not fully implementing a scientific review process to determine which projects to pursue and which grants to award and instead placing value in commercial ventures. As a result, the agency's process for awarding grants has been under scrutiny and the agency is currently under civil and criminal investigation. The Legislature may consider how to address these issues.
Legislators are also planning to consider several changes to Medicaid, including whether to expand Medicaid under the recently-upheld Affordable Care Act. The Governor has stated that he does not support an expansion of Medicaid, but some lawmakers believe it could benefit not only the state's uninsured population, but also doctors, hospitals, and other providers that must treat uninsured patients. This is an issue that will require careful consideration. You may have also seen in the news a recent scandal related to dental reimbursements under Texas Medicaid. Senator Jane Nelson, Chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, has sponsored legislation aimed at curbing this type of abuse (SB 151). I support this legislation and I have added my name as a coauthor.
Another proposal that has received a fair amount of attention will require welfare recipients to undergo drug testing prior to receiving benefits (SB 11). Proponents want to ensure that anyone collecting taxpayer money is not using drugs. Opponents argue that the cost of testing may cost the state more money than it will save and have additionally raised privacy concerns. I support this concept and I have added my name as a coauthor. return to list
With the ongoing drug war in Mexico, addressing drug trafficking and crime near the Texas border continues to be a priority for legislators. Money laundering schemes have become a big problem for law enforcement. In 2012 alone, over $28 million was seized from drug cartels in Texas. Because of the increased use of these schemes by the drug cartels, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee recommends the creation of a strong task force to handle the pressing issue. return to list
As a member of the North Texas delegation, I will again make transportation one of my priorities this Session. I plan to work with other members to expedite proposals that will relieve traffic congestion. Funding for roads remains the primary problem. Our state and federal gasoline taxes (last set in 1991 and 1993 respectively) have been eroded mostly by diversions to other uses and inflation. This fact has many legislators looking for other funding streams for transportation projects even though the gasoline tax is the most fiscally conservative and responsible way to pay for our transportation infrastructure. One proposal for consideration would dedicate the sales tax on new vehicle purchases to transportation projects. Others have suggested giving voters choices about how to fund roads in local elections. As the Session progresses, I will be sure to update you about new proposals. return to list
A major issue for many legislators, including myself, is providing funding for the State Water Plan. Texas entered into a historic drought in 2010 and most of the state remains in drought conditions. The extreme conditions have led lawmakers to rally support to fund the Water Plan. To begin implementation of the Plan, many lawmakers are pushing for $2 billion in seed money this Session. Some lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, have suggested using up to $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for these purposes. return to list
Business and Commerce Committee
As Chair of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, I want to share with you some of the important issues the Committee will be taking up this Session. return to list
Energy – The Public Utility Commission (PUC) will undergo Sunset Review this Session to determine if the agency should be continued. Since the Committee has oversight of the PUC, this is a process in which I hope to be very involved. Some of the biggest issues our Committee encounters involve energy and electricity. One issue of primary concern is the ability of the electric grid to meet the demand of customers at all times, taking into account scheduled and unexpected outages of system elements. Some lawmakers have suggested looking further into this issue to ensure that sufficient electricity is available while rates remain reasonable. Another issue that is receiving attention is the use of smart meters by electric companies. Smart meters transmit real time information to electric providers and consumers without physical meter reading. Some consumers prefer not to have the smart meters for a variety of reasons including privacy concerns. I plan to file legislation to allow a homeowner to "opt out" of the smart meter program. return to list
Short-Term Lending (payday and auto title lending) – Last Session, we successfully passed important short-term lending regulatory bills that established disclosure and data reporting requirements, as well as implemented a licensing program that is overseen by the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner. This Session, we hope to build on that success by defining the types of loans that short-term lenders can make by addressing what is referred to as the "cycle of debt", which is a reference to the difficulty a short-term loan borrower may encounter in paying off a loan. I look forward to working with consumers and various stakeholders to implement a statewide, balanced solution that better protects consumers who obtain short-term loans. return to list
Reducing or Eliminating Obsolete, Outdated, or Unnecessary Regulation – Over the interim, the Committee studied occupational regulation and licensing in the State. Through this work, and with the help of a study conducted by the University of Texas at Dallas, several licensing programs have been identified that are unnecessary or anti-competitive. I plan to file legislation that will eliminate these programs. In addition, I plan to consider ways in which the Legislature can better evaluate the need to regulate a particular business or industry before such regulation is put into place. These actions will reduce the size and scope of government and ensure that the private market system can thrive in Texas while also ensuring that programs necessary to protect the public health, safety, and welfare remain in place. return to list
Worker Misclassification – In spite of guidelines defining the differences between an employee and an independent contractor, there is a concern that some employers may classify their workers as independent contractors when they would more appropriately be classified as employees. This can result in a failure to pay overtime, provide workers' compensation coverage, pay unemployment insurance, or pay federal taxes for some workers. This Session, the Committee is considering ways to address the issue of worker misclassification, which has serious consequences: it can be anti-competitive because it penalizes law-abiding employers; it can strip workers of their basic legal protections; and it can drive down standards that make maintaining and recruiting a skilled workforce difficult. Additionally, the state loses vital revenues. Addressing this issue will help level the playing field for all Texans. return to list
Homeowners' Insurance Reform – Over the interim, the Committee received testimony regarding the trend in homeowners' insurance rates in Texas. Conclusively, homeowners' insurance rates are high in Texas and consumers have seen consistent rate increases in years past. A significant component behind Texas' high rates is the wide variety of potentially destructive weather patterns throughout the state. In 2011 alone, Texas had more than 1,500 reports of severe weather, ranking Texas as having the third highest rate of such incidents in the nation. While weather is certainly outside our control, there are other factors contributing to Texas' high rates that can be addressed. I am closely examining this issue and I intend to address it through legislation. return to list
Alcohol Working Groups – Over the interim, I asked Senator Leticia Van de Putte, one of our Committee members, to take charge of a working group to study legislation related to the sale and distribution of beer, wine, and spirits. All interested stakeholders were invited to participate in the group and the hearings were well attended. The meetings were productive, giving us the opportunity to hear a variety of stakeholders' interests and opinions, as well as giving legislators direction for this Session. Senators Van de Putte, Eltife, and I will be considering how to move forward with legislation. return to list
Telecommunications – Every telecommunications consumer in the state pays fees into the Universal Service fund, which is meant to promote access to telecommunications service for all Texans, especially those in rural areas where providing service can be more costly. This Session, I will look at reforming the use of this fund to ensure that it is used for its intended purposes and that it benefits all Texas consumers. return to list
In Closing . . .
You can follow the Texas Legislature Online and create your own alerts and bill lists. As the Session progresses, I will continue to update you on the major issues. As always, please feel free to contact my office to ask questions or share your views on any issue to come before the Texas Legislature.
State Senator - District 16
|P.O. Box 12068|
Austin, TX 78711
|8080 N. Central Expy.
Suite 1440, LB 44
Dallas, TX 75206
|5401 N. Central Expy.
Dallas, TX 75205