JANUARY CAPITOL UPDATE
Dear Fellow Texan--
As you read this the 80th Legislature has gaveled to order and we have officially started to work. Yesterday we received the biennial revenue estimate from Comptroller Susan Combs. The new Comptroller informed us we have an additional $14.3 billion dollars to spend. Combs said we will have $82.5 billion in state money to spend, up from $68.2 billion spent in the current budget.
But some of that money has already been spent. Last year when the Legislature passed the school finance bill package we planned on the surplus being large. So roughly $7 billion (of the $14.3 available) will be used for the property tax cuts and increases to education spending that were approved last year.
Combs predicted that the state will have a $7 billion surplus in the current budget, which will end August 31. She also projected that the state will collect $7.3 billion more in the next two years than it is now spending. Those two numbers combine for the $14.3 billion increase.
The surplus comes as a result of several things--larger growth in state tax collections than former Comptroller Carole Strayhorn projected two years ago, plus tight limits that the Legislature has put on spending in the past four years. State spending has grown 2.5 percent per year in the past four years, less than the rate of population growth and inflation.
So while we have some extra money we must be careful to not spend it all in one place or at one time. Eventually our market will cool, housing starts will decline, and consumer spending will slow. When that happens we will have to be prepared for those times. The Legislature must continue to be fiscally disciplined, setting clear priorities and remembering that it is the taxpayer's money.
As we move through the budget process there are several statewide issues we will be looking to resolve in addition to the budget issues in Senate District 24:
Immigration--There are a lot of proposals on the table to help in the illegal immigration problem. One proposal would strip citizen children of undocumented workers of their rights to food stamps, health care, public education and public housing under some proposals.
Public Education--Revamping or scrapping the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test for some form of end-of-course exams instead.
Prisons--With prisons filling to capacity, we must start looking to possibly build more prisons as well as look to alternative drug and mental health treatment for nonviolent parolees.
Electricity Rates--We will continue to monitor the electric market as the state has now entered full deregulation. If competitive forces are not working, then the Legislature will need to look for tools to ensure that competition exists, creating choice and lower prices for consumers.
Today the Senate welcomed four new members to the body: Senator Glenn Hegar (R-Katy), Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston). In addition to these four, Senator Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) was sworn in earlier this year.
I look forward to working with all of these new members throughout the Legislative session.
Senate Committee interim reports are slowly being published. Each committee will report their interim findings to the Senate with recommendations to address each of those charges. As the interim hearings start to wind down, be sure to check the Senate website for the various committees Interim Reports.
School buses are known for belching black smoke as they chug along their routes, burning fuel at about seven miles per gallon. But two Texas school districts have joined a nationwide buyers' consortium of 15 school districts and school bus purchasers to improve air quality and save fuel.
The consortium plans to purchase 19 plug-in hybrid electric buses (HEBs), the first of their kind in the U.S. Austin Independent School District (AISD) and Killeen Independent School District (KISD) each plan to purchase one bus.
A traditional diesel school bus emits more than 500 tons of air pollution and consumes 20,700 gallons of fuel over its 15-year lifetime, according to Advanced Energy. Kids riding traditional buses are exposed to these pollutants during their commute, especially when the buses idle to pick up passengers.
Plug-in HEBs greatly reduce tailpipe emissions and eliminate them completely when buses are idling. Instead of using up energy when a bus slows or stops, a battery recaptures that energy and recharges itself. And unlike conventional hybrids that only recapture energy when slowing down, plug-in hybrids also recharge at night by plugging into the power grid when electricity is cheapest and when power plants produce less pollution.
Although plug-in HEBs cost more than their diesel counterparts--about $215,000 a bus compared to about $70,000 for a traditional bus--Advanced Energy estimates the HEB will pay for itself in fuel savings over its lifetime.
Diesel fuel averaged $2.95 per gallon in August 2006, according to the Energy Information Administration. Because an HEB's battery engages for much of its route, fuel economy nearly doubles, from 7.6 miles per gallon with a regular school bus to 12.7 miles per gallon with a plug-in HEB, Pritchard said.
With a fuel budget of $2 million a year, AISD could use the savings, said Kris Hafezi, AISD assistant director of transportation.
AISD hopes to receive its plug-in HEB by July 2007, said Andy Welch, director of communications for AISD. The district will receive a $65,000 grant from Austin Energy as well as federal funding to help pay for the bus, Welch said.
KISD, however, is about $70,000 short of fully funding its HEB purchase, said KISD Transportation Director Joe Hart.
"We'd be interested in using those buses in our fleet not only as a reduction in pollution, but also as a fuel savings measure," Hart said. "The estimated mileage on the plug-in HEB is about twice what we see right now, so depending on how many we had in the fleet, there would be an offsetting amount in the cost of fuel."
The district spends $36,000 to $40,000 a week on fuel for its fleet of 250 buses, Hart said. "This is the only technology that can reduce your emissions and decrease your operating costs, so it provides a benefit to society and a benefit to school systems," Pritchard said.
Now that session has begun there are a few new faces in my Capitol Office. I am happy to welcome Sara Wilkinson, Lana Chumney and Sean FitzGibbons to my staff. Sara, from Menard, and Lana, from Hamilton, are recent graduates of Texas A&M. Sean is from San Antonio and is a graduate of the University of Texas. Also joining my Business and Commerce Committee staff is Emily McCallum, who is a graduate of Texas A&M also.
The rest of my Capitol Office Staff remains the same:
Janice McCoy, Chief of Staff
Terri Mathis, Scheduling Director
Daniel Womack, Communications Director
Senate Committee on Business and Commerce Staff
Michael Gregg, Committee Director
Daniel Madru, Senior Policy Analyst
Gretchen Dillon, Policy Analyst
Tatum Baker, Committee Clerk
J. Brown, District Office Coordinator (Belton Office)
Blake Woodall, District Office Coordinator (Abilene Office)
Mel Ferguson, District Office Coordinator (Marble Falls Office)
It is important to me that you know my staff. They are each a valued part of my team that works hard during session. Please do not hesitate to call them if you have any questions.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need assistance with a state agency or wish to voice an opinion on any matter before the Texas Legislature. I always appreciate hearing from you.
I hope to see you soon.
HOW TO CONTACT SENATOR TROY FRASER
Austin Capitol Office
P.O. Box 12068
Austin, Texas 78711
FAX: (512) 475-3732
Marble Falls District Office
607 B Highway 281 North
Marble Falls, Texas 78654
FAX: (830) 693-9603
Abilene District Office
500 Chestnut Street, Suite 810
Abilene, Texas 79602
FAX: (325) 676-8060
Belton District Office
1920 North Main Street
Belton, Texas 76513
FAX: (254) 939-7611