My five cents...
by Sen. Robert Nichols, Senate District 3
While we made great progress towards a transportation funding deal over the last few weeks, the second special session ended Tuesday before the House and Senate came to a consensus. Gov. Perry called us back for a third special session beginning the same day to finish the job.
At this point my weekly column will revert back to a monthly column and I am hopeful that when you hear from me again the first week of September, I will have good news to report regarding transportation! In this last column for the legislative session and first two special sessions, instead of telling you five things that happened just this week, I thought we could look back at five areas where the Legislature made reforms during the last seven months.
1. Balanced state budget with no new taxes
Unlike the federal government, the Texas Legislature is constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget each session. Not only did we accomplish this, but we were able to ensure that the budget grew less than the rate of inflation and population growth.
This biennium's budget, which accounts for the next two years in state spending, was able to restore funding to many areas which have suffered over the past two years. Among those areas, the budget improved funding levels for public schools, colleges, mental health services and the women's health program. And unlike states that have large deficits, we have more than $8 billion in our rainy day fund.
2. Reduced school standardized testing
Perhaps one of the most significant moments of this session was when Gov. Perry signed HB 5 into law. This bill cuts the number of standardized tests required for students to graduate from 15 to five. In addition, it enhances career and technical education programs in schools to give students more choice in their future career path.
I have consistently heard from an overwhelming number of parents, teachers and school administrators that believe our kids are being over-tested. This bill, now a law, will allow teachers more time to teach, and will allow students more time to learn.
3. Requiring drug testing for unemployment benefits
Good news! Recent changes in federal law allow states to require drug-testing for claimants of unemployment insurance under certain circumstances. Therefore, this legislative session we passed a bill amending the Texas Unemployment Compensation Act by adding a drug-testing eligibility requirement for applicants to receive unemployment compensation benefits.
Claimants who refuse drug testing or fail such tests would be barred from receiving unemployment insurance benefits until the individual passes a test at least four weeks after the date of the failed test.
4. Cutting business taxes
Just before the end of the regular session, the Legislature passed over $1.3 billion in business tax cuts which should go a long way in helping to sustain Texas' great economic climate. This included a permanent franchise tax exemption for small businesses with revenue less than $1 million. For most other businesses, it's a 2.5 percent rate reduction in fiscal year 2014 and a 5 percent reduction in fiscal year 2015.
As a former manufacturer and business owner, I can tell you how helpful this is and how it helps to spur economic growth. As Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said, passing the franchise tax proposal "sends a clear message that we are committed to sustaining the country's best climate for job creation."
5. Funding for State Water Plan
Finally, I wanted to let you know that the Legislature passed a bill and joint resolution this session to fund the State Water Plan. Specifically, HB 4 will create the State Water Implementation Fund of Texas (SWIFT) to provide a fund to finance projects in the State Water Plan.
There seems to be a growing consensus that Texas must address the need for long-term water planning and projects. As increasing numbers of people move to our great state, there is a growing gap between the projected demand for water, and the amount of the resource available. SWIFT will put an emphasis on conservation, reuse and rural projects.
HB 4 is paired with SJR 1, a constitutional amendment which will appear on November ballots to be voted up or down. The choice ultimately will belong to the citizens of Texas.