WEEK IN REVIEW
SENATE COMMITTEES BEGIN WORK
(AUSTIN) — Lt. Governor David Dewhurst released his committee assignments last week, and Senators wasted no time tackling important issues facing the state this session. The Senate Finance Committee held its first hearing Monday on the biggest issue of the year, the state budget. The Committee heard testimony regarding the proposed Senate budget, which would cut $29 billion from last biennium's budget. This includes ten percent across-the-board cuts at all state agencies, a 25 percent cut in health and human services, and a $6.6 billion cut in public education.
There was good news about the economic forecast in Texas from John Helemann, chief revenue estimator at the Comptroller's office. Sales tax receipts, which make up almost two-thirds of state revenue, have risen over the past year. Jobs are coming back in Texas, with the Comptroller's office anticipating employment back at pre-recession levels by the second half of 2012.
The Committee spent the rest of the week considering cuts to Health and Human Services, including two days devoted to hearing testimony from the public.
The Senate Education committee began work on Tuesday, hearing from district superintendents and school board members asking for relief from some state mandates. With the state's share of public education spending expected to decline, more of the burden will fall on local districts. Officials asked for more flexibility from the state, in order to better control spending back home. They want discretion to lower teacher pay, rather than having to fire or furlough teachers to lower labor costs, as well as freedom from certain accountability measures for schools that meet or exceed state standards. Richardson ISD school board member Karen Allen warned Senators that even with more freedom to control spending, communities may not be able to make up the difference if state cuts are too severe. "While school boards and superintendents would definitely appreciate relief from state mandates and additional spending flexibility, you must understand that neither will adequately compensate for the deep spending cuts that HB1 and SB1 have proposed," she said "The quality of education our children receive is seriously, seriously at stake."
Thursday, the Senate State Affairs Committee considered a bill to control eminent domain authority in Texas, an issue deemed an emergency by the Governor. SB 18 by Wichita Falls Senator Craig Estes, would require a governmental entity to provide a property owner with a fair offer, based on an impartial appraisal, before taking the property for public use. It would allow the owner to repurchase the property at the price paid by the government if the project the land was taken for does not progress within 10 years. Estes told his colleagues that Texas property owners need better protection from an entity seeking to take land. " I believe that the proverbial deck of cards is currently stacked against private property landowners," he said. "The eminent domain process does not properly recognize the value of a landowner's private property interest." The Senate will reconvene Monday, February 7 at 1:30 p.m.