WEEK IN REVIEW
Senate Approves Final Budget
(AUSTIN) — The Senate voted Saturday to approve a final budget for the 2012-2013 biennium, one that reconciles differences between the House and Senate. The budget as approved would spend $15 billion less than appropriated last biennium. Senate Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden said the budget for the next two years meets the state's obligations on critical services. "[The budget] addresses the three priorities that I believe we as a body said were most important: public education, public health safety net services and public safety," he said.
Senators and House Members negotiating a compromise on public school funding for the next two years released details of the deal they will submit to both chambers this weekend. While the House and Senate had agreed to a reduction in education spending, $4 billion less than appropriated for 2010-2011, the chambers sought compromise on the way to achieve these cuts. The plan negotiators agreed to would spread the first $2 billion in cuts among all districts in 2012. In 2013, three-fourths of remaining $2 billion would come through a reduction in funding levels locked in by the Legislature in 2006. The last quarter of cuts would again be spread across all districts. The negotiated compromise will come before the Senate for a vote either Sunday or Monday.
Tuesday, the Senate gave unanimous approval to a bill intended to reduce the filing of frivolous lawsuits. The bill represents extensive negotiations between all stakeholders on the issue, and has transformed the measure from a highly controversial one to one that received wide support. Popularly called "loser pay", the bill as filed would have required the losing side in a civil lawsuit to pay the court costs and attorney's fees of the prevailing party. Supporters said this would make suing parties filing nuisance lawsuits think twice before taking a case to court, but critics of the plan worried that those with a legitimate claim could balk at filing suit against corporations with large and expensive legal teams.
The bill passed Tuesday, sponsored in the Senate by Southside Place Senator Joan Huffman, addressed this by creating a new pretrial procedure. Either party can file a motion to ask a judge to rule, before the trial, if the suit is frivolous. While the loser of this motion would be responsible for the other party's fees and costs, this amount would be far less than the legal bills entailed by a full trial. The bill also encourages parties to settle out of court, by requiring that the loser pay fees and costs if a jury award is too low in the case of the plaintiff or too high in the case of the defendant. Huffman said that her bill was the result of extensive negotiations and compromise, reflected in its unanimous adoption by the Senate.
On Wednesday, the Senate passed two bills that would appropriate more than $3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to cover the fiscal year 2011 budget shortfall. Funds appropriated last session for this year fell short by almost $4 billion, so lawmakers had to pay for this gap to meet state obligations. Public education gets the largest share of the money, $550 million, but other funds would go toward the Department of Criminal Justice and to restoring cuts to state health science centers.