WEEK IN REVIEW
LEGISLATURE COMES TO AUSTIN FACING TIGHTER BUDGET
(AUSTIN) — As lawmakers opened the 85th Legislative Session on Tuesday, they learned this week that they will have less money to spend on the state's needs and services than two years ago. According to the biannual revenue estimate, presented by State Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday, budget writers in the Senate and House will have three billion dollars less to work with than last session. Though the state is predicted to take in slightly more in tax and fee revenue than in the current biennium, a measure passed by voters in November to dedicate a portion of sales tax revenue toward highway costs, about $4.7 billion for the next two years, means less money in state coffers. Add that to the decrease in the price of a barrel of oil, which means less revenue from oil and gas taxes, and the Legislature is going to have $104.9 billion in state non-dedicated general revenue available to appropriate.
Despite the decrease in available funds, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said the state will find the money to better equip police officers at all levels of government. This comes after the shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers by an assailant with a high-powered rifle in July of last year. Patrick said at a Thursday press conference that he asked Dallas Senator Royce West to carry the bill, SB 12, which will make $25 million available for local, county and state law enforcement officials to purchase vests that can stop a rifle bullet. "Let it be real clear, whether you are a Democrat or Republican, we support law enforcement," West said. "We don't want to have spouses worry about whether or not their loved ones are going to come home."
Also Thursday, Senator Kel Seliger of Amarillo announced he will seek to make permanent a pilot program aimed at helping kids graduate high school even if they have failed a standardized test. The state requires end of course competency exams, called STAAR tests, for English 1 and 2, US History, Biology and Algebra I to graduate, regardless of classwork. That's not fair to students who might have testing anxiety, learning disorders or language issues, said Seliger. "Even though assessment systems are important, there is nothing magical about the STAAR exam," said Seliger. "The folks at NASA never took a TAKS or STAAR test, and yet we muddled our way to the moon."
He passed a measure last session to create Individual Graduation Committees. If a student has passed all their coursework and has failed no more than two STAAR end of course exams, they are eligible for the program. A committee made up of that student's teachers, school administrators, parents and guardians can consider the entirety of the student's high school career and recommend graduation. Seliger said it's already helped thousands of students. Though the measure is scheduled to expire in September, Seliger has filed a bill for this session, SB 463, to make the program permanent.
Finally this week, the Sunset Advisory Committee wrapped up its review of 25 state agencies conducted throughout the interim. Every state agency has to go through the Sunset process periodically to make sure it's operating efficiently and effectively. Some of the agencies reviewed this cycle include the State Bar, the Department of Transportation and the Texas Medical Board. These recommendations will now go into legislation, called Sunset bills, and must be approved by the legislature before the proposed reforms go into effect.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, January 17 at 11 a.m.