83rd Legislature off and running

Gov. Rick Perry addressed a joint session of the Legislature on opening day.

The 83rd session of the Texas Legislature began this week, and it was a classic “good news – bad news” scenario with Comptroller Susan Combs reporting that increased state revenue forecasts mean that unlike the $27 billion shortfall faced in 2011, lawmakers are looking at $8.8 billion in unspent revenue in the current budget cycle. That represents a $35 billion swing in just two years so things are looking up, right?

Not so fast, said Gov. Rick Perry who addressed a joint session of the Legislature on opening day.

“Trust me when I tell you that there are interests all across this state who view Monday’s revenue estimate as the equivalent of ringing a dinner bell,” said Perry. “They all want more for their causes, they all figure we have money pouring out of our ears now, and they all have your address and phone number.”

Those interests and their causes Perry warned lawmakers about are not all created equal. There is a valid argument that those advocating for public education or services for poor children, for example, have needs at least as worthy of consideration as energy companies or cattlemen. They all have their advocates in Austin including lobbyists and the members they helped elect. That is the battle that will be waged in back rooms, committee hearings, and on the floor of both chambers in the months ahead.

Perry has already insisted the state has no obligation to restore the $5.4 billion slashed from public education in the last session. House Speaker Joe Straus has promised to increase school funding by $2 billion but that will only cover additional expense caused by enrollment growth. Perry suggested the additional revenue should go to tax reduction instead of covering past budget cuts.

State Senator John Whitmire took exception to Perry’s analysis.

“I don’t think you have a surplus. We should have spent more two years ago when we had the money in rainy day,” said the Democrat from Houston who has served in the Legislature since 1973. “There’s not a state agency in this state that is being adequately funded, not one.”

Sitting at the crossroads of these battles is new Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams. The Republican from The Woodlands, whose district includes large chunks of Southeast Texas including Jefferson County, said he is reluctant to change public education funding formulas while an ongoing lawsuit over school spending works its way through the courts.

On other education issues, Williams is more forthcoming. He favors increased funding to community colleges and schools like Lamar University that see more students who are often the first one in their family to go to college.

“They are doing the lion’s share of the work, and I want to make sure they are adequately funded,” he said.

On the issue of school vouchers, Williams has staked out a position far different from new Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who is pushing for a voucher system that takes taxpayer money from public schools for students who want to go to private or religious schools.

Williams has filed a school voucher bill specifically for students with disabilities that would allow parents of disabled students to take the money the state would provide for their child’s education and move them to a private school or special-needs facility.

On other issues sure to come up this session, Williams has signaled his support for legislation to require recipients of unemployment benefits to pass drug tests and an effort to limit abortions based on fetal pain.

Perry’s opening day remarks touched on that topic as well.

“We also need to better protect our most vulnerable citizens, the unborn, by expanding the ban on abortion to any baby that can feel the pain of the procedure, and putting in place common-sense oversights on clinics and physicians involved,” said Perry.

In other opening day developments, House Speaker Joe Straus was reelected to his third term by acclamation after a challenge by Tea Party favorite David Simpson fizzled.

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