AUSTIN — Rarely does final passage of a state budget turn out to be anything other than an end-of-session frenzy. This legislative session is shaping up to be no different.
Lawmakers have until May 30 to pass that all-important document, the state’s financial blueprint for the 2012 and 2013. If they don’t make the deadline, the governor may order a special session.
Now, to achieve completion in the present, Republicans, who hold numerical majorities in both House and Senate, will have to find some way to agree with each other on how to cut up a smaller than usual pie. In 2009 they had a $180 billion pot to work with: this session, it’s around $160 billion, give or take.
House Republicans, in step with the wishes of Gov. Rick Perry, insist on no new taxes and no raiding of the Rainy Day Fund. So far, they’ve gotten their way, thanks to the GOP’s 101 seats to the Democrats’ 49. Senate Republicans at first launched a plan to use a third of the $9 billion Rainy Day Fund to lessen the blow of cuts to education and healthcare. They revised the plan after identifying accounting and tax collection measures they believe would short-circuit the need for Rainy Day funds.
This week, if the full Senate brings up the budget, members will attempt to attach amendments to it during floor debate. There’s no telling what the final product will look like. Eventually, however, Texans will get to compare the Senate and House versions. The House version axes tens of thousands of jobs from the state payroll, lops off billions of health care dollars and generally cuts or slows spending in most ways imaginable.
Option to fed health in hopper
Attorney General Greg Abbott and other state attorneys general suing to have the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 declared unconstitutional, say the act violates states’ rights in forcing citizens to buy health insurance.
Rep. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, both Republicans, are working on an alternative to the federal plan: House Bill 5, already approved by the House and poised for consideration by the full Senate.
Their legislation would “authorize Texas to participate in a multi-state effort to secure the consent of Congress, via an interstate compact, to regulate health care, free of federal interference,” according to the legislature’s official bill analysis.
HB 5 would establish an “Interstate Advisory Health Care Commission” to make non-binding recommendations on health care delivery. The bill also enables member states to receive federal dollars through a formula outlined in the compact, without federal conditions.
New CHL requires e-fingerprints
The Texas Department of Public Safety on May 12 announced it no longer accepts hard-copy fingerprint cards from applicants for a concealed handgun license (CHL).
Applicants must be fingerprinted electronically as part of the standard criminal background check.
The DPS said it tries to use fingerprints on file for current permit holders who are applying for renewal, but if existing prints do not meet quality standards, electronic prints must be submitted.
And speaking of those permits, Texans licensed to carry concealed handguns would be allowed carry their weapons on college campuses and in campus buildings under a measure tentatively approved by the Senate on May 9. Of course, the House must approve too.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, author of the measure (which was attached to a higher education finance bill) says students, faculty and staff, if legally armed, could help prevent shootings like the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.
Concealed handgun permit applicants must be at least 21 years old and complete an approved CHL permit course.
Helo hog-hunting bill OK’d
In other action, the Senate on May 12 approved HB 716 by Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville — legislation to allow the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to create guidelines for hunting feral hogs and coyotes from helicopters. According to the bill’s Senate sponsor Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, an estimated 2 million feral hogs are not only free-ranging across rural Texas: they are encroaching on big cities. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, before voting against the bill, said that shooting from a helicopter takes the sport out of the hunt.