AUSTIN — Actions taken by the state House and Senate point toward the possibility of completing a state budget on or before May 30, the final day of the session.
House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, sent out press releases late in the week indicating negotiations were going well enough to pass a balanced budget that relies on historically deep cuts.
The House did pass a Senate “fiscal matters” bill — one just for public education — but House members attached amendments to the bill. The Senate, in turn, refused to concur on those amendments. A conference committee of five House members and five Senate members has a shrinking window of time to come to an agreement on the final language. Another Senate fiscal matters bill, one that deals with budget areas other than public education, was scheduled for consideration in the House on May 23.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs on May 17 generated optimism about the state’s financial health a few days before the Legislature entered the final week of the 140-day session without a finalized state budget for 2012-2013.
“I am raising the general revenue estimate for the next biennium by $1.2 billion,” Combs said, estimating that sales tax, oil and gas production tax and motor vehicle sales tax should bring in more revenue than trends indicated earlier.
Of the projected $1.2 billion, the largest component is $400 million in oil and gas production tax. Whatever the real number turns out to be for oil and gas production taxes, 75 percent of those are constitutionally reserved for deposit into the state’s so-called “rainy day” fund.
Even though the budget is expected to total more than $160 billion, the rainy day fund remains a bone of contention. Some Texans say it is “raining” now, so it is time to use most, if not all of the fund to shore up cut-back public education and health care programs. And some Texans stand with Gov. Rick Perry, who said he would reject any plan that employs the fund in 2012-2013. House Bill 1 in its present form does not use rainy day funds.
Perry, now in his eleventh year as governor, recently has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2012. And although he’s been shrugging off the idea while making speeches that seem national in scope, Perry’s pressing task is to scrutinize the growing pile of passed legislation on his desk. He has until June 19 to sign, veto or let bills become law without his signature. Here are a few of the 180 bills the governor had signed as of May 20:
HB 15: relating to informed consent to an abortion.
HB 558: relating to payoff statements provided in connection with certain home loans.
HB 613: relating to unauthorized harvesting of standing timber.
HB 1806: relating to fishing tournament fraud.
SB 18: relating to use of eminent domain authority.
SB 894: relating to employment of physicians by certain hospitals.
SB 1160: relating to the liability of landowners for damage or injury, including liability for harm to a trespasser.
SB 1269: relating to transportation, lodging, and meals offered to and accepted by public servants.
In other recent action, the House approved Senate-originated redistricting bills for House districts and Senate districts. Those bills may get the governor’s signature, but there already are indications from certain Democratic lawmakers that redrawn maps that cut up communities of interest and disenable minority opportunity districts will be challenged in federal district court under the U.S. Voting Rights Act. Of the redistricting bills, only the one that redraws State Board of Education districts was on the governor’s desk as of May 22. That bill will take effect, without the governor’s signature, on Aug. 29.
Tax holiday this weekend
State sales tax holidays put a damper on the intake of state and local taxes, but strangely enough, they survived the Legislature’s revenue hunting and budget writing process.
In fact, Texas’ fourth annual “Energy Star” Sales Tax Holiday is May 28-30. “You can save water and energy by purchasing efficient, ENERGY STAR appliances,” said Comptroller Combs. “And during the ENERGY STAR Sales Tax Holiday, you won’t pay state or local sales taxes on your new appliances.”
Unemployment rate drops
The Texas Workforce Commission on May 20 reported Texas’ seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased to 8.0 percent for April, down from 8.1 percent in March, and from 8.2 percent a year ago and Texas’ total nonfarm employment was up by 32,900 jobs in April for a total gain of 254,400 jobs from a year ago.