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Texas Press Association State Capital Highlights
Texas Legislature enters 83rd session
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 • Posted January 10, 2013

AUSTIN — After passage of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 by Congress on Jan. 1, “98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses will not see their income taxes go up,” President Obama said. The act, signed by the president on Jan. 2, extends unemployment benefits for 2 million Americans who are looking for work, makes no cuts to Social Security and Medicare and expands Medicaid benefits. But the Act postpones Congressional action on budget “sequestration” for two months, leaving question marks over the accounting and social intricacies of how much to cut or tweak entitlements and how much revenue to raise. So, the short- and long-term impacts on states remain unclear.

Dynamics of decisions made at the federal level add to the complexity of deliberations state lawmakers enter Jan. 8, when the 83rd session of the Texas Legislature convenes. Systemic state budget deficits in recent years have left Texas unable to avoid shortfalls. In 2011, Texas resorted to using federal “stimulus” dollars to overcome a $6 billion deficit. In 2012, sales tax revenues flowed in at healthier rates, and the state comptroller soon will release her biennial revenue estimate, giving lawmakers some idea of how much cash they will have to meet the needs of Texas.

Thirsty constituents, cattle, crops, industry are sure to be addressed this session. Widespread and chronic lack of water pose problems looking for legislative solutions. And yes, Gov. Rick Perry on Dec. 28 extended his drought emergency proclamation of July 5, 2011, to a majority of Texas’ 254 counties.

Those multi-billion dollar cutbacks on education in the 82nd session of the Legislature will be addressed, and so will Medicaid. If Texas refuses to meet the required match to receive federal Medicaid funds by rejecting the Medicaid expansion, the Lone Star State could lose billions of federal dollars. To that, Gov. Perry stated in a newspaper editorial published in July: “We have no interest in following the federal directive to expand our Medicaid ranks by over a million (people), and we are also rejecting calls to establish a so-called ‘state’ insurance exchange designed and ruled by federal guidelines, many of which have yet to be written. Neither of these is the proper role of the federal government and both represent brazen intrusions into the affairs of states.”

Even if the Texas Legislature passes health care reform to cover more of its lower-income and older residents, the governor wields the veto pen. It takes a two-thirds vote in each house of the Legislature to override a veto.

Benefits extension granted

Pursuant to the passage of the federal Taxpayer Relief Act, the deadline for jobless Texans to qualify for emergency unemployment insurance benefits was extended to Jan. 1, 2014, the Texas Workforce Commission announced.

Those benefits extend to some 120,000 Texans who would have exhausted their unemployment benefits on Dec. 31, but not for those who already exhausted their regular state unemployment benefits, federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation, and Extended Benefits, the agency said.

Emergency unemployment benefits provide temporary income for those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Benefits are federally funded, and Texas employers will not be charged for any claims paid on this extension.

Spill settlement is reached

Transocean Deepwater Inc. defendants have agreed to pay $1 billion in civil penalties and $400 million in criminal fines for April 20, 2010, Gulf Coast oil spill originating from BP’s Macondo well, widely known as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

But recovery efforts have just begun and “there remains a long road ahead to restore the Gulf,” Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Commissioner Toby Baker said on Jan. 3. Transocean is based in Zug, Switzerland. The fines are to be paid over a period of three years, per agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Capped wells among pluses

Texas Railroad Commission, looking back on its accomplishments in 2012, noted that its agents “investigated, assessed or cleaned up 253 abandoned oilfield sites and plugged 764 orphaned wells using fees paid by the industry into the Oil & Gas Regulation & Cleanup Fund.”

Water-use figures are in

A study by the Texas Water Development Board concludes “31 percent of annual single-family residential water use in Texas is dedicated to outdoor purposes, such as lawn and garden maintenance, pools, and car washing, with the rest used indoors.”

In a Dec. 17 release, the agency stated the findings are based on an analysis of monthly water use data for 259 cities, and that average outdoor water use ranged from 20 to 53 percent of total household water use, with dryer areas of the state tending to use more than wetter areas.

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