AUSTIN — The 83rd session of the Texas Legislature was called to order in the House and Senate on Jan. 8.
State Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, was elected speaker of the House, setting in motion his third consecutive term as leader of the chamber and his fifth two-year term as a state representative. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, nominated Straus, and was followed with seconding speeches given by Reps. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs; Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville; Patricia Harless, R-Spring; Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and John Otto, R-Dayton.
After the vote, Straus was administered the oath of office by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, and then he spoke. Straus acknowledged the change in composition of the body, calling it “the largest class of new members in 40 years.” Forty-three of the 150 members of the House are freshmen, while 96 are Republicans and 54 are Democrats.
“Texas does not face a fiscal cliff, but we do face a demographic cliff,” Straus said. “Our rapid growth requires a steadfast commitment to the core responsibilities of government, such as a quality education, a reliable water supply, a healthy transportation system, and an honest state budget.” About education, Straus said, “Our priorities should begin where our future does: in public education. More than 5 million children are enrolled in our public schools, which is more than the total population of 29 states. More than three million of them are deemed economically disadvantaged, and almost one million of them speak limited English. The education of all our students will determine whether Texas is a land of prosperity or lost opportunities.” Last session, the Legislature cut more than $5 billion from the education budget.
Meanwhile, in the East Wing of the Capitol, the Senate, presided over by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, convened. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, was elected president pro tempore, chosen by her peers to step in and preside whenever the lieutenant governor is away. She served Texas as a House member from 1990 to 1999 and has been a member of the Senate since 1999.
Gov. Rick Perry addressed the body, focusing his comments on fiscal conservatism with a reminder that the Legislature pulled the state out of a multi-billion-dollar deficit last session.
“We chose the responsible path, the fiscally conservative path, and that path has led us here today,” Perry said. “We sat down, separated our wants from our needs, prioritized, and tightened our belts, wherever necessary, and wherever possible. Far from the catastrophe many predicted for us at the time, that approach helped our economy improve more quickly, and more profoundly, than many had expected.”
Then Perry cautioned the Senate not to look at the state’s new, healthier, revenue estimate and be tempted to spend freely.
Combs estimates revenue
Here’s what Gov. Perry was cautioning about, and what lawmakers are looking to as the potential fix for a lot of problems.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs on Jan. 7 released the state’s biennial revenue estimate, projecting $101.4 billion available for general-purpose spending during the state’s 2014-15 fiscal biennium.
“Texas experienced a very strong rebound from a severe recession,” Combs said in prepared remarks. “The state’s robust economic recovery led to better-than-expected revenue collections in major taxes such as the sales tax, oil and natural gas production taxes and motor vehicle sales taxes. The outlook for both the economy and state revenue is for continuing expansion as the fast-growth of the economic recovery gives way to moderate, sustained growth.”
Combs said about $3.6 billion would be set aside for future transfers to the $8 billion Rainy Day Fund.
The Texas economy, in inflation-adjusted terms, is projected to increase by 3.4 percent in fiscal 2013, another 3.4 percent in fiscal 2014 and 3.9 percent in fiscal 2015. The state’s unemployment rate, which reached 8.2 percent during the recession, is expected to continue slowly dropping and average 6 percent during 2015, Combs said.
Bills address water issues
State Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, on Jan. 10 filed H.B. 4 and H.B. 11, legislation “designed to help ensure Texas will meet its future water needs,” he said. To pay for what the bills propose, “I would make a one-time allocation of $2 billion from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, often referred to as the Rainy Day Fund, to capitalize a new, dedicated revolving fund for use in financing water projects in the State Water Plan,” Ritter said.
“It is vital for the future of Texas that a dedicated source of revenue be established for funding the State Water Plan,” Ritter added. “Our economy depends on it, our communities depend on it, and ultimately, our daily lives depend on it.”