AUSTIN — March 18 was day 70, midpoint of the 140-day regular session of the 83rd Texas Legislature.
On March 22, the Senate approved its version of the state budget, a plan to spend $95 billion in general state revenue in 2014 and 2015. The Senate version would spend $7 billion in general revenue more than the current 2012-2013 budget. The full budget is close to $195 billion, counting dedicated funds and federal dollars.
Also on March 22, the Texas House Committee on Appropriations approved its $97 billion version of the budget — Committee Substitute Senate Bill 1. This was the last step before all 150 members of the House vote on it. CSSB1 features an additional $2.5 billion for public education on top of a base budget that already accounts for student population growth.
With the clock ticking, the two chambers must agree on a single version before sending it to the governor. Assuming the House will pass its version this week or the following week, the next step would be for a conference committee of five House members and five Senators to work out the differences. And once again, assuming common ground will be found, the agreed-upon version goes back to the full House and full Senate for a simple majority vote to accept the changes made by the conference committee.
Term limits bill moves
A constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, would impose term limits on statewide elected officials, including the governor and lieutenant governor.
Eltife’s Senate Joint Resolution 13 was approved by the Senate 27-4 last week and now the House will have to consider it. If the House approves, Texas voters will have the opportunity to give it a thumbs up or thumbs down on Nov. 5, when proposed constitutional amendments approved by the Legislature will be on the statewide ballot. The four votes in opposition were cast by Sens. Brian Birdwell of Granbury, Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, Glenn Hegar of Katy and Tommy Williams of The Woodlands. In the Senate Journal, Williams explained his vote, this way: “I do not support term limits for statewide officers only.” Under Eltife’s measure, voters would decide whether or not to limit statewide officials to two consecutive terms, but officials could serve more terms non-consecutively and currently elected officials wouldn’t have terms served before Jan. 1, 2014 count against them.
DNA testing bill filed
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott joined Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on March 19 to express support for SB 1292, legislation written by Ellis proposing that DNA testing be required for all biological evidence collected by law enforcement in all death penalty cases. Ellis called his bill “modest but vitally important reform” and a step toward “a more fair, reliable and just criminal justice system in Texas,” and added that it will “help reduce the possibility that the ultimate mistake is made with someone receiving the ultimate penalty.”
“To be certain that only guilty murderers are executed, all evidence that can be tested for DNA should be tested for DNA before the case goes to trial,” Abbott said. “This will prevent endless appeals that game the system and delay justice for the families of victims.”
To avoid the imposition of an unfunded mandate on local prosecutors and law enforcement agencies, SB 1292 requires that a Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab perform the mandatory DNA test at the State’s expense, and provide the results of those tests to both the defendant and state prosecutors, according to the Office of the Attorney General.
Chief rails over EPA
Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman testified before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee on Energy and Power on March 19 in Washington, D.C.
Smitherman told lawmakers that through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques developed by the private sector over the last few years, “the United States is awash in natural gas.” But today, Smitherman said, “anti-fossil initiatives by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are threatening the domestic development of abundant and affordable energy from coal and natural gas.”
The Railroad Commission, he said, is moving toward implementing industry best practices throughout the hydraulic fracturing process, such as the first “frac” fluid disclosure requirements, updating well integrity rules and working on a rule that would encourage oil and gas operations to do more recycling.