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Texas Press Association State Capital Highlights
Economic conditions makes budget bill crafting tough
Wednesday, March 25, 2009 • Posted March 24, 2009

AUSTIN - Some Texans prefer swift action by the state Legislature because they want to see progress.

Then there are those who don't mind a slow pace and maybe want lawmakers to create as few new laws as possible.

We're now half way through the 140-day 81st regular session of the Texas Legislature and no substantive legislation has been debated on the House floor, although lawmakers filed a record number of bills before the March 13 bill-filing deadline.

Bills that have passed in the Senate and are waiting for House approval are in a waiting line.

There's a reason for it. It's a complicated puzzle to create a budget with the state economy slowing down and disagreement about how, where or if the $16 billion in federal stimulus dollars should be spent.

One also could factor in that there's an extra learning curve with a new speaker, new committee chairs and new members learning to work as a unit.

Lawmakers want to be sure they understand exactly what is on the table before they offer up a 2010-2011 budget that could cost taxpayers $170 billion. That is the work of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees.

The House Committee on Ways and Means will have to figure out where the money will come from to fund the budget. That's a rough task when sales and use taxes won't be nearly as high as projected, property values have decreased and the state business activity tax is not producing as anticipated because it is based on businesses' profit margins.

There's a superstition that it's not a good idea to mention the possibility of a special session because it increases chances that the governor will call one, and that kind of talk is percolating.

But Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chair of House Appropriations, and Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, chair of House County Affairs, seemed to deliver a different message when they talked to reporters March 20 about the progress of the session. Coleman expressed confidence that the House can and will pass a budget during the regular session.

However Gov. Rick Perry stated publicly he would veto an appropriations bill that doesn't meet his standards. And that seems to mean the bill had better not include language that translates to an acceptance of federal stimulus money for unemployment compensation.

Voter ID bill passes in Senate

The Texas Senate on March 18 passed Horseshoe Bay Sen. Troy Fraser's voter ID bill on a 19-12 party line vote, with Republicans in favor and Democrats against.

If the House approves SB 362 in its present form, in order to cast a ballot, voters would present their current voter registration certificate and driver's license. A state or U.S. military-issued ID card could be used to substitute for a driver's license.

For those who don't have a driver's license or other government-issued ID, they could use two other forms of identification, such as a library card and a utility bill.

Austin growth faster than most

When Texans visit their capital and sense that it's grown recently, there are new statistics to back up the sensation.

The U.S. Census Bureau on March 19 reported Raleigh-Cary, N.C., and Austin-Round Rock, Texas, were the nation's fastest-growing metro areas between 2007 and 2008, based on July 1, 2008, population estimates for the nation's metropolitan and "micropolitan" statistical areas and counties.

Raleigh-Cary saw its population climb 4.3 percent between July 1, 2007, and July 1, 2008, to 1.1 million. Austin-Round Rock experienced a 3.8 percent increase, to 1.7 million.

Stiffer penalties for violators

SB 52 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was approved by the Senate on March 18. The legislation ratchets up penalties for illegally parking in a spot marked for disabled drivers. The fine for a first offense would increase from a maximum of $500 to a maximum of $750. Penalties would increase for subsequent offenses, up to $1,100 and 50 hours of community service for a fourth offense.

Needle exchange bill advances

SB 188 by Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, was approved by the Senate on March 19. The bill would legalize needle-exchange programs. Deuell said his bill would allow non-profits to offer one-to-one syringe exchanges, plus drug abuse counseling and education programs for prevention of communicable diseases.

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