May 30, 2017

Legislative Update – May 30, 2017

by Shannon Meroney, President, Meroney Public Affairs

HOUSE AND SENATE AGREE ON A BUDGET

After months of private squabbling and public threats of a legislative overtime session, the Texas House and Senate finally compromised to unveil a joint budget late Saturday.

Lawmakers on both sides agreed to dip into the state’s savings account and to make use of an accounting trick using funds set aside last session for highway projects.

Budget documents indicated around $1 billion would come from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a $10 billion savings account available to shore up the budget in difficult years. That money would pay for priorities such as repairs to the state’s aging mental health hospitals and bulletproof vests for police officers.

Nearly $2 billion more would come from an accounting trick related to transportation funding approved in 2015. The proposed budget would delay a payment to the state highway fund in order to free up that funding for other needs in the current two-year budget. The House had previously been critical of the possibility.

Though lawmakers were creative in tapping alternative money sources to avoid steep cuts this budget cycle, some high-dollar expenditures, notably Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled, were not fully funded. That means lawmakers will almost certainly need to address those underfunded parts of the budget in 2019 — their next legislative session — in the form of a supplemental budget.

ETHICS BILLS AIMED AT RESTRICTIONS ON LOBBYISTS DIE

Of a package of ethics reform bills demanded by Gov. Greg Abbott and swiftly approved by the Senate, three measures never made it to the House floor for a vote.

The three proposals landing in the legislative trash bin would have created a two-year ban on retiring lawmakers becoming lobbyists, prohibited local elected officials from becoming state-level lobbyists and made it more difficult for lobbyists to hide which officials they are wining and dining.

The three bills that appear likely to cross the finish line would strip state pensions from elected officials convicted on corruption charges, require candidates and officeholders to disclose whether their businesses get government contracts and prohibit recently retired lawmakers who become lobbyists from making political donations from their old campaign fundraising accounts.

SESSION ENDS WITH PROTESTS, CONFRONTATION AND A FLOOR SCUFFLE – SPECIAL SESSION LIKELY

The last day of the Legislature on Monday was marred by a confrontation between lawmakers on the Texas House floor that involved death threats, shoving and a call to immigration authorities.

The incident occurred as protesters were being removed from the House gallery after briefly shutting down proceedings by chanting their opposition to the new law banning so-called sanctuary cities, local jurisdictions that decline to assist federal immigration enforcement.

Suspecting that some of them were unauthorized immigrants, Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, reported the protesters to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Rinaldi said in a statement, and told several of his Democratic colleagues that he did so. The Democrats responded with outrage.

Rinaldi said that Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, told him he would “get me on the way to my car,” prompting Rinaldi to respond that he “would shoot him in self-defense.” Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, said he heard Rinaldi say of Nevárez that he would “put a bullet in one of my colleagues’ heads.”

On a day usually reserved for congratulatory speeches and recognitions, the fight was in some ways a fitting finale to a rancorous legislative session marked by battles between the parties over Senate Bill 4, the sanctuary cities law, among other measures, and between GOP factions over a bill that would prohibit transgender Texans from using the restrooms of their choice.

While the regular session is over, lawmakers failed to complete all of their work. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, and his conservative Republican allies in the House prevented a procedural bill needed to keep some state agencies open from passing, probably forcing Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session. Legislation on property tax reform and the Lt. Governor’s priority “bathroom bill” also failed to pass in a form preferred by some state leaders.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, adjourned the House by saying goodbye to lawmakers “until we meet again, which, like you, I hope will not be anytime soon.”