Monday, May 27, 2013

The news at Sine Die

Lawmakers moved to restore cuts made two years ago in public education and health care Sunday by sending a $197 billion, two-year state budget to Gov. Rick Perry, defending it against both those who call it too costly and those who say it shorts state needs.

"We've got to educate our children," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, applauding the restoration of some school funding. It was approved 118-29.

Senate Bill 1 is the centerpiece of a spending package hammered out in tough negotiations over how to appropriately fund key state programs, deliver tax relief demanded by Perry, reduce budget gimmickry and create a $2 billion infrastructure fund to address long-neglected state water needs.

Perry could veto bills in the package, and he has the power to kill particular spending items through a line-item veto. Many elements of the package were on his desk or on their way by late Sunday - although Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, briefly threatened to kill a tax break for businesses with a filibuster, in which he would talk until the deadline passed to consider it. Ellis has pushed for the Legislature to review existing breaks to gauge their value to Texas.

More about my senator's involvement:

A high-profile bill to give a $711 million business-tax break passed at the stroke of midnight Sunday with a House vote of 131-14.

House Bill 500 by Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, had been approved by the Senate on Sunday after surviving the brief threat of a filibuster by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.


A conference committee report for a proposal that criminalizes the use of drones for surveillance and permits Texans to document the activities of law enforcement personnel was adopted by both the Texas House and Senate late Sunday.

House Bill 912 carries more than 40 exemptions, including one that permits members of the media to use drones to photograph and record breaking news activity. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, more than 30,000 unmanned aircraft are expected to be in use in the U.S. by 2020. It now heads to the governor’s desk for approval.

One exemption will need further clarification, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, before the Senate approved the measure 26-5: as it’s written now, one exemption states that the ban does not apply to residents who live within 25 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Our legislative intent was to have law enforcement be able to use drones,” Estes said, and he added that “we don’t want private citizens to be able to use drones at the border, either.”

A call to special session -- as referenced last week -- remains imminent.

As the Legislature's regular 90-day session winds to an end, state lawmakers are girding for Gov. Rick Perry to call a special session that could start as early as Tuesday on congressional and legislative election maps.

Meanwhile, a federal court is putting its gears back in motion to again take up a lawsuit by minority and voting rights groups challenging Republican-drawn redistricting maps passed by the Legislature in 2011. A hearing scheduled for Wednesday in San Antonio will mark the first time the three-judge panel weighs in on the case in about a year. The flurry of action on the state level on redistricting comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling next month on a case involving Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Texas Republicans already are coming off a court-issued setback revolving around their 2011 voting maps. A D.C. federal court last August threw out the state GOP's redistricting plans on the basis that they discriminated against minority voters.

It's up to the judges, who had to draw temporary maps as a last-ditch effort to ensure Texans could vote in 2012 primaries, to resolve the fate of Texas' redistricting skirmish.

Before the federal court potentially pens new maps that chip away at a GOP stronghold, Republicans are expected to cement as permanent those provisional maps drawn up in San Antonio during a special session.

And not just redistricting, either; the pet projects of the TeaBags are likely on the docket.

(Lt. Gov. David) Dewhurst told the Star-Telegram’s Dave Montgomery last week that he had asked Gov. Rick Perry to call lawmakers back for another round before they could skip town once the 83rd regular session ends Monday night.

According to Montgomery’s report, Dewhurst wants a full plate of conservative red meat: drug testing for welfare recipients (already done), concealed handguns inside campus buildings (only in locked cars for now), a package of abortion restrictions, political redistricting, school choice and a more restrictive constitutional cap on state spending.

Redistricting is a favor of a kind to Greg Abbott. The rest is a favor to Dewhurst, which the governor may not be willing to grant.

"He (Dewhurst) is not concerned about what Texas values are," state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) told KVUE. "He's concerned about an extremist right wing agenda that will serve a feather in his cap as he goes forward in a future possible primary election to regain his seat."

Davis argues such an effort would put a damper on a legislative session that has been largely marked by bipartisan cooperation, and worries that Republican leaders are anxious to use the special session to bypass the two-thirds majority required to pass legislation during the regular session.

"I'm very proud of the way Republicans and Democrats have come together this session to reflect the values of people who live in Texas. Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst's actions threaten to poison that as we go into a special session," said Davis. "He's going to spend hundreds of thousands of thousands of taxpayer dollars in a special session for purposes that serve his interests alone."

Dewhurst has at least one and maybe two downballot TeaBaggers drooling for a shot at him.

Dewhurst, who’s held his current office for a decade, is expected to announce re-election plans shortly after the regular session ends. But he’s almost certain to face challenges from Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, both Republicans with solid conservative credentials.

Uh huh. Back to that "do-me-a-solid" business.

The Austin American-Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove wrote on the “First Reading” blog that “the operative question” is whether Perry sees the special session Dewhurst wants as helping the governor should he run again or try another bid for president, and “how much he wants to do Dewhurst a [favor] by calling a session that would help burnish his conservative credentials.”

So much for the greater public good.

Much more of interest in that Statesman link. And Paul Burka piles on the lieutenant governor. Winners and losers to be revealed later today... or maybe tomorrow, depending on how late they go.

Update: It's worth mentioning that 64 House representatives sent a letter to the governor asking for four anti-choice pieces of legislation to be added to any special session call. And Eye on Williamson has some good links as well.

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