Lone Star watch by Ed Sterling
TEXAS’ lawmakers gathered at the state capitol in their respective houses last week to open the 85th regular session of the state legislature, a 140-day session that will conclude on May 29.
On a vote of 150-0, the house representatives unanimously re-elected San Antonio Republican Joe Straus to a fifth term as speaker, tying a record for the most terms in the position. Meanwhile, the senate voted unanimously in favor of Kel Seliger as its speaker pro tempore.
Seliger will wield the senate gavel in the absence or temporary disability of lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, who presides over the 31-member body. Should both governor Greg Abbott and Patrick be temporarily unavailable, the Amarillo Republican will serve as governor in their absence.
Newly appointed secretary of state Rolando Pablos conducted roll calls in both the house and senate and Texas supreme court chief justice Nathan Hecht administered the oath of office to the members of each chamber.
In the coming days, while Straus and Patrick go about assigning chairs and members to committees, the lawmakers will continue filing legislation. As of opening day, Tuesday, January 10, they had filed about 1,300 bills since November 14, the first day for pre-filing of legislation.
While that figure might seem high, it is worth noting that the total number of bills, not including resolutions, filed in an average session can grow to more than 6,000.
After Straus was re-elected as speaker, he delivered a 1,500-word speech in which he said: “If you walk into a factory or a restaurant or a hospital, you will find citizens of different races, religions and political beliefs working together every day.
“And that’s what Texans should expect of us. So let’s follow their example. Let’s govern with the same sense of goodness, the same humanity and decency that we so clearly recognize in the people we represent.”
Seliger, in wrapping up his own post-election comments, called for the legislature to be “the standard of deliberation, cooperation and leadership that should define service”.
In separate speeches to the house and senate, Abbott told the legislators: “We may bring different political perspectives but we unite under one capitol dome and a cause that’s bigger than any one person or any political party.
“It’s the cause that makes Texas far more than just a state. It’s the cause that makes Texas a passion. I pray that God blesses you and guides you during the next 140 days and that God forever blesses the great state of Texas.”
State to spend within lesser means
TEXAS WILL have some $3 billion less to spend on state programs in the next two years than in the biennium ending this year, according to public-accounts comptroller Glenn Hegar.
But the Republican senator who chairs her chamber’s finance committee has pledged to set a budget within the available funds in a bid to keep the state’s economy on the up.
Hegar projected that the state will have just under $105 billion in revenue available for general-purpose spending during the 2018-19 budget cycle when he released the state’s biennial revenue estimate on January 9, the day before the legislature convened in Austin.
He said the amount is 2.7 per cent less than the amounts available for the current 2016-17 biennium.
“While our state revenues were down in 2016 and we face some difficult decisions in the coming months, Texas remains fiscally healthy”, he said.
“Despite energy-related headwinds, Texas has gained 210,000 jobs in the past year and, while our gains have not been at the same rapid rate as a few years ago, it is important to note that we have added jobs in 19 of the past 20 months.
“We have also seen signs of possible improvement in recent months, with some modest acceleration in job growth and oil prices and rig counts rising. And December brought the best monthly sales-tax revenue collections since May 2015.”
Hegar also said the state’s rainy-day-fund balance currently stands at some $10.2 billion and is expected to be $11.9 billion at the end of the 2018-19 biennium unless the legislature calls for any additional appropriations.
It seems such a move would be against the wishes of senate finance committee chair Jane Nelson.
The senator from Flower Mound responded by saying: “We will align our priorities with the revenue we have available. I am confident we will pass a budget that meets our needs and keeps the economy growing.”
Houston bucks upward sales tax trend again
CHECKS worth almost $650 million are on their way to the state’s local-government entities as sales-tax revenues continue to hold strong – but once again Houston is among the cities losing out.
Public-accounts comptroller Glenn Hegar said on January 11 that his office would send out almost 5 per cent more in local sales-tax allocations this month than in January last year.
Based on sales made in November by businesses that report tax monthly, the amount is $647.4 million, 4.9 per cent more than the office distributed one year ago.
As usual, it will go to cities, counties, transit systems and special-purpose taxing districts.
But the allocations are not uniform and do not favor southeast Texas, which has been out of line with the rest of the state in recent months.
Hegar said: “The cities of Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio continue to see significant increases in sales tax allocations. The cities of Houston and Sugar Land saw noticeable decreases.”