Update: January 14, 2011
The Legislature convened at noon on Tuesday. The outside temperature was 38º F at the time, with a wind chill reading of 31º ... insert your own "hell freezing over" joke here ....
She dropped a bomb on me, baby
Comptroller Susan Combs announced her revenue projections for the state, and they weren't good. Actually, they were abysmal. When compared to the amount of money projected to keep spending at current levels, the budget deficit falls somewhere around $27 billion. (Yes, that's "27,000,000,000 dollars.") This confirms most worst-case scenarios about the state budget shortfall, and it means that the initial (balanced) state budget that will be unveiled on Tuesday will include drastic cuts. However, what, where, and how much those cuts will be is still a closely-guarded secret.
Budgets and borders
On opening day, Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan), the Senate Finance Committee Chairman, was selected by his peers to serve as the President Pro Tempore this session, which puts him in line to run the Senate in the Lite Guv's absence. In his acceptance speech, Chairman Ogden discussed two issues: the budget and the border. As far as the budget is concerned, the pain should be widespread, but Ogden noted that the bulk of the state's spending is on schools and health and human services, so those may experience the most significant cuts if the budget is to be balanced. In addition, Ogden pointed out that the tax swap of a couple sessions ago--a decrease in property taxes for an increase in the business margins tax--has left a systemic shortfall in tax revenue that will require adjustment.
Significantly, Ogden also discussed the situation in Mexico, noting that its collapse would have a huge negative impact on Texas. Ogden expressed his support for the inspection of southbound traffic for cash, guns, and stolen vehicles at our 27 border crossings, an idea that we discussed at some length at our Elected Prosecutor Conference last month. We will continue to monitor this situation as it develops.
Make it fast, make it urgent ... emergency!
Each chamber of the legislature is barred by the state constitution from passing any legislation during the first 60 days of the session unless the Governor certifies that particular issue as an emergency. Governor Perry has taken that liberty to call for emergency legislation to deal with eminent domain and to abolish "sanctuary cities." Those of you keeping track of the pre-filed bills that we've reported may remember multiple bills that would cut off state money going to local government entities that do not enforce federal immigration law. Some of those bills even allow the AG to sue wayward local officials who don't toe the line. Those are not necessarily the "sanctuary city" bills to which the governor refers, but if not those, it will be something similar. We think the governor's preferred version will be filed next week, so look for more details then; meanwhile, for a list of the related bills already filed, see our "Bills to Watch" track.
TYC, meet Madame Guillotine
Here's an example of how the state's budget woes will affect policy decisions this session. In 2008, the Sunset Commission staff recommended to the legislators on the Sunset Commission that the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) be combined with the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission (TJPC) into one über-agency. However, opposition from the governor's office and other influential legislators spared the agencies that fate during the 2009 session, when policymakers kicked the can down the road to 2011. Accordingly, in 2010, the Sunset staff conducted another review, revised their recommendations, and concluded that TYC should be continued in existence. But the playing field has changed since the last session, and in a surprise move, the Sunset Commission rejected that staff recommendation and is now recommending that the Legislature abolish TYC and combine its operations with TJPC. What has changed? The budget deficit. In this atmosphere, when legislators at the Sunset hearing this week heard that combining the agencies could potentially save as much as $200 million in the next state budget, the debate was over. Now, as happened last session, a recommendation is only that and not legislation itself, but those who see the writing on the wall should prepare for several of TYC's 19 lock-ups and halfway houses to be shuttered and their residents sent back with "return to sender" stamped across their files.
As of Tuesday's swearing-in ceremony, almost 1,000 bills and resolutions had been pre-filed. Legislators have 60 days from the start of the session in which to file their remaining bills. If they hold to form, you can expect somewhere between 4,500 and 6,000 more bills to be filed in that 60-day window--and we get to read darn near every one of them to make sure we don't miss anything. (Aren't you jealous?) Among the bills filed since our last update are:
HB 542 by Dutton limiting the consequences of a successful deferred adjudication
HB 543 by Dutton requiring video recording of certain confessions in capital cases
HB 545 by Dutton expanding the Romeo & Juliet defense for certain students
HB 546 by Dutton allowing certain deferred adjudications to be expunged
HB 548 by Dutton lowering the penalty for possession of < 1 oz. of marihuana
HB 566 by Christian authorizing the death penalty for killing a prot. order applicant
HB 569 by Dutton tying probation department funding to revocation rates, etc.
HB 570 by Dutton restoring the DL of a driver upon dismissal of his DWI case
HB 594 by Raymond increasing the penalty for gambling promotion
HB 595 by Raymond increasing the punishment for certain false IDs as a peace officer
HB 599 by J. Jackson limiting access to information sealed under non-disclosure orders
HB 603 by Farrar prohibiting peace officers from asking victims/witnesses re: ICE status
HB 604 by Farrar repealing the offense of homosexual conduct
HB 605 by Farrar expanding non-disclosures and expunctions of community supervision
HB 607 by S. Miller authorizing dismissal of certain CDL holders' traffic tickets
HB 617 by Dutton revising civil discovery procedures under the Tort Claims Act
HB 623 by Bonnen relating to the enforcement of immigration laws by local governments
HB 626 by Woolley reducing the elements the state must establish at ALR hearings
HB 649 by Gallego relating to sexual assault protective orders
HJR 65 by Solomons restricting unfunded mandates imposed upon local governments
HJR 57 by Berman prohibiting sharia law, etc., in Texas courts
SB 316 by Whitmire regulating the seizure and expenditure of forfeited assets
SB 317 by Whitmire authorizing subsequent writs based on new scientific evidence
SB 331 by Shapiro criminalizing various synthetic cannabinoids (K2, Spice, etc.)
SB 348 by Estes criminalizing the sale or delivery of salvia to a minor
Tweets ‘R' Us
Now that legislators are off and running with the 82nd Session, you can follow their exploits as they happen through our Twitter account at www.twitter.com/tdcaa. When it comes to social media, it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, but our site is 100-percent whole wheat legislative news; we won't waste anyone's time with fluff* about what we had for breakfast or funny pictures of someone we just saw at Walmart (you can go here for that: http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/). (* OK, so there was that one movie review over the holidays when things were really slow in Austin, but True Grit is worth your time.) We pride ourselves on providing you with useful information through these weekly updates, but technology advances have accelerated the legislative process and we have to use that same technology to keep up with it if we want to maximize our effectiveness. Any TDCAA member in good standing will be granted access to our account, so go online and sign up today!