Legislative Update: Week 1

            Well, we’re four days into the session and the Capitol building is still standing, so that’s a good start.  

Looking ahead …

            Legislators put in a tough 36-hours of back-slapping, baby-kissing, selfie-posing, and partying this past week in celebration of their return to town, after which most left for home for a five-day weekend. They will return to Austin on Tuesday, hang around Wednesday, and then take another four- or five-day weekend so that many of them can enjoy the Inauguration festivities in Washington, D.C. (Well, what did you expect for $600 a month?)

            The next important milestone will be the announcement of committee assignments, which are usually done in a Friday afternoon news dump so that angry legislators cannot find the Speaker or Lite Guv to give them a piece of their minds. Those announcements could come as early as this Friday in the Senate, but the House will take longer. Once those assignments are released and the wailing and gnashing of teeth has subsided, the real work will begin.

(No) Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

            Biggie might have you believing otherwise (caution: Tipper Gore would not approve of the explicit language in this video link), but in general, the less money legislators have to fight over, the more problems they have to fight over. That’s what makes the comptroller’s biennial revenue estimate so important every session.

            This week, Comptroller Glenn Hegar released his state revenue projections. In a nutshell, he said the state is starting with less money left over from the last budget cycle for a variety of reasons, so the Legislature will have less general revenue money this session for discretionary spending. About $7 billion (2.7 percent) less, give or take. That means the state budget writers need to cut somewhere or raise revenue somewhere or get creative with their bookkeeping—or a little bit of all three—just to tread water for the next two years. And that doesn’t even take into account some legislators’ desires to increase spending on CPS reform, mental health treatment, education, health care, yada yada yada. Of course, legislators could always tap the Rainy Day Fund—which has roughly a $12 billion balance—but that hasn’t been done since 2003, when legislators faced a $27 billion shortfall. In addition, the political climate at the Capitol has only become more hostile to government spending since then, so while it is possible the Legislature might draw down some Rainy Day money for a one-time expenditure in this session’s budget, it won’t be much.

            In short: This is not a good session to be seeking significant money from the state, so if that was on your “to do” list, practice at home by trying to squeeze blood from stones.

Speaker election fireworks fizzle

            Aside from the comptroller’s state revenue estimate, the other big news from the first week of every session is House members’ election of a speaker to lead them.

            Surprising no one, State Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) was again nominated and elected to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives. This will be Speaker Straus’ fifth session in that role, tying the record jointly held by Gib Lewis (D-Fort Worth) and Pete Laney (D-Hale Center). His re-election as speaker was a foregone conclusion this time around, but what was more interesting to observers was who would (or would not) vote for him.

            Last session, 19 of Straus’ fellow Republicans voted for another candidate who ran to his right, but the only thing those House members won was a one-way ticket to a session spent to the Speaker’s penalty box. Having learned that lesson the hard way, no one in the opposition volunteered to run against the Speaker and they and all their fellow representatives voted for Straus this time, resulting in a 150-0 margin of victory for the speaker.

            The question now is, what did those green-light votes get the dissenters? This could be an important question for prosecutors, because many of those dissenters are also in favor of policies that concern some of you—such as eliminating civil asset forfeiture, restricting lawful searches and arrests, and reducing grand jury secrecy—and they may now be in a better position to advance some of those pet issues if the House leadership feels they are owed something for their support. However, things are likely to return to “normal” soon enough. In fact, some of the loyal opposition who voted for Speaker Straus on Tuesday came back on Wednesday and immediately started fighting with the leadership over various House rules. (The leopard cannot change his spots, can he?) Only time will tell how this will all turn out, but the safest conclusion to draw for now is that some policy issues are now more in play than they were last session.

Bills, bills, and more bills

            As of Monday (the day before the session began), legislators had pre-filed 1,298 bills and resolutions, of which we are tracking 440 (34% of the total). Here are the top 20 categories:

1)     Code of Criminal Procedure (123 bills)

2)     Penal Code (71)

3)     Traffic laws (57)

4)     New crimes (48)

5)     CPS (36)

6)     Guns (35)

7)     Drugs (24)

8)     Sex offenders/offenses (24)

9)     Penalty reductions (19)

10)  Criminal records (18)

11)  New duties for prosecutors (15)

12)  Juveniles (13)

13)  Public Information Act (13)

14)  Penalty increases (12)

15)  Asset forfeiture (10)

16)  DWI (7)

17)  Human trafficking (6)

18)  Family violence (6)

19)  Gambling (4)

20)  Death penalty (3)

We keep live tracking updates for the Penal Code and CCP bills on the Legislative page of our website, but if you are curious to know exactly what bills we are tracking under any of these particular categories (or the twenty others we maintain), email Shannon and he can send you a list that will include hyperlinks to each bill on the state’s legislative website.

            If history is any guide, the 1,300 pre-filed bills will constitute less than 20 percent of the overall total filed this session. To hit that mark, the Legislature will triple or quadruple its rate of bill-filing in the coming weeks. (Wish us luck as we try to drink from that firehose!) Next week, we will try to identify some of the bills out there that deserve your close attention—stay tuned.

Interim committee reports

            The only interim committee report to drop this week was the following:

House Select Committee on Mental Health

  • Consider financing to improve operations, to purchase private beds to increase needed capacity, and to update, remodel, and construct new state hospitals in accordance with a strategic plan
  • Address capacity needs for forensic commitments
  • Expand crisis intervention services and jail diversion programs
  • Provide judges more options for restoring competency in addition to commitment to a state hospital
  • Require all judges to receive mental health education

Session volunteers

            Our dance card is finally starting to fill up, but we are still seeking a dozen or so volunteers to come to Austin during the weeks beginning February 6th and ending May 15th. Please call or email Shannon to learn more about our legislative volunteer program. It’s a great learning opportunity, and it will make you the most knowledgeable person in your jurisdiction when it comes to what’s going on in Austin this session.

Quotes of the month

“It’s all about the money. There’s gonna be a lot of huffin’ and puffin’, but this is a session about priorities.”
            —State Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), likely to be the next chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. 

“There is no debate. … It’s over.”
            —Vice President Joe Biden, to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) while gaveling down her argument against Congressional certification of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory.

“You can’t cut what’s not there. In 2013, Texas ranked 46th in state spending per capita. ... When you are 46th, what exactly do you stop doing?”
            —Eva De Luna Castro, state budget analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning advocacy group, discussing the comptroller’s revenue estimate for this session.

“I don’t apologize for being the best friend firefighters and policemen have.”
            —State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), explaining away any potential conflict between his role as a legislator and his employment with Locke Lord, a law firm that represents many city pension fund boards that will be seeking legislative help this session.

“The love is everywhere! ... I want to apologize to Ted for saying he should be killed on the Senate floor.”
            —U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), in a recent joint appearance with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). [Ain’t politics grand?  —Ed.]