Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 8: Get Out of the Way! The Budget's Coming Through!

Today is the 8th day of the 82nd Texas Legislature and lawmakers are back in Austin after the 3 day weekend. The House will reconvene at 9:30 am and the Senate at 11:00 am.

Right now everything is waiting on rules adoption. The Texas constitution outlines how the House and Senate are to do their business, but both bodies have broad discretion to decide the specifics of how they operate. Since the rules lay out the committee structure without them there are no committees, without committees there are no committee chairs and without committee chairs there are no committee hearings. Until the rules are adopted everything else is in a holding pattern.

Most of the rules debate will be hashed out behind closed doors. Bits and pieces are leaking out but we won't know what either the House or Senate rules will look like until they are formally introduced on the floors. The capitol scuttlebutt says that some of the freshman Republicans in the House are frustrated by the rule making process so there may be an ill-advised attempt to make major alterations on the floor, which will be fun to watch but won't do anything to help the advancement of legislation important to the queer community.

Quorum Report says that Jim Pitts, who last session served as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, will file the appropriations bill today. Pitts is widely expected to retain his chairmanship, if so he will be overseeing the first step in adopting the State's two year budget (thus he receives the honor of filing it). Passing a budget is the only requirement the State Constitution places on the legislature.

The budget is their only job, and this year it's a doozy! Texas has a projected budget deficit for the next two years of as much as $25 million dollars. Last session Governor Perry jury rigged a balance budget by using stimulus funds designed to improve public schools to instead cover general budget provisions. No such funds are forthcoming this session. The concern is that the Republican majority will again rob eduction by forcing massive cuts in public schools and universities. Texas ranks 43rd out of 50 states in high school graduation rates. Our schools are already woefully underfunded. Compromising the quality of education may balance the budget in the short run but will lead to massive economic hardship as another generation of high school drop-outs enters the workforce.

The budget process should be watched carefully, not only will effect every aspect of every state agency but since it's the only bill that has to pass it's a prime target for amendment. Last session Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) managed to amend the budget to include a nondiscrimination policy for Texas Public Schools that included sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (it was later removed). Almost anything, good or bad, can get tacked onto the budget somewhere, as the session speeds up thing will start happening very quickly, hopefully our allies in the legislature are watching.

Today is also inauguration day for Governor Rick Perry. A joint session of the House and Senate affirmed the results of November's election last week - making them official. Perry will take the oath of office today and then attend the inauguration ball this evening (tickets are still available if you're into that sort of thing).

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