FROM STAFF REPORTS
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Budget and taxes
Texas has been in an enviable economic position compared with other states, boasting almost $12 billion in reserves and available revenue going into the 2010-11 budget. But the double blow of the national financial collapse and Hurricane Ike has darkened the state's outlook. Budget leaders expect relatively little money to pay for new expenses. The state's revised business tax, collected for the first time in 2008, will be closely examined for its effect on small businesses and different industries. Lawmakers will be reluctant to make too many changes because it's an integral part of the 2006 deal to reduce school property taxes, and the first-year collections have been well short of projections.
With the state budget tighter than tight, a primary goal will be to ensure funding for new prison treatment and diversion programs that were approved two years ago. More than half are still to be launched, with officials saying the initial programs have been successful. Look for the Texas Department of Public Safety to undergo a management makeover as part of its regular sunset review, with drivers' licensing and vehicle inspections likely to be moved to another agency. The proposed merger of the Texas Youth Commission and Texas Juvenile Probation Commission? There's a 50-50 chance, or another such effort is likely in two years. A push to allow Texans to openly pack pistols probably will produce a lively debate but might not pass.
More than a dozen bills have been filed, including ones that include incentives for homeowners and businesses to install solar panels, one calling for more monitoring of an air pollutant and one barring homeowner associations from prohibiting solar panels. Speaker-apparent Joe Straus cut his teeth last session on a successful proposal to encourage Texans to buy Energy Star appliances. With him at the House's helm, look for that program to expand and for incentives for solar power generation to get traction. Anything touching explicitly on global warming has little hope of getting on the governor's desk and even less of getting his signature. Water conservation, a big issue last session, may recede this time.
The expansion of gambling, which never really got traction two years ago, is back. The state's tight finances won't hurt because proponents are sure to promise a hefty return if the state builds casinos, allows slots at racetracks and authorizes gambling on tribal reservations. But the opposition will argue that relying on gambling revenue is a bad bet. They say gambling brings more crime and social problems than it's worth. In the end, the legislative leadership would have to be convinced that there's enough support among lawmakers to give the issue a run.
Health and human services
Expect lawmakers to debate whether to close some of the state institutions for people with mental retardation, how to continue reforming the foster care system and whether to expand Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Bills already filed would start a statewide workplace smoking ban, create a health insurance program for children in the child-support system, legalize needle-exchange programs, ban possession of the hallucinogen salvia and regulate laser hair-removal facilities. Abortion-related bills filed include one that would require women who seek an abortion to first get an ultrasound and another — backed by Gov. Rick Perry — that would issue a 'Choose Life' license plate.
Several measures proposing limits on tuition increases at public universities have been filed. Prospects are uncertain; lawmakers have thus far declined to fiddle with the tuition-setting powers they ceded to the boards of regents in 2003. The University of Texas and its legislative allies will try once again to scale back a 1997 law that allows students in the top 10 percent of their Texas high school graduating class to attend any public university in the state. Also up for debate are proposals to boost funding for community colleges; establish a commission to prepare a long-range plan for higher education; designate one or more universities for flagship, or top-tier, status; increase financial aid, perhaps with more stringent merit standards; and provide health benefits for graduate students.
Though the issue seems to have lost some steam, many conservatives still expect Republicans in the Legislature to show that they're cracking down on illegal immigration. Action could still be difficult because of resistance from business groups and Democrats and the fact that immigration is primarily a federal issue. Proposals are likely to include a reverse in the law allowing undocumented residents to pay in-state college tuition and crackdowns on businesses that hire unauthorized workers. Perry will seek more funding for crime-fighting along the border.
On the griddle: How to continue the state program that is the hurricane-battered insurer of last resort for residential and commercial property along the Gulf coast. After exhausting other funding sources to pay claims, the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association last year told Texas property insurers to pony up $430 million for excess losses associated with Hurricane Ike, on top of $100 million levied earlier for damage caused by Hurricane Dolly. In the short term, the insurers can recover some of the money by taking state tax credits. In the long term, a key question is how the state continues the coverage method and whether it'll be harder for property owners to get insured.
The high-stakes Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills appears on its way out. In its place, legislators want to create a school accountability system that reduces the emphasis on a single test and focuses on a student's progress from year to year. How exactly that system would play out in the classroom is not clear.
Lawmakers may revisit legislation intended to protect journalists from revealing confidential sources and notes in certain circumstances. So-called shield laws exist in more than 30 states and the District of Columbia. In Texas, such proposals have fallen short of passage into law in six legislative sessions since 1989.
Lawmakers will consider several strategies for pumping more money into transportation, including borrowing against the state's general fund, raising the gasoline tax and putting money in a rail relocation fund.Local governments want more authority to raise local taxes and fees for transportation as well. And with authority for private toll road leases expiring Sept. 1, the Legislature must decide whether to extend the state's ability to enter such agreements.