Friday, June 15, 2007

"What kind of a legislative session was it? "

Interests sound off on Eightieth Session


Volume 11, Issue 42
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2007

What kind of a legislative session was it? Let’s ask a few who had dogs in the various fights going on at the Capitol from January clear through to May.

This week LSR spoke with a variety of interest groups and organizations to get their take on the good, the bad and the ugly in the session.

Here’s a sampling.

Hans Klingler, Republican Party of Texas

Obviously first and foremost, we are [pleased] about the Legislature ensuring the tax cuts from the last session—$14.4 [billion] in property tax cuts that the property owners of Texas will realize next year. We think this is a positive step and one of the key priorities I think that the Legislature had promised to address to the Texas voters and did so.

We also obviously are encouraged that things like Jessica’s Law passed. We think that anytime we’re able to tighten up laws and create real deterrents for child sexual predators… that’s a step in the right direction...

Obviously there were some missed opportunities as well. …We’d really like photo-ID-to-vote to be addressed again and passed this time. Obviously it passed overwhelmingly in the House. The Texas Senate Democrats blocked it, [putting] protocol over principle…

And, obviously, appraisal reform. There were some opportunities there to limit the growth of government and spending.

Hector Nieto, Texas Democratic Party

The 80th legislative session was a complete failure for Republican leaders [who] have been in control… since 2003 and they have yet been able to produce something for Texas. They have clearly taken partisan stances rather than providing for Texas citizens.

Take, for example, this voter suppression bill that they tried to pass. They also attempted to continue their Republican agendas by trying to pass their other voter suppression bill, that was the proof-of-citizenship bill. But when it came down to substantive measures, like trying to get more children on CHIP, like trying to provide pay raises for teachers, Republicans failed to meet the call. CHIP restorations stood in the Senate for an extremely long time and almost didn’t pass, and teachers didn’t get the pay raises that they deserved.

It’s unfortunate that Republican leaders couldn’t get their act together. At the very end there was almost a complete breakdown of the session when they couldn’t even decide who should lead them in the House.

Billy Howe, Texas Farm Bureau

We feel overall that agriculture had a good legislative session… Our biggest win… was the passage of the eminent domain reform legislation. Of course, hopefully, it doesn’t get vetoed in the next couple of days. But that was actually our top priority as an organization… We felt like it would do a lot of good for the property owners, take care of a lot of issues out there.

We were disappointed that there wasn’t more consideration of the landowner under the unique reservoir site designations [in SB 3 from Sen. Kip Averitt (R-Waco)]. We still strongly believe that these designations are going to have an impact on those property owners, on the value of their property.

And obviously we’re disappointed that the entities who want to build those reservoirs are not willing to pay some sort of compensation to these landowners to reserve these sites for future reservoir construction…

What we ended up getting in return for that was that the designations would sunset in 2015, so it won’t be a permanent designation. That was the best thing we could do to try to honor some of the property owners.

The Farm Bureau is opposed to the Trans-Texas Corridor, so we’re pleased with the passage of the two-year moratorium and the interim study [SB 792 from Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands)]. We intend to be active in that interim study, how to take care of Texas’ future transportation needs.

Scott McCown, Center for Public Policy Priorities

Our big concern is the state’s fiscal capacity, and I think the session was good news/ bad news on that front. The good news is that the recommendations of the Pauken Commission that we didn’t support were largely ignored. And the state didn’t do anything foolish like lowering local property taxes further when it doesn’t have the money to pay for what it’s already done with regard to local property taxes.

I think the bad news side is that there continues to be kind of a sustained fantasy by many that we can cut the budget and that the economy’s going to grow us out of the hole that was created in the special session, and in fact I think ’09 is going to be a difficult year…

On the health and human services side, Senate Bill 10… gives plenty of flexibility to do the right thing and make good decisions about Medicaid.

And we were very pleased with CHIP. I wished that the lieutenant governor hadn’t insisted on only going to 185 percent of poverty for 12 months’ continuous eligibility, but the ultimate compromise that got worked out there is a substantial step forward from where we were. We were very pleased about the Frew settlement, and the money that the Legislature set aside for Frew.

Joe Pojman, Texas Alliance for Life

For Texas Alliance for Life this session was up, down, up, down, but it ended up with the passage of House Bill 1.

House Bill 1 had $10 million for pro-life activities, which has us thrilled—$5 million for alternatives to abortions and $5 million for life-saving adult stem cell activities, which are proven to save lives and are totally non-controversial. And both of those were goals that we worked for throughout the session.

…We want to expand upon the funding for adult stem cell activities. And we would like to see Texas become a national leader in adult stem cell research and treatments. And this would distinguish us from states like California, which are spending billions of dollars on embryonic stem cell research, which is highly controversial and entirely unproven, in terms of actual clinical value for patients.

We are disappointed that we almost got the Senate Bill 439 passed which would have fixed the problems that we have in Texas end-of-life laws. We’re going to be working on that in the interim...

We do regret that we have not passed a statutory limit on state funding for embryonic stem cell research, which can only be done by destroying human embryos. That we expect is going to be another priority for us next session.

Elna Christopher, Texas Association of Counties

…The constitutional amendment [forbidding unfunded mandates to local areas] got out of committee this time. That’s the good. But it didn’t go to the House floor and it never made it to the Senate. [It was] a constitutional amendment [HJR 61 by Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown)] prohibiting the state from throwing unfunded mandates onto the local entities and their local taxpayers…It’s just historically something the Legislature doesn’t really want to tie their hands.

…I think counties fared better overall in terms of unfunded mandates not being placed on them, large ones this time, than they have in the past…A lot of members are now recognizing the concept of unfunded mandates, and that they’re bad.

They did do some things to better protect the taxpayers and to make the appraisal process, because that’s what you hear the most complaints about, more transparency, and hopefully it will seem fairer to folks.

There was also John Otto’s [R-Dayton] bill, [HB] 216, that would have changed that margin of error in the comptroller’s annual studies on appraisal districts, which is mainly a school deal—to change the margin of error from 5 to 10 percent, a little breathing room…Went through the House but not the Senate.

Michael Quinn Sullivan, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility

This is a session where they came in with $14 billion in surplus revenues, and yet a Republican-controlled government … couldn’t manage to do any additional tax relief, despite the bad news the taxpayers got midway through session from their appraisal districts… Despite the rate reduction given by the Legislature, everyone’s property tax bills are skyrocketing…

They had some good legislation filed to reform, or at least begin the process of reforming, the property tax appraisal system, and yet all of that legislation was essentially killed by the Republican chairman of the Local Government Ways and Means committee.

A number of groups have been out there praising the fact that the Legislature managed this session only to grow government nine percent… Yes, nine percent... fits population and inflation approximately. But we have to remember that that’s growing off of the 18.7 percent government growth that we had just two years ago… There should have probably been a little bit more effort done to reduce some spending.

…Probably the best thing they could have done was to provide additional immediate property tax relief, while the money was available, before anyone had any great emergency to spend it on, they should have just given it back…

Tom “Smitty” Smith, Public Citizen of Texas

It was a mixed session. We were successful on 11 of the 16 major issues we worked on. However, qualitatively, we lost on the biggest issues of concern to Public Citizen. Trying to get some sort of control over the pollution and the quantity of the pollution from the power plants, and trying to pass legislation to reduce some of Texas’ skyrocketing electric rates, and the other thing was global warming legislation. All died in the last 72 hours of the legislative session, either in the conference committee process, or on points of order…

On the victories side, we were able to pass for the first time in 24 years a major tune-up to Texas’ energy efficiency programs, which we think offer the possibility of eliminating the need for at least half of the new power plants that are projected to be needed in Texas…

The other big thing on the environmental side was the extension and expansion of the Texas Emission Reduction Program, SB 12. About 10 percent of the vehicles in the state account for 25 percent of the air pollution…A small but particularly pernicious number come from old cars that are driven by people too poor to repair them. And we’ve long had a program designed to clean up those old cars, but it has not been particularly effective because the amount of money offered for replacement vehicles was so small.

And we’ve now changed the law to dramatically increase the value of the replacement car and enable people to purchase cars that were built in 2001or newer, because the pollution from those newer cars is a third to a tenth of the average car that is scrapped. O

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