Legislature completes regular session with main task accomplished
AUSTIN — The 140-day 85th regular session of the Texas Legislature ended on May 29 with hugs, tears and fanfare, plus demonstrations against “anti-immigrant” legislation and a scuffle involving members on the House floor.
Primarily, though, both chambers signed off on Senate Bill 1, the state budget for 2018-2019, and in doing so accomplished their only constitutionally required task.
The budget appropriates $106.7 billion in general revenue and almost $1 billion from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund. The budget totals $217 billion, including federal funds and other dollars.
“We started with a sizable shortfall,” said House Speaker Joe Straus. “But we are ending this session with a balanced budget that invests in some very important priorities. We’re keeping overall spending low while improving child protection and mental health care.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said, “This state budget is more than a billion dollars less in general revenue than our current budget. It upholds our commitment to spend taxpayer dollars wisely and to live within our means. It maintains almost $11 billion in the Rainy Day Fund.”
Fourteen House members and one Senate member voted against SB 1. Rep. Sergio Muñoz Jr., D-Mission, was one of them. The final version of the budget would spend almost $1.4 billion less than originally appropriated and result in cuts of $2.4 billion to Health & Human Services, $1 billion to public education and reductions to other areas as well, Muñoz said.
Another House member to vote in opposition to SB 1 was Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston. “Almost every area of state spending was cut or underfunded, including $1 billion in Medicaid payments, in favor of allocating $800 million dollars for border security patrol, which is really a federal issue,” Thierry said. “The budget now leaves nearly every state agency hanging on by a thread.”
Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, called the budget “inadequate” because it “leaves $11 billion untapped” in the Economic Stabilization “Rainy Day” Fund. “There’s no new money for pre-K, there’s continued spending on more border militarization and it continues to shortchange education and healthcare. It doesn’t represent the values of my district so I voted against it.”
Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who chairs the Senate committee that drafted the budget, said, “We passed a responsible budget that meets our essential needs. It continues the policies of fiscal restraint that have shaped our success, and it positions Texas for a bright future.” Nelson also mentioned the passage of House Bill 2, supplemental appropriations legislation to cover shortfalls in the current 2016-2017 budget, which she said “protects the most vulnerable among us: our children. It balances the ledger for our current budget and puts Texas in a strong position to meet the challenges ahead.”
Members’ tempers flare
Visitors poured into the Capitol on May 29, occupying the south steps, the rotunda floor, balconies of the upper floors of the rotunda and the House gallery to witness the closing hours of the legislative session.
A majority of the House gallery crowd wore red shirts printed with statements in opposition to Senate Bill 4, legislation passed earlier this spring and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. SB 4 bans sanctuary cities and toughens laws allowing law enforcement to identify, detain and deport undocumented residents.
As the crowd chanted “SB 4 is hate” and other slogans, a scuffle among several representatives erupted on the House floor, reportedly triggered by the sentiments expressed by the crowd. Other House members and staff broke up the disturbance and state troopers on guard duty cleared the gallery.
Some major bills failed
Property tax reform and the so-called “bathroom bill” concerning the accommodation of transgender students created enough division between the House and Senate to stop, slow down or otherwise result in the demise of hundreds of other pieces of legislation.
Gov. Abbott, who named those issues high-priority, said he would decide this week if there is enough reason to call legislators back to Austin for a special session to act on his priorities.
Meanwhile, Abbott has until June 18 to sign or veto bills. If he does neither, they become law without his signature. He can leave Texans on pins and needles over the fate of bills by pushing those decisions right up to the deadline.