Education, water issues top Legislature’s list
Austin - Lawmakers expressed the need to tackle big issues when the 83rd legislative session got under way Tuesday.
Legislators will face balancing the state's two-year budget while addressing unpopular cuts to public education and a looming statewide water shortage.
Lawmakers from both parties said they expect additional money to go toward more than $5 billion in public education cuts during 2011.
In all, legislators cut more than $12 billion to cover the state's budget shortfall last session, most coming from health and human services and education.
Although there is agreement public and higher education will receive more attention this session, a broad spectrum of options were voiced, including pumping more money into districts, changing the school funding formula or increased funding to specific programs including vocational training in high school.
The release of positive revenue estimates by the state comptroller Monday lightened the mood in Austin compared to a gloomy 2011. But 181 lawmakers in the House and Senate must decide how much to spend, where the funding will come from, and where it is needed most.
Before lawmakers can debate how to spend revenues or the state's $8.8 billion Economic Stabilization Fund (Rainy Day Fund), they must address $5 billion in Medicaid payments deferred from 2011.
House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the respective chambers' leaders, voiced strong support for addressing public education and infrastructure, specifically water and roads.
Infrastructure, Straus said Tuesday after being sworn in for his third session at the House helm, must be addressed if the state expects to support a booming population.
"A 50-year water plan without funding is not a plan," he said. "Substantial action is needed to address water needs."
However, lawmakers have gained little traction during the past decade when it comes to water. An increase in the Texas Water Development Board's bonding power, to $6 billion from $2 billion, for pipeline and pump station projects and maintenance was approved by voters in 2011, but no major influx of cash has surfaced.
Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said more indebtedness is not the answer to long-term infrastructure solutions.
"Paying for infrastructure with bonds is just a hidden tax on future generations," he said. "We've got to find a way to fund major projects."
Eltife said the recent drought pushed the water conversation forward, but the state should not borrow to meet needs. He said the state increased debt to fund the Texas Department of Transportation projects for the past decade without addressing the long-term problem -- a substantial, permanent revenue stream for roads. Meeting the needs with cash by increasing or creating a consumption tax or fees is the best, fairest, most conservative long-term solution, Eltife said.
Those changes would have to run the legislative gauntlet that will likely be driven by the upper echelon of state leaders, including Dewhurst, Straus and Gov. Rick Perry, who might try to pad their conservative credentials this session.
Jim Henson, Texas Politics Project director and lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin, said he doesn't expect the session to be "quite as vexing" as prior sessions but that the power-trio's signals will direct the path. A relatively inexperienced House and public relation rehabilitation by Dewhurst and Perry after abysmal political campaigns might mean a socially conservative agenda will pick up steam, Henson said.
Perry could resurrect immigration policy to reaffirm a conservative stance after criticism for lauding public education for illegal immigrants. A "pre-born pain" bill, aimed to appeal to pro-life conservatives, might also gain traction among leadership, he said.
"There is always a wildcard or two during the session," he said.
Henson said there appears to be broad-based support to address water after sessions of disinterest. He said some of the "overage" in the Rainy Day fund, possibly $3.6 billion according to the comptroller, making the total $11.6 billion, could be the least controversial use of reserve dollars.
"The question is where will the leadership be on policy items," he said.