AUSTIN — Texas Senate and House budget conferees met frequently last week and on May 20 managed to reach compromise on a $218 billion state budget for fiscal years 2018-2019. 

However, Senate Bill 1 must gain final approval from both the House and Senate in order for the budget to continue on to the governor’s desk. But as pressing a matter as the budget may seem, the bulk of time in weekend floor debates was used on a variety of other measures, such as property tax reform, municipal annexation, school bathroom accommodations for transgender students and religious conscience considerations for government employees.

Disagreements among Republicans, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, and the rivalry between the lieutenant governor and the House speaker continue to slow the customary end-of-session rush of bills. Also, the usual talk about the need for a special session to take care of unfinished business has arisen as the May 29 end of the 140-day session approaches.

One bill that did pass and is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk is House Bill 62, a statewide ban on texting while driving. Authored by former speaker and dean of the House Tom Craddick, R-Midland, the bill was sponsored and amended in the Senate by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who offered companion legislation, SB 31. The House concurred in Senate amendments.

“Awareness of the dangers of texting while driving has been growing, and an April poll found that 90 percent of Texans support a statewide prohibition. Accordingly, it is time for Texas to join the 46 other states that already have banned this deadly habit,” Zaffirini wrote.

Fallen officers honored

The Texas Department of Public Safety on May 16 held a memorial service in conjunction with National Police Week to honor the state troopers, special agents and Texas Rangers who have lost their lives in the line of duty. 

The Texas Governor’s Mansion was lit with blue lights on May 17 as part of the commemoration, as a sign of solidarity with the Dallas community, that day honored officers killed in the line of duty during a terrorist attack last July.

Jobless rate unchanged

The Texas Workforce Commission on May 19 announced the state’s economy expanded in April with the addition of 30,400 seasonally adjusted non-farm jobs, but the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained unchanged at 5.0 percent.

Employment in the education and health services industry recorded the largest private-industry gain over the month with 10,400 jobs added, while manufacturing employment grew by 8,100 jobs and professional and business services expanded by 7,400 jobs.

The Amarillo Metropolitan Statistical Area recorded the month’s lowest unemployment rate among Texas MSAs with a non-seasonally adjusted rate of 3.0 percent, followed by the Austin-Round Rock, College Station-Bryan and Lubbock MSAs with a rate of 3.2 percent. 

West Nile case reported

With the state already on alert for the Zika mosquito-borne illness, the Department of State Health Services on May 16 announced Texas’ first West Nile illness of the year.

An adult woman from Montgomery County developed the neurologic form of the disease was diagnosed in late April, the agency said. 

As mosquito counts climb, the state of Texas is appealing to the public to help with the effort to stop mosquito-borne diseases by preventing mosquito bites and eliminating areas where mosquitoes can reproduce.

Paxton writes letter to EPA

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office sent a letter dated May 15 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, urging the suspension, review and reconsideration Obama-era EPA regulations that Texas challenged in 12 lawsuits that are still pending against the federal agency. 

One example pointed out in the letter is the EPA’s “Clean Power Plan,” which Paxton’s office alleges would raise electricity costs while weakening the nation’s power grid. The letter also mentions the Paxton’s lawsuit against an EPA rule on carbon and methane that he said would harm oil and gas production in Texas and across the nation.

HHS receives opioid grant

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission on May 19 announced that Texas would receive a $27.4 million federal grant to combat opioid-use disorders.

The increasing rate of opioid use continues to be an issue nationwide, and of the more than 33,000 opioid-related deaths in the U.S. in 2015, 1,186 were in Texas. The grant funds will be used for prevention, training, outreach, treatment and recovery support services and will directly help an estimated 14,000 people over a two-year period, according to the agency.