May 27 will be the last day of the 140-day regular session of the 83rd Texas Legislature. There is a mountain of work for lawmakers to pack into the remaining few days.

First among lawmakers’ duties is to pass a budget for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The task of reconciling two versions of the budget is now in the hands of a 10-member House-Senate conference committee. Members are weighing and measuring their way toward an agreement over the final composition of a budget likely to total in the neighborhood of $195 billion.

They will have to come to terms on how much of that enormous amount to put toward public education, health care and transportation. Once agreed upon by the conference committee, a budget of about 850 pages in length will be returned to the House and Senate for more or less ceremonial votes before reaching the governor’s office for a signature of approval or a veto.

Big-ticket items in the budget are health and human services, about $75 billion; public and higher education, about $75 billion; public safety and criminal justice, about $12 billion; and business and economic development, about $25 billion.

Water bill slows down

CSHB 11, by House Natural Resources Committee Chair Allen Ritter, R-Nederland, was stopped on a parliamentary point of order in House floor debate on April 29. The bill would pull some $2 billion from the state’s “rainy day fund” for deposit into a state water implementation fund that the Texas Water Development Board would mete out for qualified local and regional water conservation and infrastructure projects.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, raised the point of order against further consideration of the bill on grounds that the general appropriations (budget) bill had not yet been certified by the comptroller. Speaker Joe Straus sustained the point of order.

The bill was returned to the House Committee on Appropriations.

House OKs funding patch

On April 29 the supplemental appropriations bill, Committee Substitute House Bill 1025, moved to the Senate, after having been passed by the House on April 26.

Authored by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the bill would add $875 million to the current state budget, which ends Aug. 31. Public schools would get $500 million of the amount to help fill the gap left by a $5.4 billion cut in education funding passed by the 2011 Legislature. Prison-related managed health would get $39 million to cover projected costs through the end of the fiscal year. 

Some $170 million of CSHB 1025 will come from the Rainy Day Fund to help the Texas A&M Forest Service and other agencies cover costs from wildfires that ravaged areas of Central Texas in 2011. Some $2 million of the supplemental funding is designated for the recovery of West, Texas, where a fertilizer plant caught fire and exploded on April 17, resulting in 15 deaths, more than 160 injuries and catastrophic public and private property losses.

Agency would be renamed

The Senate on May 2 passed SB 212, the Railroad Commission of Texas sunset bill reauthorizing the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry for 10 more years.

Authored by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, the bill would rename the agency the Texas Energy Resource Commission to reflect its actual purpose.

The legislation also includes language barring the agency’s three commissioners from seeking or accepting campaign donations earlier than 17 months before an election day and provisions granting the agency power to regulate pipelines that cross the state border and creating a pipeline permit fee.

House OKs gun-related bills

Tentatively approved by the House last week were:

- HB 1009 by Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, to authorize a school district or open-enrollment charter school to appoint school marshals to prevent or abate the commission of an offense in the event of a life-threatening situation that occurs on school premises.

- CSHB 972 by Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, to authorize a public institution of higher education to use its rulemaking process to “opt out” of prohibiting concealed handgun license holders from carrying handguns on premises owned or leased and operated by the institution.

- HB 1076 by Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, to prohibit state and local governmental bodies from adopting a rule, order, ordinance or policy that would regulate a firearm, firearm accessory or firearm ammunition if it imposes a prohibition, restriction or other regulation such as capacity or size limitation, a registration requirement or a background check that does not exist under Texas law.

Ed Sterling is the director of member service for Texas Press Association. Capital Highlights is provided as a service to member publications and their readers.