AUSTIN – A state budget gradually will be attached to the framework provided by SB 1, the general appropriations bill authored by Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

In a hearing spread over three days last week, the Senate Finance Committee absorbed invited testimony given by officials representing institutions of higher education, the state comptroller’s office, the Legislative Budget Board, the Teachers Retirement System and more.

John Heleman, chief revenue estimator with the comptroller’s office, said collections from tax and non-tax revenue sources are expected to total some $96.2 billion, minus $3.6 billion that will go into the so-called Rainy Day Fund.

The figure Heleman gave increases to $101.4 billion available for general-purpose spending in 2014-2015, when a projected ending balance of $8.8 billion from the current two-year budget cycle is added.

But this is only the beginning of a long process to deliver the Legislature’s most basic obligation: the budget.

Bill would reform testing

Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, on Jan. 23 filed legislation that would cut to four the number of assessments upon which students must achieve a cumulative passing score in order to graduate from high school. The current number of assessments that students must pass is 15.

Villarreal’s HB 596 also would:

- Limit the number of school days spent on testing students;

- Cut the requirement that end-of-course tests count for 15 percent a student’s final grade in the course; and

- End the practice of using test scores to calculate the “recognized” or “exemplary” rating of a campus.

Villarreal said his intent is to shift the state away from high-stakes testing in response to calls for education reform by parents, educators and business leaders.

Bills would curb texting

So far, at least five state lawmakers are offering legislation to make it illegal to read, write or send text messages while driving a motor vehicle in Texas.

HB 27 by Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, D-San Antonio, has an exception for a peace officer or an emergency responder if the text messaging is in connection with official duties.

HB 63 by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, includes exceptions for a citizens band radio or CB radio hybrid or a commercial two-way radio communication device and stipulates that it is a defense to prosecution if the driver was reading, selecting or entering a telephone number or name to make a phone call or to navigate using a global positioning service.

HB 69 by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito, is much like the others, and Lucio has signed as joint author of Craddick’s bill.

HB 108 by Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, would ban reading, writing or sending a text-based communication – including instant messaging, e-mail and text messaging, unless the vehicle is stopped.

SB 28 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, creates an exception allowed use of a handheld wireless communication device to report illegal activity or summon emergency help, and allows a political subdivision to adopt a local ordinance or rule that is more stringent that the various changes in the law she is proposing.

”Ensuring the safety of our loved ones is a paramount issue,” Lucio said. “The texting and driving ban will prevent the fatal accidents too many families have experienced.”

Abbott lauds EPA ruling

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Jan. 24 denied the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s petition for rehearing of the Court’s August 2012 decision to vacate the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.

The rule was meant to cause states to do a better job of containing toxic emissions originating mostly from power plants and drift into other states, negatively affecting air quality.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Jan. 25 issued a statement welcoming the action, saying, “The court agrees that the EPA acted lawlessly and violated federal law in its zeal to inflict job-killing regulations on the state.”

On Dec. 30, 2011, the D.C. Circuit Court issued an order stopping the enforcement of the cross-state air pollution rule and in August 2012 vacated the rule. The state of Texas, the National Mining Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers filed suit against the EPA, arguing that enforcement of the rule presented unfair financial burdens and would have forced the closure of older power plants.