AUSTIN — Texas is stronger than ever, Gov. Rick Perry said early in his 36-minute “State of the State” address to the 83rd Texas Legislature on Jan. 29.

Perry praised lawmakers, saying the line has been held on taxes and the state is spending within its means, delivering on his priorities, by “making the tough decisions separating wants from needs.”

He called for an amendment to the state constitution “so when we do bring in more than we need, we’ll have the option of returning tax money directly to the people who paid it.” And he said employment is robust, with nearly 1.4 million low, medium and high-paying jobs added in the last two years.

As for the environment, Perry said that from 2000 to 2011, ozone levels decreased by 23 percent and industrial nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide gas emissions were cut by 60 percent.

In a pushback statement aimed at Washington, D.C., Perry said Texas would not expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act and would not set up a state health care exchange — part of phased-in “Obama Care” intended to aid citizens in finding affordably priced health insurance.

Education, Perry said, is progressing, with graduation rates at an all-time high, the third highest in the nation. Perry noted that some higher education institutions are offering the $10,000 four-year degree program that he asked for, and he spoke proudly of increases in charter-school enrollment, but he did not mention the $5 billion stripped two years ago from the public education budget.

What to do with surplus

Even though state finances are off to a running start in 2013 with better-than-expected tax collections that might allow the state to avoid major funding cutbacks like those adopted in 2011, there is room for improvement, Perry suggested.

“We’re in a position today to put our financial house in order, and it’s time to do so," he said. "We have an opportunity this session, an opportunity to true up our budget and move away from the budgetary techniques we've come to depend on all too often. … We need to make the franchise tax exemption for small businesses permanent. … We also need to do away with the practice of using dedicated funds and specific fees for anything other than the purpose for which they were intended. If we don't need taxpayer money for that purpose, let’s not collect it at all.”

Perry added, “I think providing tax relief of at least $1.8 billion over this biennium is a good place to start.”

Gov has projects in mind

Perry mentioned the state’s Economic Stabilization (or “rainy day”) Fund — a savings account to be used for emergencies, disaster relief and to maintain a high credit rating. He said the fund will soon hold nearly $12 billion, and he supports the use of $3.7 billion from the fund for a one-time investment in infrastructure programs, which he defined as “critical water and transportation systems.”

Straus names panels, chiefs

Speaker Joe Straus on Jan. 31 publicized his list of the state representatives to serve as chairs and members of 38 House standing and three select committees for the current legislative session. With that task accomplished, hearings on proposed legislation will begin.

Some of those standing committee chairs include: Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, Appropriations; Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, Ways and Means; Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, Calendars (the committee that decides which bills advance to the House Floor for debate); and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, State Affairs.

Also: Tracy O. King, D-Eagle Pass, Agriculture; Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, County Affairs; Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, Criminal Jurisprudence; Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, Energy Resources; Government Efficiency and Reform, Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving; Dan Branch, R-Dallas, Higher Education; Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, Human Services; John Smithee, R-Amarillo, Insurance; and Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence;

And, Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, Land & Resource Management; Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, Natural Resources; Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, Public Education; Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, Public Health; and Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, Transportation.

In announcing the chairs and committee assignments, Speaker Straus also recognized Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, as dean of the House, a title given to the member who has the most years of continuous service as a state representative. Craddick, first elected in 1968, served as speaker in the 2003, 2005 and 2007 legislative sessions.

Straus also appointed Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, as speaker pro tempore.