Ed Sterling

AUSTIN - Our Legislature is two steps closer to building a state budget for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Rep. Jim Pitts, R- Waxahachie, on March 13 filed Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 1, the general appropriations bills.

SB 1 is scheduled for daily public hearings, March 16-21. HB 1 is scheduled for a hearing in the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Pitts, on March 17. At these hearings, both versions of the budget will be marked up, voted out of their respective committees and sent to the full Senate and full House for approval.

The usual path to approval includes a stop in a conference committee of House and Senate members, who must reconcile any differences that emerge in the two bills.

The budget would total around $170 billion, if it runs in parallel with projected needs expressed by the Legislative Budget Board. The current two-year budget, which ends Aug. 31, totaled out at $168 billion.

The state revenue estimate provided by State Comptroller Susan Combs shows that for 2010-11, the state can expect to have $77.1 billion in funds available for general-purpose spending. This represents a 10.5 percent decrease from the corresponding amount of funds available for 2008-09.

Still to be worked out is potential relief through a $16 billion federal stimulus package, which the Legislative Budget Board said can be spent on:

The Medicaid match rate, transportation infrastructure, public school facilities, water and energy finance programs, and existing education, health and human services programs, and the Community Development Block Grant.

Also, home energy and weatherization assistance, affordable housing, criminal justice assistance grants, unemployment compensation, food stamps.

Gov. Rick Perry on March 12 rejected the $555 million chunk of the federal stimulus meant to shore up state unemployment funding. He said the money has strings attached, and accepting it would mean Texas businesses would have to make higher unemployment payments.

All that, on top of continued uncertainties in the current economy that point to less revenue for the state to work with will make for lively debate over the next few weeks.

Dunnam files transparency measure

State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, chair of the House Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding, on March 10 filed HB 2942, the Texas Government Accountability and Transparency Act of 2009. The bill is intended to strengthen legislators’ ability to track and audit the use of stimulus money by state agencies and private entities.

Committee passes Voter ID bill

The state Committee of the Whole Senate on March 11 passed SB 362, a “voter I.D.” bill with all 19 Republicans and the lieutenant governor voting in favor and all 12 Democrats voting in opposition.

The bill’s author, Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said the intent of his bill is to prevent unscrupulous individuals who would submit falsified voter registration applications and receive voter registration certificates.

Under SB 362, before casting a ballot, each voter would have to present an election clerk working at the poll with an acceptable

government-issued identification card and their voter registration certificate. A list of acceptable forms of official identification would be posted at each poll.

Floor debate on March 10-11 took 23 hours, with Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock as chair. Democrats challenged the bill on parliamentary and constitutional grounds to no avail.

Some Republican members who spoke in favor asserted that evidence of widespread voter fraud exists in Texas and in other states.

Democrats said there was no proof of widespread voter fraud. They alleged the bill was part of a nationwide voter suppression effort and that if passed SB 362 would discriminate against older Texans, the poor, Hispanics and African-Americans, and in general, against Texans who do not have a driver’s license.

An estimated 100 witnesses testified, some in favor, some against, and some neutral, as resource witnesses.

Current law only requires a citizen to present their voter registration certificate to vote.

SB 362 is certain to pass the full Senate and then will move to the House, where voter ID bills passed in 2005 and 2007, when Republicans enjoyed more of a majority. But the House is now composed of 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats, leaving the outcome subject to conjecture.