The 82nd Texas Legislature accomplished a lot in 2011. Led by Republican leaders in the Texas House of Representatives, lawmakers passed historic legislation like Voter ID, “loser pays” tort reform, the State Health Care Compact and legislation to defund Planned Parenthood. Most importantly, legislators balanced the state’s budget with the first overall decrease in state spending in 50 years. While special interests decried “cuts” to education, the truth is, even in the face of the worst recession in decades, Texas was still able to increase education spending by $1.6 billion, or 5.6 percent.
Throughout the recession, Texas’ economy has easily outpaced the rest of the country. According to the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, Texas accounted for 37 percent of all new job growth in the entire country. Texas is a job-creation engine because Texans have consistently stood up for the principles of low taxation, a stable and predictable regulatory environment and a fair court system including reasonable tort reform. Texas leaders know that government doesn’t create jobs, businesses do. While other states have been building roadblocks to businesses, Texas was laying out the welcome mat.
Texas House Republicans recognized that protecting and expanding this legacy of sensible, common-sense conservatism is the key to ensuring that Texas continues to lead the way in the recovery. Today more than ever, Texas is poised to do just that.
The first key to ensuring a strong Texas economy is to keep the state’s own fiscal house in order. That means balancing the budget without resorting to new taxes or draining the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
It wasn’t easy. Even in its relatively strong position, Texas was not immune to the national economic recession, which left the Lone Star State with a $27 billion budget gap to fill. Skeptics said it simply couldn’t be done without raising taxes. Yet legislators found a way. Not only did they close the gap and preserve $6.5 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, legislators – led by leaders in the Texas House – reduced this year’s budget by $15 billion compared to the previous biennium.
The cuts were difficult, and many worthwhile programs simply couldn’t be funded at the level most legislators would like. But the alternative – increasing the state’s tax burden – would only prolong the recession and deepen the cuts in later years. While protecting critical programs and funding to education, Legislators recognized that adding more weight onto the shoulders of businesses was bad for the economy and bad for Texans.
Key budget highlights:
- $172 billion appropriated over two years.
- The budget includes an increase of $125.2 million in All Funds and an increase of $3 billion in General Revenue for Public Education. Public and Higher Education now represent 60% of General Revenue.
- The final legislation was able to limit the cuts of the original proposal and includes increased funding for schools, community colleges, student financial aid and nursing homes.
- The budget includes a significant increase in border security in the next biennium by as much as $100 million. This includes an increase for the Department of Public Safety of about $70 million.
- HB 4, the supplemental budget bill, supplied an additional $550 million to the Foundation School Program to pay for higher than anticipated student enrollment in FY 2010–11.
Republican legislators demanded education reform as a part of the overhaul of our state’s education spending, and passed SB 8 to do just that. Efforts in the regular session to cut red tape and give more local control to school districts when it came to hiring and firing decisions were blocked every step of the way by teachers’ unions. At the end of the regular session, Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis blocked these sensible reforms with a filibuster. But Republicans responded in the special session by passing SB 8 – giving schools the tools they need to maintain the best quality, most effective teaching staff.
Republicans also passed new legislation making electronic textbooks subject to the same accountability as traditional resources. This legislation will move schools and children into the 21st century, as it creates an Instructional Materials Allotment that enables children to receive the most up-to-date content electronically. Flexibility and instant deliver of content will now be in the equation for school success.
This objective of Higher Education reforms this session was streamlining processes and allowing Universities to do more with the money allotted to them. Legislation like SB 5 was designed to focus more dollars on academics and less on back office operations. SB 5 reduces institutional costs, and provides administrative flexibility to institutions of higher education. It addresses several administrative and business affairs that are burdensome to institutions and allows them the best opportunity to operate in ways that are better, faster, lest costly, and more productive.
SB 28 established priority criteria for TEXAS Grant (Towards EXcellence Access and Success), the largest grant programs in Texas. With anticipated budgetary constraints, the bill provides a merit-based prioritization model in order to utilize state funds as resourcefully as possible.
HB 33 seeks to drive down the cost of textbooks to students by providing consumer education and transparency to ensure that students have access to affordable course materials. It requires more transparency from publishers, distributors, faculty and institutions.
Undergoing review by the Texas Sunset Commission, the Texas Department of Insurance was continued for another 12 years by state legislators. Important reforms passed during the process include: clarifying the file-and-use process to provide market assurance, dissolving unnecessary department boards that took away from the department’s purpose, and providing common sense protections for policyholders through limitations on the reporting of claim information and proper notification of policy changes.
Legislators also approved Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO) Plans that allow employers needed flexibility to provide their employees with health care coverage in a time businesses struggle to make ends meet. As health care costs rise, EPO’s provide an alternative option for businesses of all sizes. The new plans utilize benefits on a preferred provider basis and limit the use of out-of-network services, thus providing significant cost reductions.
As an emergency item placed on the Governor’s list of legislation to be considered during the 1st called Special Session, the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association reform passed after considerable debate. The law improves claims management through real-time audits, requires significant accountability and transparency standards, creates an ombudsman program for policyholders, encourages alternative dispute resolution, and establishes an expert panel to review wind vs. surge and reduce the necessity of costly litigation.
Texas built upon its record of tort reform, not just in windstorm insurance, but in fighting frivolous lawsuits as well. Excessive lawsuits burden courts, stifle business and productivity and discourage innovation. Plaintiff’s attorneys frequently file cases they know they can’t win in hopes that businesses will settle out of court, because it’s often cheaper than taking a case to trial.
In 2003, Texas passed a $250,000 non-economic damage cap on lawsuit awards, ensuring that plaintiffs could still get the relief they need, but lawyers couldn’t turn our courts into their own private lottery. Observers from all sides of the political spectrum credit that reform as one reason why Texas has created almost 40 percent of all jobs in the last four years.
This session, Texas House Republicans went even further to strengthen the Lone Star State’s prevention of abusive lawsuits by passing “loser pays” legislation. When the party in a lawsuit faces the likelihood that he will pay court costs and lawyers’ fees when bringing a case without merit or legal basis, only those cases with strong, legitimate chances of winning will be filed, and another check is in place to prevent trial lawyers from gaming the system at the expense of the people and businesses of Texas.
EMINENT DOMAIN REFORM
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo v. New London decision opened up a gaping wound in American’s cherished property rights by allowing for the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes. Each session since that ruling, legislators have taken important steps to close the wound before state agencies, local governments and even private entities can exploit the power of eminent domain beyond the narrow bounds that the nation’s founders intended. In 2009, Texas voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 11, which placed restrictions against eminent domain for economic development purposes in the Texas Constitution.
This session, legislators passed SB 18, which expands the protections to Texas homeowners even further:
- The bill clarifies the definition of the term “public use” to more effectively constrain eminent domain to true public purposes.
- The bill requires state and local governments which seek to obtain private property to make a written “good faith” offer to a landowner.
- The bill grants a “buy-back” to a landowner whose property is taken through eminent domain and not used. If an entity condemns land and does not use it for 10 years, the owner has the first right of refusal on buying back the land.
- Additionally, the bill requires the Condemnation Petition to state the public use purpose for the condemnation and requires a copy to be provided to the property owner.
The encroachment of the federal government on powers the constitution has reserved to the states in the Tenth Amendment was a cause of concern for many Republican legislators. The newly-formed Select Committee on State Sovereignty in the Texas House took up legislation related to this important issue. Several key bills emerged from this effort.
The most important piece of legislation to pass was HB 5, the Health Care Compact Bill. Although killed in the regular session, this bill, resurrected as SB 7 in the special session, passed and was sent to the governor for his signature.
The Health Care Compact was filed in response to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed by congress in 2009. That legislation, rather than making health care more affordable, is now recognized to be a giant unfunded mandate on states that will blow up state budgets and cost jobs for ordinary citizens. The Heritage Foundation estimates that by 2017, the state’s share of Medicaid costs will increase by 41 percent. By the following year, Medicaid alone could consume up to 30 percent of the Texas budget.
The Compact allows for a waiver from that legislation for Texas. The administration has already granted thousands of waivers to businesses, unions and other entities. Texas is simply asking to have the same freedom from the act’s onerous burdens.
In a related area, the legislature passed and the Governor signed HCR 18, a resolution calling for a federal balanced budget with spending limitations.
Texas has historically had concerns and fought relentlessly against voter fraud. Although the Lone Star State has made great strides in the last 50 years, one major glaring weakness has stood out as a threat to the integrity of the ballot: the lack of a requirement to show a picture ID while voting.
The legislature has attempted to pass a Voter ID bill since 2005, but the effort has been blocked – most notoriously in 2009 when legislators resorted to “chubbing” or delaying the legislative agenda to run out the clock on session. This session, legislators took no chances, and brought the measure up as one of the first items of the session. It passed the Senate and House and was signed by the governor.
The measure requires all voters to show a photo ID to vote. A drivers license, personal ID card, military ID, passport or concealed handgun permit qualify. A few exemptions are included, including those for certain disabled people and those 70 or older. The Texas law is similar to those passed in other states, which have already survived legal challenges. This requirement is even more important when considered along with new driver’s license requirements.
In addition to the voter ID bill, other election laws were passed strengthening and improving the efficiency the election process. Included in these improvements were provisions that prohibit performance-based compensation for registering voters, strengthen requirements for appointment as a regular or volunteer deputy registrar and bolster security of voter registration. Also, updates to the Election Code were made in order to keep up with modern practices.”
IMMIGRATION AND BORDER SECURITY
Late in the session, the legislature approved a measure to require proof of citizenship or legal residency status to obtain a driver’s license. This legislation protects the integrity of the state’s license and makes it more difficult for illegal immigrants to work. It also makes it more difficult for terrorists to infiltrate the country.
The Texas legislature took up some key energy-related bills this session. The legislature passed the sunset bill for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The legislation keeps the agency for 12 more years but abolishes the On-Site Wastewater Treatment Research Council, which was considered unnecessary because many of its functions were duplicative.
The Texas Railroad Commission was not reorganized this session, but legislators passed a bill to conduct a sunset review in 2013.
The high price of energy has led to an expansion of new methods for obtaining it. One of the most promising, yet controversial, is fracking. This process involves using a liquid to fracture layers of solid rock to expose oil or natural gas deposits below. Various groups have expressed concerns about the procedure and the safety measures taken by companies employing it. The Texas legislature passed HB 3328, which requires companies to disclose the composition of chemicals used in the process.
Republican leaders in the Texas House have long argued against state-funded abortions, and this session, they successfully stripped Planned Parenthood of state funding, as well as passage of other abortion-related legislation:
- House members successfully amended a Senate bill to make funding of Planned Parenthood virtually impossible. The overall budget for family services was reduced. In addition, the legislature banned county hospital districts from paying for abortions unless it is necessary to save the life of the mother.
- A key legislative accomplishment was the fetal ultrasound bill. This legislation requires doctors performing abortions to allow the woman receiving an abortion an opportunity to view the ultrasound image of the child. Ultrasounds are already taken in many cases already, but are generally not shown to the mother. This law was written to provide the mother with more information in order to allow her to make a truly informed decision on whether or not to proceed with an abortion.
- The Legislature also passed a “Choose Life” license plate bill. This legislation dedicates a portion of the revenues to be used to provide counseling and other resources for women who are pregnant and are considering adoption.
The House passed a fair and legal House map, HB 150, State Board of Education map, HB 600, and Senate map, SB 31, and all three were sent to the Governor. This is the first time in twenty years that the House and the Senate maps have been passed during the regular session. Each map reflects the demographic changes of the past 10 years and protects the rights of voters to elect the candidates of their choice.
Republican leaders have continued to fight for the individual rights of each and every citizen. This session legislators prioritized and passed, SB 321, legislation that allows Texans to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights in parking lots on private property.
Republicans also pushed for SB 766, which provides a mechanism to identify sports shooting ranges whose operations needed to be corrected or closed, but would protect those sports shooting ranges who met best practices and accepted industry safety standards.
Veterans are one of the greatest assets to our community and our country. According to the Texas Veterans Commission, Texas is home to 1.8 million veterans, including 450,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. House Republicans sought to protect spouses of veterans through SB 516. This legislation allows the surviving spouse of a totally disabled veteran to continue to receive the property tax exemption for a residential homestead after the veteran’s death.
Continuing to protect those who have protected our great nation, SB 201 allows a 100 percent or totally disabled veteran’s property tax exemption to move with the veteran. The bill would allow a qualifying disabled veteran that sells their old home and purchases a new one to continue to use their property tax exemption for the duration of the year.
In addressing the criminal justice side of the state budget, many cost savings were achieved. The Sugarland prison facility will be closed by the end of August, which is a significant departure from the prison system expansion over the past two decades, saving the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) approximately $25 million in operational costs, and $11 million in projected employee benefit costs. The Windham School District (statewide prisoner educational system) budget was reduced by $35 million from the previous biennium, without impacting many critical educational items.
Starting with the 2012 fiscal year, TDCJ is required to establish a cost recovery policy which will offset approximately $1 million in on-site living quarters and utility subsidies previously afforded staff, and by imposing a $100 annual health care fee for inmates $10 million in revenue is being generated for Correctional Managed Health Care. In addition to the above, general expense reductions such as terminating contracts for facilities which were no longer needed resulted in another $75 million in savings. The merger of the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission resulted in a net savings of $3 million. In addition the measures included in SB 103 enacted during the 2007 Session regarding reduction in juvenile populations has led to the closure of 3 facilities and related savings, the net result is $82 million less in funding for the 2012-13 budget.
Taken together, all these cost cutting or revenue enhancing measures in the various corrections departments of our state has resulted in $242 million in savings and benefits to the budget.