— FROM STAFF REPORTS
AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers have a lot they hope to accomplish over the course of their 140-day legislative session that began Tuesday.
Their first order of business was electing a Speaker of the House, and Joe Straus was re-elected to that powerful position.
Parker County’s representatives at the state capitol went to work before Tuesday’s opening session, filing early several bills they hope to push through and make law.
“I am eager to get to work on the issues important to our district and our state,” said State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls. “My priorities this session include repealing Texas’ burdensome business margin tax to spur economic growth, investing in our water infrastructure needs so that Texas remains a place where businesses choose to expand, and providing state-funded special training for school employees with handgun licenses so they are prepared to protect students in the event an ‘active shooter’ incident occurs.”
Estes stated he will continue his “commitment to low taxes and limited government while working diligently with his colleagues to ensure the budget is balanced while providing the essential government services Texans expect.”
Estes serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, vice chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee and is a member of the Finance Committee. Estes also serves on the Business and Commerce and Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committees.
Estes pre-filed SB 113, a bill that aims to repeal Texas’ business tax, commonly known as the margin tax.
“The margin tax has been a big disappointment,” Estes said. “It is inequitable, costly and complicated for Texas businesses and has undermined the state’s competitive advantage. We understand in Texas that businesses are job creators, and we must do all we can to alleviate the pressures they face in this difficult economy and the impending federal fiscal cliff. Now more than ever, we must ensure that our Texas economy remains business friendly to attract growth and job creation.”
State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, filed ahead of the session bills to cap welfare and state spending, freeze state hiring and give school districts testing choices.
King’s HJR 52 is a constitutional amendment to limit the growth of state spending for welfare and entitlement programs to not exceed the corresponding rate of growth of total state spending. Under the increased federal health care mandates, Texas general revenue spending for Medicaid alone is likely to increase from $16.3 billion in 2012-13 to $38.3 billion by 2020-21, King said.
“Due to the ever-expanding mandates from the federal government, increased spending for welfare programs has caused the rest of the budget to suffer,” King explained, “Medicaid spending alone has more than doubled in the last decade and is on track to double costs every 10 years. Texas must limit the growth of welfare spending, or it will quickly overcome public education and transportation as the single largest item in the budget and become unsustainable.”
King also filed HB 291, a bill that would freeze hiring by state agencies for the 2014-15 biennium. The bill would implement a freeze on non-essential state hiring for that biennium, and would also prevent diversions of dollars from those unfilled positions being used by that agency for other purposes.
“The economy has seen many ups and downs over the past few years,” King stated. “Businesses small and large across Texas are doing what it takes to balance their checkbooks in a fiscally responsible manner, and it is critical that the state government conduct business in the same way.”
The State of Texas currently employs 295,882 full-time equivalents (any combination of employees whose hours worked total 40 in one week).
King’s HB 290 would give Texas independent school districts local options and flexibility in testing their students. School districts would have the ability, with approval from the Texas Education Agency, to select an assessment test that best fits their community, taking the place of the current, one-size-fits-all, state-administered STAAR test.
“I continually hear complaints from teachers, administrators, school board members and parents that our standardized testing has become excessive and not a true measure of how our children are performing. I am concerned that our educators are having to shift resources and valuable time to keep up with testing requirements and other state and federal mandates while our teachers are unable to provide the quality education that they are qualified and trained to do,” King said. “This bill simply allows districts the flexibility, if they so choose, to utilize other testing models and allows communities to have a role in student assessments.”
Additionally, King pre-filed a bill, HB 237, that would limit spending by the Texas Legislature to not exceed the population growth in Texas when indexed for inflation.
“Texas has done a good job of being fiscally responsible with its spending during the tough economic times we have faced over the past few years,” King explained,
“However, it is very important that we implement a conservative spending cap to ensure that even in the good times, Texas does not become irresponsible with its taxpayers’ dollars.”
Besides the bills filed by Estes and King, state lawmakers have their proverbial platters full this session as they deal with funding public education, dealing with a growing water crisis in the state and whether to drug test unemployment benefits recipients while hot-button issues like abortion and gun control are expected to receive attention from lawmakers.
There are 43 freshmen representatives in the 150-member House — the most in four decades.
Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will again lead the overwhelmingly Republican-controlled Legislature. As they have for a decade, Republicans run the show in Austin with commanding majorities in the House and Senate.
“Two years ago we chose a fiscally conservative path that has led us here today by prioritizing and tightening our belts. This session is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the policies that have made Texas economically strong in the first place,” Perry said Tuesday. “When people keep more of their own money it’s better for them, it’s better for their families, and it’s better for the state. It’s time to take a hard look at providing tax relief.”
The governor outlined priorities for the session, which include “ensuring Texas’ infrastructure continues to support our growing population and economic demands, an accountable education system that produces a skilled workforce and conservative budget priorities” outlined in the Texas Budget Compact:
• Practice truth in budgeting.
• Support a Constitutional limit of spending to the growth of population and inflation.
• Oppose any new taxes or tax increases, and make the small business tax exemption permanent.
• Preserve a strong Rainy Day Fund.
• Cut unnecessary and duplicative government programs and agencies.
Democrats were able to snag the handful of seats needed in November to break up the GOP supermajority in the House, but the pink hues of the state Capitol remain dominated by the underlying red-state nature of the politics inside the building.
Republicans still rule Texas, and the leadership intends to push the state even further to the right.
Dewhurst has said he wants Texas to be “the most fiscally and socially conservative state in the country.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.