Greetings Friends, Constituents & Supporters,
It has been two weeks since the Legislature adjourned Sine Die, only to be called back for an immediate special session on Redistricting by Governor Perry. In the last 48 hours the Governor has added transportation funding and abortion issues to the call.
Redistricting aside, the 83rd Legislative Session was without a doubt a different pace than the sessions we have seen before. It was no surprise issues that would have sparked partisan arguments were left on the backburner even with numerous pieces of legislation filed to address each.
However, Texas's 83rd Legislative Session was successful in terms of advancing beneficial public policy for Texas taxpayers. Led by Conservative leaders in the Texas House of Representatives, lawmakers passed historic legislation reforming our education system, addressing Medicaid fraud, requiring drug testing prior to receiving state benefits and providing financial security for our retired teachers, and took responsible, necessary steps to fund our water infrastructure.
Constitutionally, passage of a balanced budget is the only legislative obligation the legislature has during the 140 day session. The key to ensuring a strong Texas economy is to keep the books clean, which means balancing the budget without resorting to new taxes or draining the state's Economic Stabilization Fund (Rainy Day Fund).
We started this legislative session with a much more positive revenue outlook than in 2011. Instead of a $27 billion shortfall, we began with an $8 billion surplus thanks to the tough but fiscally responsible decisions made in 2011.
Key budget highlights:
* Appropriates $196.9 billion over two years.
* $7 billion increase in All Funds, a 3.7% increase over the previous biennium
* $3 billion increase in General Revenue for Public and Higher Education, a 7.1% increase over the previous biennium. Public and Higher Education now represent 54% of General Revenue spending
* $530 million increase to strengthen the Teacher Retirement System making it actuarially sound and provides for a long-awaited cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for education retirees .
* Significant increases in Health and Human Services, including $259 million for mental health programs, $100 million for women's health programs and $18 million for identification of fraud, waste and abuse in the Texas Medicaid program.
* Increases transparency by using gas tax dollars directly for roads, thereby eliminating $400 million in Fund 6, transportation diversions.
* Provides $1.36 billion in tax relief via tax credits and reductions.
Legislators began this session determined to reform our state's education system. Grounded in the principle of local control, Conservatives passed a series of critical reform measures that address major areas of the state's education system, including testing, curriculum, and distance learning.
A critical component of these reforms is HB 5. This measure will give students more flexibility to explore their individual interests as they prepare for higher education and the workforce by providing multiple pathways to graduation. Importantly, the measure also reduces the burden of standardized tests reducing the number of mandated end-of-course tests from 15 to 5.
Similarly, the legislature eliminated the over-testing of students in grades 3-8 by decreasing the number of tests from 17 to 8. Time spent testing is better used teaching new concepts to high performing students and assisting underperforming students in their studies. For that reasons, HB 866 eliminates the some of the STAAR testing requirements for students who meet certain performance thresholds. The bill also gives school districts and open-enrollment charter schools more discretion to appropriately test students to determine whether they are performing at a sufficient level.
Additionally, CSCOPE educational curriculum has recently fallen under intense scrutiny and caused many parents concern. SB 1406 places the controversial CSCOPE curriculum under much needed State Board of Education oversight and review.
As with any type of education curriculum, it is my hope that lessons plans have parental input and involvement included in its execution. The education of our children is something that requires a strong relationship between our schools and parents. A majority of House District 2 currently use the CSCOPE curriculum and to eliminate the curriculum altogether is an extremely costly solution to a problem that could be remedied with increased parental involvement, transparency by the teachers and CSCOPE officials, and the ability for schools to make decisions on a local basis with oversight from the SBOE and TEA.
The 2012 State Water Plan shows that over the next 50 years, our water supply is expected to decrease 18% and our water demands are expected to increase by 27%. If inaction continues, Texas could be short 8.3 million acre-feet per year by 2060. That equals almost 3 trillion gallons of water.
The State Water Plan contains over 500 strategies that, if fully implemented, will develop 9 million acre-feet of new water over the next 50 years. Without an adequate supply of clean, affordable water, the state's economy and public health would be irrevocably harmed. Water shortages during our current drought already cost Texas businesses and workers billions of dollars in lost income every year. If Texas does not implement the state water plan, those losses could grow to $116 billion annually.
A dedicated source of funding to help develop the water plan's projects is necessary, largely because of rising costs for local water providers and the high introductory costs of large-scale projects. The capital cost to design, build, and implement the recommended strategies and projects between now and 2060 will be $53 billion. Local entities are expected to need nearly $27 billion in state financial assistance to implement these strategies.
In response to this critical issue, legislators strengthened the future of the state's water infrastructure by passing HB 4 and SJR 1. These measures create two dedicated funds for essential projects within the State Water Plan. SJR 1 specifically asks voters to approve a constitutional amendment to make these two water funds permanent. These measures combined will ensure a sustainable water supply for generations of Texans.
Texas has a strong history of governmental transparency and efficiency. This session, multiple measures were proposed to ensure that state agencies are more open and forthcoming with their financial practices. Such measures will ensure that state taxpayers are empowered with important information about how their tax dollars are spent.
Two pieces of legislation that I authored were pivotal in continuing the movement towards a more transparent state government. HB 12 requires an agency to post on its website the value of any gift used to supplement an employee's salary. The agency must also disclose the methodology used to determine the compensation for executive staff members. This legislation will ensure that taxpayer-funded salaries are reasonable and appropriate. Similarly, HB 16 requires agencies to post agency audits, including internal audits, on their state agency website. This legislation will allow taxpayers to have as much information as possible regarding each agency's operations and expenses. As Co-Chairman of the Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, I felt these were extremely important pieces of legislation for the state and for all Texans.
The Transparency Committee led efforts to majorly reform the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, commonly known as "CPRIT." SB149 makes substantial changes to the structure, duties, and funding of the organization. Among other provisions, the measure includes heightened conflict-of-interest standards for CPRIT staff, oversight committee members, and grant reviewers, as well as a new process for developing and approving grants. The legislation also imposes new requirements on the organization that will require it to be far more effective in its monitoring of grantees' performance.
This session, legislators took bold steps to shore up the state's pension systems.
SB 1458 makes several critical changes to the Teacher Retirement System. The legislation returns TRS to actuarial soundness by increasing state and employee contributions to the system and by making important adjustments to eligibility, among other changes. The measure also provides a three percent cost of living adjustment to all retired teachers and their beneficiaries - the first cost of living adjustment offered since 2001.
As we look back on the successes and shortcomings of the 83rd legislative session, one thing remains clear - Texas remains dedicated to the important issues facing our state and I renew my commitment to my constituents and all Texans to maintain my efforts to the principalities of limited government, protection of traditional family values and strong support of Faith, Family and Freedom. As always it is indeed and honor and privilege to serve in the Texas Legislature and I appreciate and value your support over the years and look forward to continue my service to all Texans.
It remains my pleasure and honor to represent all the people of House District 2. My staff and I continue to welcome your input and your questions. You can contact our office; mailing address: P. O. Box 2910, Austin, TX 78768. Email: District2.Flynn@house.state.tx.us. Toll free number 1-800-734-9515.
May God continue to bless you and the Great State of Texas!
Dan Flynn, State Representative, District 2