Capital Highlights: Texas Legislature convenes in 85th regular session

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AUSTIN — Lawmakers gathered at the state Capitol in their respective houses on Jan. 10, opening day for the 85th regular session of the Texas Legislature. The 140-day session will conclude on May 29. 

After taking the oath of office and being sworn in, the Texas House of Representatives, on a vote of 150-0, unanimously re-elected Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to a fifth term as speaker of the House, tying a record for the most terms as speaker. Meanwhile, after being sworn in, the Texas Senate voted unanimously in favor of Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, as speaker pro tempore.

Seliger will wield the Senate gavel in the absence or temporary disability of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the 31-member body. Should the governor and lieutenant governor be temporarily unavailable, he will serve as governor in their absence.

Newly appointed Secretary of State Rolando Pablos conducted roll calls in the assembled House and the assembled Senate, and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht administered the oath of office to each body.

In the coming days, while Speaker Straus and Lt. Gov. Patrick go about naming committees and assigning chairs and members to them, lawmakers will continue filing legislation. As of Jan. 10, House and Senate members had filed about 1,300 bills since Nov. 14, the first day “pre-filing” of legislation was allowed. Each bill proposes to create, amend or repeal a state law. The total number of bills, not including resolutions, filed in an average session many grow to more than 6,000.

After Straus was re-elected as speaker, he delivered a 1,500-word speech. During his remarks, he said: “If you walk into a factory or a restaurant or a hospital, you will find citizens of different races, religions and political beliefs working together every day. And that's what Texans should expect of us. So let's follow their example. Let's govern with the same sense of goodness, the same humanity and decency that we so clearly recognize in the people we represent.”

Seliger, in wrapping up his comments after being elected Senate pro tempore, called for the 85th Texas Legislature to be “the standard of deliberation, cooperation and leadership that should define service.”

Gov. Greg Abbott, in separate speeches to the House and to the Senate, told legislators: “We may bring different political perspectives, but we unite under one Capitol dome and a cause that's bigger than any one person or any political party. It's the cause that makes Texas far more than just a state. It's the cause that makes Texas a passion. I pray that God blesses you and guides you during the next 140 days and that God forever blesses the great State of Texas.”

Revenue estimate comes in

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Jan. 9 released the state’s Biennial Revenue Estimate, a document that projects the state will have just under $105 billion in revenue available for general-purpose spending during the 2018-19 budget cycle.

The amount represents a 2.7 percent decrease from amounts available for the current 2016-17 biennium, Hegar noted.

“While our state revenues were down in 2016 and we face some difficult decisions in the coming months, Texas remains fiscally healthy,” Hegar said. “Despite energy-related headwinds, Texas has gained 210,000 jobs in the last year, and while our gains have not been at the same rapid rate as a few years ago, it is important to note that we have added jobs in 19 of the last 20 months. We have also seen signs of possible improvement in recent months, with some modest acceleration in job growth and oil prices and rig counts rising. And December brought the best monthly sales tax revenue collections since May 2015.”

Also, Hegar said, the state’s Rainy Day Fund balance currently stands at approximately $10.2 billion, and absent any additional appropriations that might be made by the Legislature, the balance is expected to be $11.9 billion at the end of the 2018-19 biennium.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said: "We will align our priorities with the revenue we have available. I am confident we will pass a budget that meets our needs and keeps the economy growing."

Monthly revenue distributed

Comptroller Hegar on Jan. 11 announced his office would send cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts $647.4 million in local sales tax allocations for January.

The amount is 4.9 percent more than in January 2016. These allocations are based on sales made in November by businesses that report tax monthly.

“The cities of Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio continue to see significant increases in sales tax allocations,” Hegar said. “The cities of Houston and Sugar Land saw noticeable decreases in sales tax allocations.” 

Ed Sterling is Director of Member Services for Texas Press Association. 

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