June 7, 2009
When the legislative session finally ends, the Legislature adjourns “sine die.”
That’s a Latin phrase for “at least we’re still part of the USA.”
We’re a big part, actually, considering we’ve got $12 billion in federal stimulus money balancing the budget that the legislature just passed. But it was that kind of session – one day, there’s talk (then no talk, then talk about how there wasn’t talk in the first place) about secession, and the next day the state takes as much money as humanly possible from the federal government, occasionally demanding even more.
Ahh, so many ironies . . .
Like the fact that a single bill wrecked Senate traditions the first week of the session and House calendars the last week – but still couldn’t pass.
Or that all of these bills invoking sunsets are going to be hanging in the air for the next several months (maybe we should just call them “Sunburn” bills).
Or that just months after some state leaders promised to stop diverting transportation money for other programs (which, one would think, acknowledges the need for more revenue), the diversions didn’t stop, the legislature broke down over the only new funding tools on the table, and Texas may wind up with even less transportation money over the next two years.
Or that the Senate’s rush to stick bills into “lifeboats” led to a whole new set of conflicts between the chambers that killed even more bills. (I’m sure about three-dozen of you understood that sentence – for everybody else, just imagine a playground with two groups of kids, one ball, and no adults, and you’ll get the idea.)
So I guess you can add “the irony” to what people will remember from the 81st Texas Legislative Session. So far, from what I read from a surprising range of observers, the list includes inadequate leadership, missed opportunities, and needless, wasteful, divisive politics.
But I’m not going to write about all of that today.
No, I’m going to write about the good work we did this year. Beneath all the conflict and chaos, we passed bills that will help a lot of people. Personally, I’m going to remember this as a very successful session, and it was cool and gratifying that Texas Monthly saw it the same way – the magazine included me on their list of the 10 Best Legislators last week (here’s a link to a podcast in which the writers discuss the awards).
Here are some quick points about where legislation and issues I worked on this year ended up:
Energy and Environment: After nearly three years of work, the Legislature finally passed my bill to study ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through cost-saving strategies. This “No Regrets” bill is the first piece of statewide, comprehensive climate change legislation to pass the legislature.
We also passed the House companion to my bill establishing a TV recycling program, as well as a bill I sponsored to develop an offshore repository for greenhouse gas emissions. And I amended onto other bills my proposals requiring that state agencies buy more fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicles and consider state-of-the-art electrical technologies when building certain critical buildings.
Budget: I successfully fought an ill-conceived proposal that would effectively ban embryonic stem cell research in Texas. The final version of the budget also had more money for schools, student financial aid, and Texans with disabilities – as well as full funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, one of my priorities this session (unfortunately, a bill expanding CHIP died in the House; something to work on for next session).
In addition, I added provisions from my vital budget transparency bill to another measure that the legislature passed, ensuring that the state will have to be far more open about money that is supposed to go toward specific, dedicated purposes – such as parks, clean air, or trauma care – but instead is used to balance the budget.
The legislature also approved a bill, much like one I filed, to exempt more small businesses from the state’s franchise tax. And I amended an affordable housing bill I sponsored so that the state will have to explore ways to help homeowners struggling with their property tax bills.
Transportation: My bill allocating money for the relocation and improvement of rail lines – provided road funding remains at least level – was amended onto the state budget. So for the first time since voters created it in 2005, the Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund may actually be funded next year, and the state can begin working toward the comprehensive transportation system that drivers, businesses, and voters want.
In addition, the legislature approved my bill reforming the Capital Metro board, putting the agency under the state’s Sunset Review process, and clarifying when rail elections are required. And I amended a bill to include provisions sought by the police chiefs of Texas’ biggest cities that would require every passenger in a car to be safely buckled up.
Education: I worked to make sure the real-world lessons from the closing of Johnston High School in Austin were incorporated into the school accountability reform that the legislature approved. These provisions will give school districts, communities, and the state more flexibility when faced with closing a campus. We also provided nearly $2 billion more to Texas school districts. And the legislature passed the Carson Starkey Alcohol Awareness and Education Act, named for a friend of our family’s who died last year, requiring middle and high schools to teach students about the signs, dangers, and treatment of alcohol poisoning and binge drinking.
Higher Education: Since I was elected to the Senate, I’ve said the state should make a concerted effort to increase the number of top-tier research universities in Texas. Finally this year, the legislature created a process allowing universities to make the leap to the elite level of nationally recognized institutions. Additionally, a proposed constitutional amendment, if voters approve it this November, will help the state fund this vital effort. The legislature also approved a bill that will begin to provide relief to the University of Texas, which has been badly hamstrung by legislative requirements about which students must be admitted to the student body.
In addition, the Legislature passed my bills to help parents set up children’s savings accounts to send their kids to college, and to require that colleges and universities show what it really costs to go to school there.
Economic Development: I passed several bills that will boost the Texas economy. One gives the comp
troller more flexibility in pursuing major events like the Super Bowl that will have a huge economic impact. Another provides incentives to create badly needed infrastructure supporting the state’s film industry.
I also amended the higher education bill to include my proposal to look at establishing a database or search engine connecting researchers across the state. And, from my position as a member of the Senate Economic Development Committee, I worked hard on a bill affecting one of the state’s primary economic development programs to ensure that taxpayers have greater protections from bad deals and know more about how these partnerships work.
As proud as I am of this list, there’s no question that we need to do more. There were far too many missed opportunities this year, and it isn’t too early to start thinking about what we need to accomplish in 2011:
Now, here’s the part where you remind me that 2011 will be a redistricting session. And where you note that those tend to get a little partisan, rancorous, and unfocused – at least when it comes to other issues.
But I’m going to work hard and hope for the best. After all, after this session, what’s the worst that can happen?