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82nd Legislature cuts school funds, state jobs

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Government
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Elections
The Texas Senate from the visitors gallery

The Texas Senate from the visitors gallery. Photo by Robert Plocheck.

 

By Carolyn Barta

An overwhelming Republican majority influenced by the grassroots tea party movement dominated the 82nd Legislature, resulting in a no tax-increase budget with record spending cuts and a conservative social issues agenda.

Gov. Rick Perry said Texas stood in stark contrast to other states after lawmakers approved a $172 billion two-year budget that slashed $15.2 billion or 8.1 percent from previous spending levels.

Lopsided elections in 2010 reflecting an anti-Washington sentiment and a recessionary economy with lowered anticipated sales tax revenue set the stage for a contentious 140-day regular session and an immediate 30-day special session required to finish the work.

Republicans won an impressive 99 Texas House seats in 2010, and two party-switches provided a super majority of 101 House members to the Democrats’ 49 – compared to a previous 76-74 Republican majority.  In the Texas Senate, Republicans maintained a 19-12 edge.

Perry – campaigning for states rights and against an over-reaching, spendthrift federal government – easily won re-election to become the nation’s longest serving governor, beating GOP challenger Kay Bailey Hutchison in the primary and then defeating Democrat and former Houston mayor Bill White.

Presiding officers for both houses also were Republican. David Dewhurst was re-elected lieutenant governor and held the Senate gavel. Joe Straus of San Antonio won a second term as House speaker.

The governor and dozens of legislators were backed by tea party activists, who demanded a leaner government and more conservative approach to issues such as immigration and abortion. Some called this Legislature the most conservative ever, albeit it activist conservatism.

While lawmakers delivered on less spending, they were unable to pass two of Perry’s priorities, a “sanctuary cities” bill that would have denied state funding to cities that prohibit its law enforcement officers from asking the immigration status of people they arrest, and an “anti-groping” bill that would have criminalized intrusive airport pat-downs by Transportation Security Administration agents.

Republican successes included new laws requiring unsuccessful plantiffs to pay for meritless lawsuits, voters to present photo identification at polling places, and women seeking abortions to have a mandatory sonogram.

Perry’s austerity stance, promotion of Texas’ job growth, national presence as head of the Republican Governors Association, and his evangelical/conservative appeal led to speculation of presidential aspirations.

The grueling budget battle that consumed the regular session resulted from a projected shortfall of $23 billion to maintain current services with inflation and population growth. The Senate and Democrats in both houses wanted to tap more of the state’s Rainy Day Fund, but the House and governor refused to touch more than one-third or $3.2 billion of the fund, leaving $6.5 billion for future needs.

The budget chopped $4 billion from public schools, $1 billion from higher education, including financial aid to some 41,000 students, and eliminated 5,700 state agency jobs. Accounting maneuvers and deferred payments, including $4 billion to $5 billion to pay Medicaid bills, helped to balance the books.

Democrats were powerless to do much more than raise parliamentary roadblocks to cuts to education and human services.  Nothing worked until a late-night Senate filibuster before the regular session’s last day halted action on the allocation of public school funds.

That required a special session, where lawmakers reduced state aid to education by 6 percent from what was needed to provide for 150,000 new students. Basic funding to districts was cut 3.3 percent across the board the first year and funds were redistributed in the biennium’s second year to shrink disparities among districts. Some districts faced 8-to-9 percent cuts.

Teachers demanded more funding in several rallies at the Capitol.  The Legislature’s response was to give school districts more cost-trimming flexibility, allowing teacher furlough days and salary cuts in lieu of firing personnel or raising local taxes.

Other big items that passed in the special session were congressional redistricting, hurricane insurance reforms, and comprehensive health care legislation allowing Texas to join with other states in a “health care compact” to turn Medicaid and Medicare into state-run block grant programs.

It promised to save money by increasing Medicaid managed care and defunded Planned Parenthood programs – a popular conservative target -- that provided family planning for thousands of poor women.

Congressional redistricting, usually controversial, was ho-hum. A new map was needed to create four new seats, reflecting Texas’ gain in population from 20.9 million to 25 million. Democrats criticized the adopted Republican plan for not creating more Hispanic districts, since Hispanics made up 65 percent of the 2010 census population increase, and also for carving up Austin and putting it in a district with San Antonio.

Immigration was a hot topic with more than 50 bills introduced, but little progress was made in the immigrant crackdown as business leaders argued that workers were needed.  Opponents of the controversial sanctuary cities legislation complained the law would lead to racial profiling.

Lawmakers also debated, to considerable public attention, legislation allowing 21-year-old college students to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. It failed.

While this Legislature will be remembered for producing a balanced budget with no new taxes but near unprecedented cuts to education, it also tinkered with widespread issues. Other bills passed included regulation of payday lenders;  increased speed limits to 75 mph on some major highways outside urban areas; decriminalizing catfish noodling, or bare-handed catching of catfish; the “pork chopper” bill that allowed hunters to shoot feral hogs from helicopters to control the wild hog population, and more regulation of puppy mills and cockfighting.

Lawmakers also declared Western swing the official music of Texas.

Carolyn Barta, a retired Dallas Morning News political writer, teaches journalism at Southern Methodist University.

Texas Almanac

Texas Almanac