Budget, water deals close as session nears end


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

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Posted on May 14, 2013 at 6:28 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 14 at 6:40 PM

AUSTIN -- On the floor of the Texas House, the rush is on to pass local bills before time runs out. 
As the Friday deadline for passing local House bills on second and third reading approaches, the speed of that process only increases. 
"It picks up quite a bit, significantly," said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston). "Because everybody is trying to make sure that they get their legislative package done."    
The local calendar Tuesday included SB 825, the "Michael Morton Act." Filed by state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), the bill creates a legal recourse against prosecutors who fail to provide potentially exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys during the discovery process. Passed by the House on third reading Tuesday, the bill will now head to the governor's desk to be signed into law.
At the same time, the focus of each chamber turns to bills that have already been passed by the other. For bills that make it through both, conference committees composed of five members of each chamber work on hammering out any differences. 
"We have very strong opinions and so do the Senate," said state Rep. Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock). "We have to work through what is in the best interest of Texas, and those conversations are not often easy."
Appointed to the conference committee on the omnibus education reform package HB 5, Gonzales says the stakes couldn't be higher. 
"This is one of those things that I think addresses our truancy rate and dropout rates, and how we test our kids and the flexibility of curriculum to provide for our workforce," said Gonzales. "Huge issues at hand." 
At this point in the session, some of the most important work is being done behind the scenes. As lawmakers meet to discuss conference items often one on one, the deals that are struck could ultimately determine whether lawmakers go home at the end of the month or face a special session to take care of unfinished business.
"It should be no surprise that if folks want to go home at the end of this legislative session, send me $1.8 billion worth of tax relief. Send me a balanced budget that has no fee increases for transportation and $2 billion of infrastructure for water," Perry told media last week. "And everybody can go home and enjoy their summer."
"I think we're in good shape," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts told media Tuesday afternoon. Pitts says the conference committee on the budget is close to a deal to reconcile the differences between the two chambers. "We will put a bow on this tomorrow."
Pitts says members of the House and Senate have also reached a deal in principle to allocate $2 billion from the rainy day fund for water projects. The measure was initially proposed under HB 11, which was sent back to committee two weeks ago after being derailed by a point of order raised on second reading.
"We have an agreement, but we haven't seen the language yet and we're working on the language," explained Pitts.
The proposal would likely involve a $2 billion appropriation from the rainy day fund for water in the supplemental budget bill HB 1025, which was referred to the Senate Finance Committee two weeks ago. That money would be used to bankroll the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) proposed as part of SJR 1, which would ask Texas voters to approve the fund's creation on the November ballot.
"When the Senate sends over 1025 back to the House, it will include $2 billion out of the rainy day fund for water and we will pass it," said Pitts, who stressed the actual appropriation would be made by the legislature and voters would only be asked to authorize the account. "We're not going to start doing a referendum type of government in Texas like they do in California."
Wrapping up her 20th legislative session, Thompson says the approaching finish line can have a powerful effect on lawmakers.
"I think the pressure really mounts," said Thompson. "The closer we get to the session ending, everybody wants to wrap up and be able to go  back home and resume their life, go back to their job, go back to their community."  
For now, the countdown continues.