Guns, drug testing, budget limbo mark busy final week of session


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on May 23, 2013 at 6:38 PM

Updated Thursday, May 23 at 6:41 PM

AUSTIN -- With just days remaining in the 83rd Texas Legislature, there's little time for rest. 
"I had had so little sleep in the preceding two nights that when I got dressed, I don't know how, but I noticed when I got to work that my shoes didn't match," state Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) admitted with a laugh. "That's maybe the most embarrassing thing I've ever done here."
As the clock runs out to wrap up the state's affairs, Austin's lawmakers can see the finish line. 
"There is still drama, there is still brinksmanship, but it is starting to resolve," Strama told KVUE. "It's kind of like when you're waiting for a picture to download on your computer screen. At first it's really pixelated, then the pixels fill in and you can see what's going on." 
"We all anticipate that we're probably going to be back," said state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin). "But we don't want to be back because of unfinished business."
This week saw the final approval of the school marshal bill, allowing specially trained school employees to keep a firearm on campus to use in the event of an attack, but a bill to allow licensed concealed handguns on college campuses failed in the state Senate. 
"I think it's better for our students and our citizens of our state to be able to protect themselves when they're on campus," said state Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress). The bill's author, Fletcher says the debate may not be over. 
"I know we're going to have a special session over several different issues, and I think that we're working to have it be on the call," said Fletcher. "I hope it comes back up." 
The rights of state lawmakers themselves to carry concealed handguns erupted into a heated debate on the House floor Thursday afternoon, as the state House considered Senate amendments to HB 508 that would allow lawmakers to carry concealed handguns in places average citizens with a concealed handgun license (CHL) aren't allowed.
Several members raised loud objections over the perception that politicians would be putting themselves above the law, while others pointed to the recent shooting deaths of public officials as reason enough to seek additional protection. Fletcher, himself a retired Houston police officer, says the law would grant elected officials the same exemption given current and retired peace officers under existing law.
"The bill is not a bill that affects me in any way," Fletcher said. "But I do believe that my brother and sister legislators should be able to protect themselves, just like I believe our citizens of our state should have the right when they're on our college campuses or wherever they are in this state as long as they're someone who has a CHL."
House lawmakers this week killed a bill that would require drug tests for some welfare recipients, but a bill to drug test certain unemployment applicants was approved. 
After the passage of two key components of the budget compromise Wednesday night, the budget deal appeared to be resolved. Yet by Thursday morning, signs of dissent quickly arose. 
One point of contention regards an amendment to HB 1025 passed by the Senate Wednesday evening to tie the bill and its included $200 million in public education funding to the passage of HB 7, a bill that would rebate more than half a billion dollars from an underused utility assistance program for the poor. 
"This is where we draw the line," state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) said Thursday morning. "We are not here to sacrifice the interests of the poor in order to meet somebody else's interest." 
"We've got huge hurdles to still jump over," state Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie), the House's top budget negotiator, told KVUE. "But we will."