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Floor Pass

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.

The Lead:

It’s the penultimate day of the session, and lawmakers have much left to do. The House still must pass the budget and approve two supporting measures—HB 1025 and SJR 1—key to the budget deal.

Meanwhile yesterday’s developments weren’t kind to the cause of transparency in politics. As the Observer‘s Olivia Messer writes, Gov. Rick Perry’ vetoed a bill that would have required disclosure of dark money. The bill, SB 346, would have forced politically active nonprofits to make public who was donating the money for their political activities.

The veto wasn’t unexpected. The bill had been primarily aimed at Michael Quinn Sullivan and his tea party group Empower Texans, which in recent elections has been marshaling funds in its nonprofit corporation, a 501(c)(4), and using the money to attack Republicans they view as insufficiently conservative, including Speaker Joe Straus and members of his leadership team. By spending through its nonprofit (instead of its PAC), the group doesn’t have to disclose where the money comes from. This is often referred to as “dark money.” SB 346 would have changed that. But MQS, as he’s often called, is close to the governor’s office, so hence the veto.

Supporters of disclosure even saw their backup plan foiled. Anticipating a veto, they had attached the disclosure provisions in SB 346 to another bill—the measure reauthorizing the Texas Ethics Commission. But, as Quorum Report noted, a conference committee yesterday—at about the same time Perry was releasing his veto statement—stripped the disclosure language from the Ethics Commission bill. So much for that.

With one day left in the session, it looks likely that we’ll endure another campaign cycle with some political nonprofits influencing elections without disclosing their funders. Good times.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The Senate passed SB 21, requiring drug tests for some applicants for unemployment benefits. The Statesman has more details. Democrats had managed to defeat a separate bill requiring drug tests for welfare applicants. Unemployed Texans weren’t so lucky. The bill now goes to the governor, who’s expected to sign it.

2. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports on efforts to save the Texas Railroad Commission and its oversight of oil and gas drilling. Rep. Dennis Bonnen, employing his well-known light touch, told the paper that the commission had opposed his sunset bill reauthorizing the commission. “I take that as a clear sign that they’re not interested in the agency continuing.” Ah, sarcasm, the grumpy man’s wit.

3.  Lawmakers reached a deal on the System Benefit Fund, which is supposed to help low-income families with their electricity bills, though the Lege has diverted the money to other purposes in recent sessions. The deal, endorsed by Rep. Sylvester Turner, will ensure that low-income families get help on their bills. Quorum Report has details.

Line of the Day:

“This is a sad day for integrity and transparency in Texas. Governor Perry’s veto of SB 346 legalizes money laundering in Texas elections. The Governor’s veto is ironic since money laundering is illegal in other endeavors.” —Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) in a statement.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The clock. All substantive bills must pass by midnight. Day 140 is usually reserved for resolutions and correcting amendments fixing non-substantive mistakes. It requires super-majorities to do any legislating tomorrow. It’s possible, but not easy. So, today’s the day to get things done.

2. The budget. The Senate passed the budget yesterday. The House must pass SB 1, HB 1025 and SJR 1 or a special session is guaranteed.

2. A 30-day special may well happen anyway. Redistricting, the Railroad Commission sunset bill, tax cuts, and any number of other issues could lead the governor to call a special session. We’ve learned never to predict special sessions one way or the other. Gov. Perry has the sole authority to decide when and why to call the Lege into special session. That’s comforting, ain’t it?

Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo)

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed his first set of bills on Saturday afternoon, including Senate Bill 346, Sen. Kel Seliger’s “dark money” disclosure bill, which would have shed light on funding for some political nonprofit groups.

“While regulation is necessary in the administration of Texas political finance laws,” Perry said in a statement, “no regulation is tolerable that puts anyone’s participation at risk or that can be used by any government, organization or individual to intimidate those who choose to participate in our process through financial means.”

“This is a sad day for integrity and transparency in Texas. Governor Perry’s veto of SB 346 legalizes money laundering in Texas elections,” Seliger (R-Amarillo) said in a statement. “The Governor’s veto is ironic since money laundering is illegal in other endeavors.”

“As other states have stepped forward to ban election money laundering by dark money 501c4 non-profit corporations, it is embarrassing that the Lone Star state is now an official safe haven for political money launderers,” he continued.

Among the groups that would have been required to disclose their donors is Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, headed by the brash tight-spending purist Michael Quinn Sullivan. After the Senate quietly passed the bill last month, Sen. Dan Patrick went to great lengths trying to recall it, saying he hadn’t realized what the bill would do. The House refused to let the Senate have HB 346 back, though, and passed it directly to Perry’s desk.

Tea party groups including Houston’s King Street Patriots have issued an “urgent call to action” in recent days, asking supporters to call Perry and ask him to veto the “sleeper bill,” saying it would “make lobbyists of anyone who goes to Austin to advocate for good government if they are associated, even as a volunteer, with an organization.”

Seliger’s take, of course, is much different.

After the news reached the Senate floor Saturday, a reporter asked Seliger, “Did Quinn Sullivan win here?”

“No, you never really win when you’re trying to conceal money laundering,” he replied.

Seliger said that he would not fight to override the governor’s veto before the session ends, which would require a two-thirds vote. “There doesn’t seem to be real strong support for it,” he said. “Sometimes courageous is tough to find,” he said.

Seliger said he would try to override the veto during a special session if one is called, though.

Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands)
Patrick Michels
Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands)

In a surprisingly quick move, the Senate passed SB 1—the $196.95 billion state budget for the next two years—late Saturday afternoon on a 27-4 vote, without any vocal opposition from conservative members voting against it.

The budget spends $94.6 billion from general revenue, an 8.3 percent increase over the current fiscal biennium.

“The state budget reflects our commitment to conservatism by cutting approximately $1.3 billion in taxes,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a statement.

Dean of the Senate John Whitmire (D-Houston), spoke in favor of the bill. “All 31 districts have been represented in this document. I think it’s a document that’s reasonable, and one that will serve this state for the next two years,” he said.

Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams reflected on the product of his first session as lead budget author, and angry emails he’s received calling him “socialist” for spending more than last session’s meager budget. “I find that kind of amusing, actually,” he said.

Conservative Greenville Republican Sen. Bob Deuell also spoke on behalf of the budget, calling supporters of family planning budget cuts “short-sighted.” Deuell has proposed and supported anti-choice bills this session, but was vocal about the need for family planning funding. “There are people who don’t understand when you don’t fund family planning, you’re going to end up with more unwanted pregnancies, people on welfare, abortions.”

Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth)—who derailed the budget process at the tail-end of the 2011 session as a protest over cuts to education—also spoke in favor of the new budget bill.

“For those that say that this is an excessive budget … I would just take a moment to remind us all of the items for which Texas is known, but that not a single person on this floor would say that we are proud of. We know that we are dramatically underfunding our infrastructure. And, as Senator Duncan pointed out, with the tremendous growth that we have, while that’s been wonderful for our economy, in some ways, it’s been tremendous stress on us as well,” she said. “This is … a product that we should all be proud of.”

Tea party Senators Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), Ken Paxton (R-McKinney), Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) all voted against the budget, but none spoke against it this afternoon.

The House, which wrapped up a light day of business earlier, will take up SB1 on Sunday afternoon along with other major bills. Lawmakers will also need to pass a handful of other supplemental budget bills that round out a delicate deal between Republicans and Democrats.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

The regular session ends on Monday, and the big question at the Capitol is: Will there be a special session?

But the more immediate question is: Will there be a budget? On Thursday, the House rejected a new version of HB 1025, a supplemental spending bill that’s critical to the budget deal. Among many other things, the bill allocates $200 million for schools. The Senate passed the bill on Wednesday with some changes, including one added by Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams that ties the schools funding to a provision that would return to taxpayers money that had been intended to help poor families with electric bills. The Dallas Morning News has more details.

That sets up a conference committee between the Senate and House that will have to work fast to reach a deal to save the budget in the regular session. Good times.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Senate and House negotiators reached a backroom deal yesterday on two education bills, the Texas Tribune reports. The bills—HB 5 and SB 2—would expand the state’s number of charter schools and reduce the number of standardized tests.

2. The Boy Scouts of America announced yesterday it would reverse its policy and allow gay scouts. Many across the country are hailing the decision as a huge step forward for gay rights, but Gov. Perry didn’t see it that way. He issued a statement saying he is “greatly disappointed with this decision.”

3. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is calling for a special session to pass conservative bills on abortion, guns and drug tests for welfare applicants, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Line of the Day:

“The Boys Scouts of America has been built upon the values of faith and family for more than 100 years and today’s decision contradicts generations of tradition in the name of political correctness.” – Gov. Rick Perry, on the Boy Scouts of America’s decision yesterday to end a ban on gay members.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. We’ll be keeping an eye on both chambers, which will churn through bills passed by both chambers and conference committee reports.

2. The budget. Can the House and Senate settle their differences on HB 1025 before Sunday’s final midnight deadline?

The Lead:

The House and Senate spent most of yesterday at a standoff, waiting for the other to budge on two major pieces of legislation that are key to the state budget. Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) broke the impasse by introducing House Bill 1025, which is the supplemental spending bill. The House previously supported the bill when it included $200 million in additional spending for education, but Gov. Rick Perry got involved and helped derail the agreement when he told the Senate too much money was allotted to education.

That led to a tense few days between the House and Senate. But everyone apparently came to their senses, and Williams proposed a bill accepted, even lauded, by his Democratic counterparts last night. Under the plan, the basic education allotment per-student-spending would reach $5,040 in 2015, which Williams claimed would be the highest ever.

As the Senate was passing HB 1025, the House finally took up Senate Joint Resolution 1 that it was holding hostage to get the $200 million for schools under HB 1025. The House quickly approved the resolution that asks voters to OK creating the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, which would distribute $2 billion for water infrastructure projects under HB 1025. With both bills passed, the budget deal can go forward.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston) tearfully told the House that he wouldn’t seek reelection to spend more time with his family, as the Texas Tribune reports.

2. Democrats successfully killed all abortion-related bills this session before they got to the House or Senate floors this session, writes the San Antonio Express News.

3. Protestors in favor of Medicaid expansion interrupted a speech yesterday by Gov. Perry who responded that he would meet with them at his office. The Tribune writes that the 15-minute meeting didn’t go far.

4. The Observer’s Beth Cortez-Neavel documents the impact of the split between UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. Hundreds of employees lost their jobs.

Line of the Day:

“I’ve had committee dinners since I’ve been here for seven terms. Lobby pays. They follow rules. Everybody knows up front. And we even post it, so we are all in compliance.” –Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) told the Texas Tribune about a dinner bill for 140 people that totaled $22,241.03. Sorry we missed that one.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. With several deadlines passed, the House and Senate will now focus on conference committee reports and bills passed by both chambers.

Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock)
Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) mounted an unsuccessful attempt to cap future spending on the state water plan implementation fund at $2 billion.

After a day of waiting and, finally, a short floor debate, the House overwhelmingly approved a resolution creating a fund to implement the state water plan Wednesday evening, 130-16.

Senate Joint Resolution 1 had been one of two measures at the heart of a stalemate with the Senate, as each chamber waited on the other to pass bills crucial to the budget. Minutes after the Senate finally took up House Bill 1025, which includes $2 billion for water planning, the House began considering SJR 1, which asks voters to approve creating the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, which would get that $2 billion.

Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) tried to add an amendment capping contributions to the fund at $2 billion.

“All I’m saying is, we’ve been told $2 billion is the number, they’re saying $2 billion is all we need to start up the infrastructure,” said Perry. “Let’s just make that part of the process and say that’s all we’re going to do.”

Opponents argued that placing a constitutional cap on water spending is illogical, since it wouldn’t account for population growth and growing water needs.

“Establishing a [cap] of $2 billion is based on the assumption that going forward, nothing is going to change in our economy, in our demographics, in our environmental water needs,” said Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio).

Most representatives agreed, and the amendment was shot down.

Members were relaxed as they observed the debate from their desks—in the end, there was little doubt lawmakers would approve the resolution. “Whoever votes against this gets the water turned off in their office,” joked Rep. Tony Dale (R-Cedar Park) from his seat.

Raucous applause and cheers broke out as votes for the resolution lit up the board in the House chamber. It’ll be up to voters in November to decide whether to create the fund for water planning.

In Brownsville, Two Colleges Split and a Community Suffers

The separation of UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College leads to hundreds of layoffs.
A water tower marked for UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College
Beth Cortez-Neavel
This water tower is among the facilities UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College will need to sort out as they split. See details of the split in a timeline below the story.

Karen Fuss-Sommer came to Brownsville in the 1980s for a nursing job. Over the years she made friends in the community, raised two daughters as a single parent and helped build the University of Texas at Brownsville’s nursing program. Eventually she was granted tenure, and if everything had gone as planned, she says, she could have retired in 2017.

But the end to Fuss-Sommer‘s and many others’ tenures at UT-Brownsville wasn’t quick and unexpected. Fuss-Sommer, now 50, is one of the hundreds of many faculty members at UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College losing their jobs as the schools spit up after a 20-year partnership. Their once-groundbreaking alliance, the only one of its kind in the nation between a community college and a state-funded university, is slated to end August 31, 2015.

For Fuss-Sommer, the loss of her job after two decades is hard to comprehend. “I’m a dedicated employee, have been a dedicated faculty member of our institution from the day I stepped on that campus, and this is how it ends for me,” she says.

At the same time, the state is creating a new super-school for the Rio Grande Valley, combining UT-Brownsville with UT-Pan American in nearby Edinburg. With a new medical school and far more state funding, the new university is ushering in an exciting time for higher education in the Valley—unless you’re one of the hundreds laid off.

Texas Southmost College, a junior college founded in 1926, struck up its partnership with the UT System in 1991. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, had sued the state, arguing that Texas wasn’t spending enough on higher education in South Texas and was discriminating against minority students. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but the 72nd Legislature responded to the pressure by forming UT-Brownsville in conjunction with TSC.

The partnership allowed UT-Brownsville to use TSC’s buildings, while the UT System paid rent. The partnership combined the community college’s local tax revenue with state funding—more money than either school could raise on its own. TSC’s locally elected trustees could still give input, but all the faculty and staff went on the UT System’s payroll.

Students in the Valley, where 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, got a university education for the lowest tuition in the UT System and still enjoyed open enrollment for any student with a high school diploma or a GED, which is normally only available through community colleges in Texas.

“The Valley needed that,” UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia says today. “We saw students expand their own horizons.”

This marriage of a community college and a state-funded university was the only one of its kind in the nation. The way their relationship has unraveled, it’s no wonder why.

Trouble surfaced in 2009, when UT-Brownsville and TSC asked the Legislature for $10 million to help UT-Brownsville make its rent payments to TSC. The Legislature kicked the problem back, asking the UT System and the TSC Board of Trustees to figure out how to pay for the rent. But the rent money was just the latest in a series of clashes between the two institutions. In November 2010, the UT Regents voted to dissolve the partnership, saying the alliance had become “untenable.” UT-Brownsville President Garcia says that the joint governance of two schools under one roof contributed to the strain.

The once-groundbreaking partnership is slated to end August 31, 2015, the date when both schools could earn separate accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Garcia announced the divorce at a campus meeting in November 2011. She says the break-up felt like a split in the community, with residents choosing sides. But she says the split is a “natural progression” for higher education in the Valley.

Joe Molina, editor of The Collegian, the campus newspaper, says the whole community was upset. He says students wondered whether they had enough credits to stay at UT-Brownsville, or would be forced to enroll at TSC. Faculty and staff began speculating about what the split would mean for their jobs. Some began looking for work elsewhere.

Karen Fuss-Sommer is among the tenured faculty members who fought UT-Brownsville's layoff notices.
Beth Cortez-Neavel
Karen Fuss-Sommer is among the tenured faculty members who fought UT-Brownsville’s layoff notices.

Some, like Fuss-Sommer, could at least fall back on a unique sort of protection as part of a group known as “the 92ers,” faculty hired in the year before the merger in 1992. The administration has offered special job protection to the 92ers: if the two schools ever broke up, the 92ers were guaranteed a similar job at TSC after the split. 

UT-Brownsville developed a plan to downsize its staff to match an enrollment that declined from 15,000 students in 2011 to 7,000 by the start of 2013. “We knew it had to happen,” Garcia says. “But none of us … were expert in how to make it work in an equitable way.”

Early in March 2012, UT-Brownsville formed review committees to determine which faculty would stay with the school, and which would be let go. The committees ranked faculty based on advanced degrees or tenure status. Teachers at the bottom of the list got cut. The goal was to create an objective rubric for the type of faculty each department wanted to keep—but some departments were so small, it was obvious who would lose their jobs. Fuss-Sommer, whose layoff came in that second round, calls it “a perfect opportunity to get rid of people you don’t like.”

Garcia says the committees were also populated to include both tenured and non-tenured faculty, to avoid subjectivity. “There was no way for any one person to tilt the result,” she says.

The layoffs began in late March 2012, with 30 adjunct professors who taught trade courses like air conditioning or car maintenance. At the end of April, Fuss-Sommer and 104 other faculty members—nearly a fifth of the school’s 518 total faculty—were also let go. Of those laid off, 53 were tenured.

Some faculty retired or left for other jobs before the final layoff notice. Others, like Fuss-Sommer, fought back.

First she appealed her termination, arguing that even after the split UT-Brownsville would still have a nursing college and would need an assistant dean. She asked why the administration laid her off but kept untenured, less experienced faculty in her department. She said administrators hadn’t shown the “good cause” required to fire her now that she had tenure.

In July, she received a final notice asking her to sign a severance deal: give up her tenure and her right to sue UTB or the UT System and waived all her grievances, she would get an eighth of her salary as severance pay.

Fuss-Sommer refused to sign the severance deal. Instead, she went to her union lawyer, Russell Ramirez, with the Texas Faculty Association and the Texas State Teachers Association. She and Ramirez—who is also representing three others similarly laid off by UT-Brownsville—are looking into suing the school over its handling of the layoffs.

“There’s no consistency to it,” Ramirez says. “Some people are staying without Ph.D.s and other people aren’t. … It really looks like cronyism to me, where they’re just picking all of the people that they want or they don’t want.”

Ramirez calls it a “really baroque system” developed by UT-Brownsville Provost Alan Artibise to “shield what he’s really doing, which is firing tenured professors.”

Another laid-off tenured faculty member, English professor Susan Mills, sued the school in April, contending the layoffs were part of the administration’s broader attack on tenure rights.

“Downsizing is a Myth,” Mills’ lawsuit argues. “If the downsizing of UT-B were a reality, UT-B would not be hiring faculty at the same time it is releasing nearly ninety faithful educators. … The real reason is financial exigency.”

So far, Ramirez has also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, citing “a disparate impact on people who are over 40,” he says. The EEOC told Ramirez it would assign staff to investigate his allegations of ageism and cronyism, which he hopes will help him file a federal lawsuit. Ramirez estimates that it will be years before Fuss-Sommer and the other dismissed faculty could make their case in court.

TSC officials have told Fuss-Sommer they know the school must take her on as part of the old agreement, but she says they’ve been fuzzy on the details. Fuss-Sommer says TSC has even told the 92ers they may have to apply for a new position.

TSC officials say the school is discussing how to make room for the 92ers, which include 23 staff and 24 faculty, including Fuss-Sommer. Although the staffers have jobs with UT-Brownsville through August, dismissed faculty members have less than a month until the end of their employment.

In late March, Garcia told the Observer the upheaval is all part of the grand transition for higher education in the Valley. “This is just a moment. … It is the launching of a new university,” she said. “We need good faculty. We need good staff. We were trying to [lay off] the least number.”

One week after she said that, on April 2, UT-Brownsville sent pink slips to 257 staff members, bringing the total number of fired employees to 362. Again, the layoffs were attributed to the anticipated lower number of enrolling students after the separation in September 2013. UT-Brownsville gave its staff the rest of the day off that Tuesday, and then expected employees to come back to work the following day.

“It was like a morgue,” recalls Terry Garrett, Brownsville chapter president of the Texas Faculty Association, and a tenured UT-Brownsville government professor. “We’re talking about a region of Texas that is the poorest in the state. … So what is the impact going to be in the community of Brownsville?” he wonders. “It’s just a horrendous sort of thing.”

Buildings on the UT-Brownsville campus.
Beth Cortez-Neavel
The UT-Brownsville campus. In 2004, UTB and TSC built six new buildings with $68 million in local bond money. Now lawmakers are planning separate construction for the campus created when UTB and UT-Pan American merge.

UT-Brownsville has begun moving out of the TSC-owned buildings and into the four it owns independently. The UT Regents are considering 12 sites for new UT-Brownsville campus buildings, for which they’ve requested $151.6 million from the state. For now, UT-Brownsville plans to share classrooms with TSC for a few more years, though the schools are still negotiating the rent.

“I have a lot of anguish about the break-up and the results of it,” says Rep. Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville), who was behind the legislation that created the original partnership. “These were some of the reasons I did not want them to break up. … It’s an incredible blow to these individuals and to the community. “

But legislators and UT System officials hope the community will ultimately benefit from the break-up, and state leaders are stoking excitement about the new super-school for the Valley that will bring together UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American in Edinburg. The UT System projects the new school could enroll the second largest number of Hispanics of any school in the nation, and top administrators have promised not to lay off more faculty as the schools merge. Faculty in the Valley have heard similar promises before.

Oliveira says the merger is the best long-term solution, and shouldn’t be seen as related to the tumultuous split with TSC. “I think it’s sort of the old saying: one door closes, another opens.”

Beth Cortez-Neavel is a graduate student at the University of Texas-Austin and an Observer reporting intern. 

It’s been hailed as the kumbaya session till now, but personal tussles and a major budget standoff between the chambers are rocking the 83rd Legislature in its final days.

All Wednesday, the House and Senate each held major budget bills hostage that need to pass. Senators are holding off on the local calendar to avoid voting on the supplemental budget measure House Bill 1025 until the House votes on Senate Joint Resolution 1, which would send voters a constitutional amendment to create a State Water Implementation Fund and State Implementation Revenue Fund. The House put off SJR 1 for days to see if the Senate will approve $200 million for schools during the HB 1025 vote. The Senate is also waiting for the House before it takes up HB 1025, as the clock ticks for bills to pass in either chamber.

The Austin American-Statesman reported Wednesday afternoon that Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams wouldn’t hold HB 1025 captive any longer, but lawmakers still have yet to see whether it includes the money for schools.

Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) spent this morning heatedly blocking all bills by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) on the local calendar, because he disrespected the unincorporated parts of Harris County, she said. Riddle’s stand prompted representatives to run across the Capitol to negotiate with senators. The web of members embroiled in cross-chamber spats thickened, but the fight fizzled out as quickly as they’d appeared.

The House finished the major business on the local calendar and is currently catching up on yesterday’s supplemental calendar before they get to today’s, which includes SJR 1. Whether HB 1025 will include the $200 million for schools is still up in the air and at this point it’s a waiting game to see which chamber will budge first. On top of it all, Senate Bill 1—the state budget, and the only legislation members must pass all session—is still in conference committee.

Though most anything seems calm compared to the 2011 cuts, the next few hours could make or break this session’s legacy as a smooth operation.

As the afternoon moved on, the House began working through the Senate bills it had delayed, Williams began passing out paper copies of a new version of HB 1025, and the House prepared to take up SJR 1. We’ll update with more as the negotiations unfold.

Update at 8:15: The Senate is in the middle of debate over HB 1025. Democrats Royce West and Wendy Davis congratulated Williams on his work on education funding in particular. Williams said the basic allotment per-student would be the highest ever in Texas under this budget, reaching $5,040 in 2015.

“Hopefully we can stay on this particular glide path,” West told him.

As Williams explained how the bill would round out the state’s budget, he said his only disappointment was that highway funding is “the one thing we’re falling short on.” —Patrick Michels

Update at 8:30: HB 1025 passed the Senate on a 29-2 vote. “We have an Amber Alert out for SJR 1 right now,” Williams joked after the vote. “So with that, I’m going to ask that we stop right now and see if we have any phone calls or anything where we can get that thing moving.” —Patrick Michels

Update at 8:32: In the House, following a tearful farewell from Galveston Democrat Craig Eiland announcing his retirement, lawmakers have taken up SJR 1.

Lawmakers just shot down an amendment from Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), which would have capped the state’s contribution to the on $2 billion on contributions from the Rainy Day Fund to the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas. That’s the new fund SJR1 would ask voters to approve creating.

That’s the amount the Senate just voted to devote to the state water plan this biennium, and lawmakers argued Perry’s amendment operates under assumption that “nothing is going to change” in the state’s water needs. —Emily Mathis

Update at 10:14: The House overwhelmingly passed SJR 1 after a few tough debates about spending. Read more about it here.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

Five days left till sine die, and the deadlines are coming fast. Today’s the last day for the Senate and the House to pass bills and joint resolutions from the opposite chamber on third reading.

The House agreed—except for Rep. David Simpson’s lone “nay” — to postpone voting on Senate Joint Resolution 1, a key component of this session’s budget deal, yet another day. (That gets the bill around last night’s midnight deadline for voting on Senate bills and resolutions on second reading). The Dallas Morning News has the details.

The House will take up SJR 1 today. It’s a constitutional amendment to create SWIFT, the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, and pave the way for the Lege to fund water infrastructure projects.

The word is the House will postpone a vote on SJR 1 up to Thursday, if necessary, until the Senate hears House Bill 1025.  The emergency spending bill is the House’s attempt to add $200 million to the public school system, and Gov. Rick Perry has threatened to call a special session if the bill doesn’t pass. Right now, the level of trust between the House and Senate isn’t too high.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The Senate passed a much-amended House Bill 500, the controversial bill that would exempt quite a few businesses from the franchise tax, according to the Quorum Report (subscribers only). Sen. Tommy Williams tacked on an amendment that ties the passage of the bill to SJR 1, to muck up the budget game of chicken between chambers even more.

2. The House tentatively passed a bill Tuesday that allows for “hotter,” or more radioactive, waste to be dumped at a site dangerously close to water tables. The Observer‘s Forrest Wilder reports this is just one more favor granted to a major GOP donor.

3. The Senate passed House Bill 29 yesterday, which requires universities to offer a flat-rate, four-year tuition option for incoming students. But the Texas Tribune reports the Senate Higher Education Committee’s restrictions on university regents might solicit a veto from Gov. Rick Perry.

4. Last but certainly not least, House Democrats managed to kill SB 11, the drug screening-f0r-welfare-applicants bill on the floor last night. Dems lined up points of order and stalled the bill until it—and about 50 other Senate bills on the calendar behind it—were dead. The Statesman has details.

Line of the Day:

““We believe, simply, that this bill is wrong,” —Democratic Rep. Chris Turner on SB 11, which would have required drug screening for some welfare applicants.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. HB 1025 in the Senate and SJR 1 in the House. Here’s hoping the House doesn’t move the vote to Thursday.

2. The Senate has yet to hear HB 972, which would allow for licensed concealed handgun owners to pack heat on university and college campuses.

3. Today’s also the last day for the House to consider Senate Bills on the Local and Consent calendar, including a bill that would set requirements for election interpreters and one that would update the definition of “autism and other pervasive developmental disorders.”

The Lead:

It’s not every day you see the Texas Legislature vote to tighten ethics standards, but that’s what happened yesterday when the House initially approved the Ethics Commission sunset bill.

As first written, Senate Bill 219 made minor changes to the agency that oversees campaign and lobby disclosures. But House members added a series of amendments on the floor that transformed the legislation into one that, as the Observer’s Beth Cortez-Neavel reports, would “force Railroad Commissioners to resign from the position if they decided to run for other offices; mandating that lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms are posted online (without their home addresses); requiring that 501(c)(4) nonprofits report their donors if they get involved in Texas elections, and requiring legislators and their families to report any government contracts in which they hold more than a 50-percent stake.”

Rep. Charlie Geren added the amendment that would require politically active nonprofits—501(c)(4) groups like Empower Texans and its head Michael Quinn Sullivan—to disclose their donors. You might be thinking, “didn’t that bill already pass?” And indeed it. The amendment was a version of SB 346, which has already been sent to the governor, who’s expected to veto it. By attaching it to the Ethics Commission sunset bill, Geren may have found a way to circumvent Rick Perry’s veto.

 Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The House voted for an amendment yesterday to ban Medicaid expansion. As the Texas Tribune‘s Becca Aaronson reports, Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) added an amendment to a Medicaid bill that would ban HHSC from expanding Mediciad under Obamamcare. The amendment could always be stripped out in conference committee, but if it does survive, it could preclude any deal with the feds on Medicaid expansion.

2. Yesterday, Dan Patrick celebrated the imminent death of the curriculum management program CSCOPE. Patrick announced that “the era of CSCOPE lesson plans has come to an end,” the Observer’s Patrick Michels reports. And once again the land was safe from the menace of curriculum tools.

3. The Dallas Morning-News reports that the House’s initial approval of a ban on cell-phone tracking without cause has police associations none too pleased.

 Line of the Day:

“The big lesson here is that if you can generate a witch hunt that includes enough incendiary and distorted claims, then there are politicians at the Capitol who are ready to throw their supposed commitment to local control out the window,” —Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller in a statement this morning in response to CSCOPE administrators turning over thousands of financial documents to Senator Dan Patrick’s (R-Houston) office.

What We’re Watching Today:

1.  SB 11—the watered-down bill that would implement drug testing for some welfare applicants—is slated for debate on the House floor today.

2. Tommy Williams’ transparency bill—SB 14—is also set for debate in the House. The bill would institute a number of provisions to give the public more information on schools, taxes, and government spending.

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