Wednesday, April 19, 2006

special sessions can be fun

Yesterday, the two houses of the Texas State Legislature kicked off one of their famous thirty-day special sessions. Since the Texas Constitution only requires our lawmakers to meet once every two years, the governor has to call special sessions to get things done. Unfortunately, because this is Texas, the Lege still can't get anything done. Ever. As Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst called the Senate to order, his gavel broke. He remarked, "I hope that's not a reflection on the session." Inevitably, it will be.

Besides Governor Rick Perry's "tax relief" proposals, some of the interesting bills and resolutions introduced so far include:
  • A pay raise for school employees by up to $2,000, and more funding for high schools to promote graduation rates; introduced by Sen. Florence Shapiro, a Republican from Plano.
  • A law that would make it a misdemeanor to disrupt funerals, in response to the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas (operated by evangelist/freak Fred Phelps) and their vociferous anti-gay protests at funerals of fallen soldiers; introduced by Sen. Robert Duncan, a Republican from Lubbock.
  • A resolution to honor Karl Rove "as an expression of high regard by the Texas House of Representatives" for his supposed service to Texas and the country; introduced by Rep. Tony Goolsby, a Republican from Dallas.
  • Resolutions to replace Rep. Carl Isett, a Lubbock Republican, and Rep. Frank Corte Jr., a San Antonio Republican, with their wives, as they are both serving currently in Iraq; introduced by Rep. Harvey Hildebran, a Republican from Kerrville, and Rep. Delwin Jones, a Republican from Lubbock.
In other interesting news, Sen. Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas, was sworn in as President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, making him second in line for gubernatorial succession. If both Perry and Dewhurst are out of the state, West will act as governor. Also, gubernatorial hopeful and State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn made an unexpected announcement of more than double the expected budget surplus: $8.2 billion. Strayhorn's suprise announcement leads us nicely into a short discussion of Perry's tax plan. The "tax relief" legislation has been broken down into five pieces of legislation introduced by several different Republicans in the Lege.
  1. Rep. Warren Chisum of Pampa, Rep. Rob Eissler of the Woodlands, and Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas introduced HB 1, a bill considering tax relief by reducing school district property tax rates by seventeen cents.
  2. Rep. Jim Pitts of Waxahachie introduced HB 2, a bill that would send revenue from the five separate tax bills to help buy down property taxes.
  3. Rep. Jim Keffer of Eastland, Rep. John Otto of Dayton, and Rep. Vilma Luna of Corpus Christi introduced HB 3, a bill that would revise (read: increase) franchise tax provisions.
  4. Rep. David Swinford of Amarillo introduced HB 4, a bill that would modify (read: increase) tax on the use and sale of motor vehicles.
  5. Rep. Peggy Hamric of Houston introduced HB 5, a bill that would modify (read: increase) taxes on tobacco products such as cigarettes.
Perry has called the special session primarily to pass his tax intiatives because of a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling that made the current school finance system (Robin Hood) illegal by holding it unconstitutional. The Lege has a deadline of June 1 to pass school finance reform. Perry's plan would trade higher taxes on smokers and business-owners for lower property taxes. It was partially devised by former Comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat.

Strayhorn's "extraordinary" announcement of a surplus of $8.2 billion dollars may prove an impediment to Perry's tax legislation getting passed. As noted by Lt. Governor Dewhurst, the Republicans want "to return as much of the surplus to the taxpayers [as possible] because it's taxpayers' money." Dewhurst has commented on the heavy support of Perry's plan but has stopped short of formally endorsing it. Speculators say that many House members would prefer not to vote on a major tax bill this year, instead taking a temporary approach to fulfilling the Supreme Court's mandate.

Rep. Jim Dunnam, a Waco Democrat and the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, urged careful spending of the projected surplus. "We can do both, have meaningful property tax relief and provide more money for schools," he said.

Stay tuned. It looks as if this special session, which must adjourn by May 16, could get interesting. Who says special sessions aren't fun?

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