Legislature makes final push on bills


JIM VERTUNO,Associated Press PAUL J. WEBER,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Legislature churned through its final day of passing bills Sunday, sending Gov. Rick Perry a new state budget that uses a surging state economy to restore large chunks of the historic spending cuts of two years ago, and a major overhaul of public education testing and curriculum.

The session officially adjourns Monday, but the final day is typically reserved for making minor corrections to bills and the pomp of send-off ceremonies. That left lawmakers scrambling to meet a midnight deadline to put most of the finishing touches on their work over the previous 139 days.

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“It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy,” said Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts, the House budget chief, after the 2014-15 budget was finally delivered to Perry.

The hard times likely aren’t over yet.

Many lawmakers expect Gov. Rick Perry to call them back into a 30-day special session to tackle issues left unaddressed, which could keep them at the Capitol well into the summer.

Agenda items for the special session are expected to include settling voting maps that have been disputed in federal courts since 2011, and strengthening the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, the insurer of last resort for coastal area property owners.

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Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and some Republicans in both chambers want Perry to revive failed conservative efforts such as tighter abortion restrictions, looser gun laws and a harder cap on state spending.

And one major bill still left pending late Sunday night was a $1 billion tax break for businesses. Perry has demanded a $1.8 billion cut, a target lawmakers will fall short of achieving.

While those partisan fights may yet come, the budget compromise affirmed a surprising atmosphere of bipartisan harmony over the past five months.

The House overwhelmingly approved a budget that spends roughly $100 billion in state dollars for 2014-15. The plan restores $4 billion slashed from public schools in 2011 and gives state employees a 3 percent raise.

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Nearly $260 million additional taxpayer dollars are going to mental health. Few states spend less on mental health than Texas, but like other GOP-controlled statehouses, leaders in the Capitol threw more money at the issue instead of tightening gun laws following the December elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Republican State Rep. John Zerwas made a broad reference to “horrific” recent events that drove new urgency about mental health. It was a victory for Zerwas, a doctor, who failed this session to convince the House to consider some form of Medicaid expansion, which Perry fiercely opposes.

Laying out part of the budget late Sunday, Zerwas reassured his colleagues about what the budget didn’t contain.

“I want to repeat that — it does not contain any Medicaid expansion language,” Zerwas said.

A historic drought and booming population also prodded lawmakers to develop a new $2 billion state water plan that emerged as a bipartisan priority from Perry on down. Even environmental groups — typically no friends of Texas lawmaking — hailed the push as one of the most ambitious water plans brainstormed in a U.S. statehouse this year.

Price was rarely an issue. A new oil boom and roaring Texas economy handed lawmakers a historic pot of revenue to spend in January. Five months later, fiscal hawks and conservative pundits now blast this Legislature as reckless big spenders.

Republican budget-writers would hear none of it. Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, the Senate budget chief, even slammed unnamed critics this weekend, saying they should go back to school and be taught “how to count.”

Education had been one of the dominant themes of the session, but with court challenges to the school finance system still pending, lawmakers kept their focus on what happens in the classroom.

Late Sunday night, the Legislature approved cutting the number of standardized tests for high school students to graduate from 15 to five, leaving only exams in algebra, biology and English.

Students, parents and administrators have complained of over-testing, but business groups worry that cutting back will leave Texas students unprepared for the workforce.

The education plan also promotes flexibility in academic standards, giving students more time for vocational training for technical jobs that pay well but may not require going to college. And it allows more charter schools.

“What we set out to do in January was to reform public education in this state,” said Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. “We are maintaining rigor and accountability.”

But the final education bill did not include “school choice” scholarships to help students move from public to private schools, one of the most controversial education issues debated over the previous five months. Lawmakers passed another education bill that allows schools to use more online classes.

Other bills passed Sunday include:

—A study of the Travis County district attorney’s public integrity unit, which has handled prominent criminal cases against state officials including former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Republicans have long complained that Democratic district attorneys in Austin have been selective in prosecuting Republican officeholders.

—Gun bills that allow concealed handgun license holders to carry either revolvers or semi-automatic pistols, regardless which type they used in training, and to let them keep guns in their cars on college campuses. But House members also killed an attempt to give lawmakers a special privilege to carry concealed handguns wherever they want.

All bills passed, including the budget, are sent to Perry to veto or be signed into law. Perry also has line-item veto power over the budget and he has been used that authority over his five previous regular sessions to slash billions in spending. Perry will have until June 16 to veto a bill before it automatically becomes law with or without his signature.