Special Session, Part III


CHRIS TOMLINSON,Associated Press WILL WEISSERT,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday called the Texas Legislature back for a third special session, less than an hour after the House failed to garner enough votes to approve a transportation funding he has asked lawmakers to pass.

The last time the Legislature had three special sessions was in 2005-2006 over school finance issues.

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The House and Senate gaveled back into session within minutes of receiving Perry’s proclamation calling them back to work. Speaker Joe Straus immediately adjourned until next week allowing the Senate to take the lead on the legislation, which they passed within an hour, sending it to the House for reconsideration.

There are two parts to the transportation funding effort. The first is a constitutional amendment to divert half of the oil and gas taxes going to the Rainy Day Fund — right now about $840 million a year — and spend it instead on roads and bridges. The second part is a law giving the 10-member Legislative Budget Board power to stop that diversion if the fund drops below a level they determine.

The Senate suspended the rules Tuesday afternoon to immediately refer the amendment and the enabling legislation to the Finance Committee. The committee completed its work and approved it in 10 minutes.

That allowed the full Senate to return and take up the bill and amendment and pass them again.

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Sen. Robert Nichols, the author the measure, said the measure hadn’t been changed from the version conferees agreed to in the special session.

The measures will face conservative opposition. Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, voted against the measures and tried to add an amendment that would put a firm minimum balance for the Rainy Day Fund in the Texas Constitution. The Senate rejected Patrick’s amendment.

Experts say Texas needs to spend an additional $4 billion a year on roads and bridges. Dewhurst acknowledged that this effort will not solve the problem but is a step in the right direction.

“It will, in the next few years, generate an additional $2 billion to $3 billion in additional cash,” he said.

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A proposed constitutional amendment requires the support of two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers to send it to voters for final approval. Only 84 members in the House on Monday voted for the measure in the second special session out of the 100 needed.

How the measure will do in the House during a third special session in the dog days of summer is uncertain.

“It is clear as you get deeper into the summer that to have 150 members here is not going to happen,” Straus said. “There’s several members who have family illnesses that they’re attending to, there’s members whose families are going back to school shortly. There’s a lot of reasons why members who are part-time legislators can’t be here every day so it’s going to be tough to pass something that requires a hard 100 votes.”

He added of the proposed constitutional amendment: “I can’t promise you we’ll get there, but the members will make a good faith effort to try to find the votes necessary for something that we can pass that will do something to improve transportation.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst blasted the House for its thin ranks.

“I’m really shocked that so many people who have been elected take off when they need to be here,” Dewhurst said.

He added: “These members have responsibility to show up and do the work they were elected for or resign.”

Lawmakers finished the regular session May 27 but were called back by Perry for two additional, 30-day sessions to pass legislation on abortion, transportation and juvenile justice. The other measures have all passed, except for the transportation package.

Activists have called on Perry to add additional items to the agenda, among them proposals for tuition revenue bonds to allow public universities to raise more money and a law allowing people to carry concealed handguns on campus. Perry could also add additional abortion legislation, an issue that brought the Legislature international attention last month.

Perry may add new items to the agenda anytime in the next 30 days.