Ben’s Blog 2019 (#1)
The first couple of weeks of the Texas Legislature’s 86th session are now in the rear-view mirror. The tone has been collaborative and civil, with both houses committed to an agenda framed by the need to improve the state’s overall support for and quality of public education and by a burning desire to see that the Texas economy continues to be robust and filled with opportunity for the future. The way forward includes addressing supplemental funding for shortfalls from the prior budget, addressing disaster funding needs from Hurricane Harvey, and mapping a path to excellence in public education.
The fall 2018 election changed the composition of the membership in both the House and the Senate. Although there were no appreciable changes in statewide leadership positions (such as governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general), there was a small but significant shift in the House membership. A 12-member gain for Democrats brought the count to 83 R’s and 67 D’s.
With former House Speaker Joe Straus having already announced his plans to retire and eight prospective candidates for Speaker declared, veteran House member Dennis Bonnen from Brazoria County easily won the unanimous support of his Republican and Democratic colleagues to become Texas’ next Speaker. His transition team quickly addressed concerns regarding House organization. He appointed new committee members and committee chairs, and has won acclaim from political pundits for his focus on creating a governance structure designed to ensure member-driven input and direction.
The powerful House Appropriations Committee (HAC) will continue to be chaired by its prior chairman, Dr. John Zerwas, with Rep. Oscar Longoria serving as vice-chairman. While almost half of the members will be new to the HAC, they are not necessarily new to the legislature in general.
New leadership was injected into other key committees. with Representatives Dade Phelan as chair of State Affairs, Senfronia Thompson as chair of Public Health, Eddie Lucio III as chair of Insurance and Four Price as chair of Calendars. Members seem to feel upbeat and optimistic with high expectations for a productive and successful legislative session.
Over on the Senate side, there is not as much of a sense of change or newness since the fall election did not significantly change the Senate’s composition. Democrats picked up only one additional seat. There are, however, at least five new faces among the 31 members of the Senate. With 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats, the requirement to get a bill heard is still razor thin.
It was a historic opening day for the Senate in that it marked that first time in Texas that a woman has gaveled the session to order on opening day. Senator Jane Nelson performed that honor because Lt. Governor Dan Patrick (who presides over the Senate) was out of state in meetings related to border security with the President of the United States.
Once back in Texas, the Lt. Governor got right down to business during the first week and quickly announced his committee assignments and chairmen designees. As expected, Sen. Nelson retained her position as chair of the Senate Finance Committee and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst was named chair of Health and Human Services. Senator John Whitmire retains chairmanship of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee with Sen. Joan Huffman serving again as Vice Chair. The Senate Education Committee will continued to be chaired by Sen. Larry Taylor with Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. as vice chair. And, Senate Higher Education is led by Sen. Brandon Creighton with Sen. Royce West as vice chair.
So how is the budget outlook?
The Comptroller has provided guidance for both House and Senate and notes that there is money available in both tax receipts and in the Rainy Day Fund to meet anticipated budget needs. Overall, the proposed House budget would spend about $247 billion over the FY2020-2021 biennium, and the proposed Senate Budget would spend about $243 billion. Leadership and lawmakers will debate how to best utilize or allocate those resources over the next two-year budget cycle.
There is good news for UTMB in the proposed House Budget: “Hold Harmless” funding of $12 million from the 85th Session—which restored some reductions made last session—was added back to the base. Therefore, UTMB’s primary budget requests are as follows:
- Creation of a hospital formula that provides “formula funding” status to the UTMB hospital appropriation, an appropriation methodology currently extended to both UT-Tyler and UT- MD Anderson Cancer Center and proposed for UT-Southwestern.
- Restoration of $11 million in reductions from the 85th session that were classified as “special items” but which were vital for primary care programs, dialysis, the Area Health Education Centers and indigent health care funding.
- Joining other colleges and universities, requesting an upward adjustment to the formulas that help fund the cost of educating our students.
- Working with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, addressing the ongoing operational budget for the Correctional Health Care programs administered and delivered by UTMB.
- Funding for a Tuition Revenue Bond to construct a multi-use building at the League City Campus to support our education, research and patient care mission.
Hearings on UTMB’s budget with testimony provided by President Callender will start in early February in both the House and the Senate.