The 1st Called Session
As noted above, despite strenuous efforts, reform of public school finance and performance and property tax relief, the two biggest issues of the 79th Session, failed resolution during the Regular Session. In keeping with the importance of these issues, Governor Perry ordered the legislature back to Austin for the 1st Called Session on June 21st. In case anyone doubted his determination, the Governor also vetoed the funding of the Texas Education Agency (i.e., the state’s funding of public schools) for the 2006-2007 biennium. As stated in his veto proclamation:
“I am vetoing the appropriations to the Texas Education Agency because the legislature did not make the best use of resources available for public education. By not passing House Bill No. 2 the legislature failed to make meaningful reforms in education policy, improve student performance, increase accountability, provide better teacher compensation, and did not appropriately fund textbooks and classroom technology.”
This action meant that unless the legislature resolved these issues, or re-appropriated their funding, the public schools probably would not be able to open in the fall.
Once the Legislature convened, Governor Perry added other issues to the call; including authorization of tuition revenue bonds for higher education’s capital needs, telecommunication reform, and, in response to a recent ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, limitation of government’s use of eminent domain powers. However, Governor Perry increased the incentive for the Legislature to address the public school and property issues by stipulating that none of these other issues would be considered until a resolution of the two priority issues was crafted and adopted by both chambers. An omnibus TRB bill, HB 6 by Rep. Morrison, was filed and passed by the full House. A much more circumscribed companion bill passed out of the Senate Finance Committee but never was taken up by the full Senate.
In the end, there was only one issue that members could agree on; the Legislature did pass out an appropriations bill (HB 1) for the Texas Education Agency. However, the first special session produced no legislative solution to the school finance and property tax reduction puzzle. However, a glimmer of hope did surface near the end in regard to the school finance bill. The conference committee on HB 2 reported out an agreement; however, the report came too near the end of the session for concerns among other members to be satisfied. Some senators who did not serve on the Conference Committee on HB2 (and some who served, but did not sign the report) raised concerns about what they considered to be “tangential” issues that were incorporated into the conference committee report. There were enough of these “hot-button” issues that Senator John Whitmire decided to filibuster the bill. Thus, the first special session ended on a hopeful note but with success yet out of reach.
The 2nd Called Session
Given that the 1st Called Session ended with a signed conference committee report on the school finance piece and that “positive” talk bubbled out from the property tax conference committee, Governor Perry seized the moment and called a second special session to open immediately upon adjournment ‘sine die’ of the 1st Called Session. The issues that the Governor included in the call for the second special session were the same ones that he had included in the first.
The second special session started out with “A Plan,” to wit: file and move the school finance and property tax bills smartly through the House process, send them over and pass them out of the Senate as soon as possible, then refer them to conference to resolve the differences between the chambers. However, when the school finance bill hit the House floor, it hit a rock in the road. Over the course of time, locally elected school board members, superintendents, and teacher groups had studied the bill carefully, they had much to say, and what they had to say was about their districts. After vigorous debate and with many House members getting jittery in response to their districts’ manifested interests, enough members had changed their minds so that an amendment widely regarded as the “democratic” version of the bill was adopted by the full House—and moreover, with the support of several leadership Republicans. Once that amendment was adopted, all the other amendments lying on the Speaker’s podium were accepted as well, and so the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Grusendorf, moved to kill his own bill.
hus ended the school finance bill. In turn, this “mini-revolution” extended to the property tax bill: a host of amendments were offered and accepted, whereupon Rep. Keffer followed suit and moved to kill his own bill; it went down 124-8. With both “session” bills now blown up in the House, the 2nd Called Session was effectively over, at least insofar as school finance and property tax were concerned…and the Speaker said as much. However, the Senate, led and strongly “encouraged” by Governor Dewhurst, pushed on and amid much angst among members, did vote out its version of the school finance bill, which the House did not take up. However, since all tax bills must originate in the House, the Senate could not address the property tax relief/shift issue.
Notwithstanding those intractable school and tax issues, the 2nd Called Session was by no means a failed session. It did pass two major pieces of legislation: the telecommunications and eminent domain bills. Brief summaries of these two bills are provided below. In addition, the Legislature resurrected the contentious judicial pay raise issue, and this time passed it.
As in the 1st, the 2nd Special Session also failed to pass higher education’s urgently needed tuition revenue bonds. Once again, the House passed out the omnibus TRB bill (HB 6), but the Senate did not address the issue at all this time. If and when the Legislature convenes again in a special session to address the lingering school finance and property tax issues, higher education leaders will request the Governor and Legislature to act favorably on tuition revenue bonds.
2nd Called Session Legislation as it Relates to the A&M System
SB 5 by Fraser/King - Relating to furthering competition in the communications industry. SB 5 reshapes the regulation landscape of the of cable and telecommunications industry in Texas. The last major overhaul of the telecommunications industry occurred in 1995, when the 74th Legislature enacted H.B. 2128, which opened the local telephone market to competition. Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers, such as Southwestern Bell, were allowed to elect into a reduced regulatory framework, including pricing flexibility under incentive regulation. Companies electing incentive regulation were required to provide discounts for private lines for school districts, higher education institutions (both public and private), public and non-profit hospitals, and libraries. These discounted rates afforded substantial advantages for education, research, and telemedicine activities.
Among its many far-reaching provisions, S.B. 5 contains language that will ensure that this discounted pricing will continue until 2012.
Additionally, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) is directed to begin a study on establishing a funding mechanism to provide support to telecommunications utilities that provide these discounts. The study will evaluate alternative funding sources that would make financial support available to utilities on a nondiscriminatory basis, in a technologically neutral fashion. The PUC will issue a report to the Legislature before November 15, 2006, regarding the viability of establishing such a new funding source.
SB 7 by Janek/Corte - Relating to limits on the use of the power of eminent domain. SB 7 prohibits certain governmental entities, including institutions of higher education, from using their power of eminent domain to take private property, if the taking confers a private benefit on a particular private party through the use of the property or was for a public use that merely was a pretext for conferring a private benefit to a particular private party. The legislation set forth a listing of uses for eminent domain that is not affected by the legislation.
Notwithstanding other laws, information collected, assembled, or maintained by non-governmental bodies authorized by law to take private property would be subject to the Public Information (Open Records) Act, if the information was related to the taking of private property.
SB 7 creates an interim legislative committee to study the use of the power of eminent domain, including its use for economic development, and to report to the 80th Legislature by December 1, 2006. The committee will be composed of five senators appointed by the lieutenant governor and five House members appointed by the speaker of the House. The lieutenant governor and speaker each would designate a co-chair from among the members each had appointed.
SB 7 also contains language specifically directed at institutions of higher education. The governing board of an institution of higher education may not use the power of eminent domain to acquire land to be used for a lodging facility or for parking or a parking structure intended to be used in connection with the use of a lodging facility. During debate, it became clear that this language was intended to preclude the use of eminent domain in connection with a particular piece of property adjacent to the campus of UT-Austin.