Movement toward passing a state budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal biennium continued in committees of both chambers of the Texas Legislature last week.
After two months of hearings, the Senate Finance Committee on March 7 approved workshop recommendations for a two-year budget of about $90 billion, paving the way to a final committee vote before moving to the full Senate for consideration.
On March 8, the House Committee on Appropriations absorbed information on Medicaid expansion pursuant to the federal Affordable Care Act, including a presentation showing the rise in Medicaid as percent of state resources, including during dry periods of slow or negative revenue growth, and briefs on similar issues in the states of Arizona and Maine.
Appropriations Committee members also viewed slides from the state comptroller’s office about the Major Events Trust Fund as a way to stimulate the economy through sports playoffs and other high-profile events. Members also looked at “major economic development programs” such as the Texas Enterprise Fund, the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the Moving Image Industry Incentive Program and the Major Events Trust Fund.
JUSTICE GIVES SPEECH
In his State of the Judiciary address to the Texas Legislature on March 6, the Honorable Wallace Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, said, “The question is not ‘How is the judiciary?’ We must ask instead whether our system of justice is working for the people it has promised to serve.”
Nearly 6 million Texans qualify for legal aid and many are “forced to go it alone in our courts,” he said, adding that Texas ranks 48th in the nation in per capita funding for indigent defense and suggested the Legislature can do more to increase access to legal services and attorney representation for poor and middle class citizens. Jefferson encouraged use of the rulemaking process to reduce the expense and delay of litigation.
At the Legislature’s direction, he said, the Supreme Court recently adopted rules to simplify proceedings in cases involving claims for monetary relief of less than $100,000. “Discovery is limited; the cases are expedited. Now, a case that is vital to the success of a small business owner can actually be tried, to a verdict. A remedy for a legal injury, even for a litigant who cannot afford to pay a lawyer $500 an hour.”
Jefferson noted that Texas courts are making progress in overturning wrongful convictions with DNA or other means and exonerating innocent people. He praised legislation offered by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, to create an exoneration commission.
Jefferson also praised:
- Increases in electronic filing of court papers.
- Efforts to keep youths out of court and in school.
- Guardianship of elders who are at risk of abuse.
REVENUE STAYS HEALTHY
State Comptroller Susan Combs on March 6 reported state sales tax revenue in February was $2.08 billion, up 3.7 percent compared to February 2012.
“Sales tax revenues continue to grow, but at a more moderate pace compared to recent months,” Combs said in an agency news release. “The latest increase was led by receipts from the construction and restaurant sectors. Collections from other major sectors such as oil and natural gas-related businesses and manufacturing remain at high levels.”
Combs’ office will send cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts their March local sales tax allocations totaling $531.3 million, up 12.2 percent compared to March 2012.
STATE JOBS REPORT ARRIVES
Texas employers continued to expand their payrolls in January with the addition of 10,400 total nonfarm jobs for a total of 310,900 jobs added over the year, the Texas Workforce Commission reported March 8.
After declining for six consecutive months, the unemployment rate in Texas rose slightly in January to 6.3 percent and was down nine-tenths of a percentage point over the year.
The nation’s January unemployment rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, stood at 7.9 percent.
“The Texas economy continues to add jobs and create opportunity, with growth in all 11 major industries over the last year,” said Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Andres Alcantar.
BILL FILING DATE PASSES
March 8, the 60th day of the 140-day regular session of the Texas Legislature, was the deadline for lawmakers to file bills and proposed amendments to the state constitution, but local and emergency bills still may be filed.
Veteran capitol correspondent and legislative analyst Ed Sterling is director of member services for the Texas Press Association, headquartered in Austin.