May 30, 2011

Texas lawmakers are called right back for special session today

Gov. Rick Perry, obviously irritated by Sen. Wendy Davis' filibuster, called lawmakers back to work immediately after the regular session ended Monday.

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AUSTIN -- Weary lawmakers prepared to go back to work in a special session that starts today after legislative leaders were unable to resurrect a critical school finance bill on Monday, the final day of the 82nd Legislature.

As the 140-day regular session inched toward adjournment, lawmakers in both parties were looking ahead and preparing strategy for the special session, which was forced after a 79-minute filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, brought down the school aid package.

Gov. Rick Perry, obviously irritated by Davis' filibuster, called lawmakers back to work immediately on two bills, for starters, in a special session that could last as long as 30 days. The House and Senate both planned to start work at 8 a.m.

Perry made his official call for the special session late Monday, stating that the Legislature should concentrate on fiscal matters necessary to fund the 2012-13 budget. Specifically, the Legislature needs to approve a new school finance law that will reduce the state's obligation to public schools by $4 billion.

He also told lawmakers to work on improving the delivery of Medicaid, the insurance program for the poor. Republicans had proposed a bill to cut Medicaid costs during the regular session, but it also died.

"Critical work remains to ensure we have a balanced budget that provides essential services without raising taxes," Perry said in a statement.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate's presiding officer, worked throughout the day to try to muster enough support to salvage the school finance bill, HB1811, but ultimately acknowledged that he was unsuccessful. Senate leaders needed four-fifths of the 31 members -- 25 votes -- to consider the bill on the last day of the Legislature.

"As hard as I've tried, we have not been able to get an agreement to suspend the rules so we will be back tomorrow morning," Dewhurst announced to senators late Monday afternoon.

The top item on the special session agenda will center on passing a new version of HB1811, which was deemed essential to balance the two-year budget. The measure, which was passed by the House hours before it died in the Senate, would generate $2.5 billion in nontax revenue.

"This is a big deal," said Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, one of the architects of the $172.3 billion budget that lawmakers passed over the weekend. "There is no money for schools."

A broader scope

Perry is also expected to add other failed measures to the list of special session issues, including legislation to restructure a windstorm insurance fund for hurricane victims and a congressional redistricting plan that made little headway during the regular session. One of Perry's top legislative priorities - outlawing "sanctuary cities" that critics say are havens for illegal immigrants - could also make its way back to lawmakers.

"In a way, the filibuster is a gift to the governor," said Ogden, pointing out that the 12 Senate Democrats won't be able to take advantage of a rule that enables them to block legislation. Dewhurst said he does not intend to include the rule -- which requires two-thirds of the Senate, or 21 votes, to take up legislation -- in the special session.

The governor determines which issues to include in special sessions. Dewhurst sent Perry a list of nine items, including congressional redistricting and a failed bill to criminalize "intrusive" federal pat-down procedures on air travelers.

The Medicaid measure included by Perry in the call had been requested by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. The bill, which implements $426 billion in cost-savings initiatives on Medicaid, died in the House before a midnight deadline.

A 'new normal'

Democrats were also making their own plans for the special session, saying they plan to continue their attacks on Republican budget policies that they say impose devastating cuts in education, healthcare and other services.

Davis said the budget sets a "new normal that says for the first time, we are not going to fund student population growth."

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said Democrats will continue their demands to draw from the remaining $6 billion balance in the rainy-day fund to offset service cuts, but Republicans said they will resist any efforts to make further withdrawals.

Legislators approved a $3.1 billion drawdown from the fund to patch up a deficit in the current biennium, but Perry and legislative leaders opposed a further withdrawal for 2012-13.

Crafting a budget was the dominant goal of the 82nd Legislature after lawmakers convened in January facing a budget shortfall of up to $27 billion.

With Republicans firmly in control of both chambers, the legislative output reflected a deeply conservative tilt, producing Perry-backed legislation that included new voter identification requirements, pre-abortion sonograms and toughened property rights laws. Republicans said the legislative agenda responded to the demands of a Republican sweep in the 2010 elections.

"It was a decidedly conservative session reflected by the economy and the election results in November," said Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, chairman of the Tarrant County delegation in the House.

Democrats had a different take. "I just thought it was a very bitter and very divisive session," said Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.

Staff writer Aman Batheja contributed to this report.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294

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