The 84th Legislature is poised to go to work today amid sweeping changes and a sea of fresh faces in the House and Senate after the state’s chief financial officer unveiled a guardedly optimistic revenue picture despite uncertainty over plunging oil prices.
Opening day of the 140-day, biennial session was, as always, slated to be heavy on ceremony as lawmakers take the oath of office in chambers packed with family members and well-wishers. In the House, Speaker Joe Straus was heavily favored to be re-elected to a fourth two-year term despite a challenge by Rep. Scott Turner, a Tea Party favorite from Frisco in North Texas.
Despite long odds, Turner, a former pro football player, exuded confidence after practicing his speech Monday in a locked House chamber that was closed to the public. Straus, who became speaker in 2009 and has steadily consolidated his leadership in the House, also took a practice turn in the closed chamber.
“It’s looking great,” Turner told the Star-Telegram after returning to his office in the Capitol. “I’m looking forward to the vote tomorrow.”
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Straus is the only old hand in a Republican leadership hierarchy that will feature new Gov. Greg Abbott and new Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both of whom will be sworn in at lavish inaugural festivities next week. Abbott is the state’s first new governor in 14 years, replacing fellow Republican Rick Perry, who chose not to seek re-election and is considering a second run for president in 2016.
Republicans again have a commanding margin in both legislative chambers, leaving heavily outnumbered Democrats to play the loyal opposition role. In the Senate, Republican Konni Burton of Colleyville will replace Democrat Wendy Davis of Fort Worth as the 10th District Senator from Tarrant County, giving Republicans an important one-vote pickup and a 20-11 margin over Democrats.
Twenty-five new members — all but three of them Republicans — will take their seats in the 150-member House, where GOP leaders are just a few votes shy of a super-majority to push through a conservative agenda accenting tax cuts and limited regulations.
New Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday set the table for the Legislature’s most important job — passing a two-year budget — by reporting that lawmakers will have $113 billion available for general purpose spending in the 2016-17 biennium, 9.5 percent more than the correspondent amount for the current 2014-15 biennium.
Abbott, responding to the forecast, said that if lawmakers “prioritize spending properly, I am confident that will be able to craft a budget that prioritizes education, border security, jobs and transportation funding without growing faster than the growth of population plus inflation.”
Oil price impact
In unveiling the state biennial revenue forecast, Hegar acknowledged that falling oil prices are taking their toll on a big source of tax revenue in oil-rich Texas and are likely to slow economic growth. “The significant drop in oil prices in recent months will likely lead to a marked slowdown in oil exploration and production,” he said “The slowdown will dampen overall economic growth in Texas.”
But he stressed the state still has an enviable economy compared to the rest of the nation.
The comptroller’s projection provides the starting point for months of deliberations as lawmakers begin shaping a new two year budget to run the state for the 2016-17 fiscal biennium. Conservatives responded to the forecast by calling for tax cuts while a liberal think tank that advocates for the poor said the revenue is just enough to continue current services, warning of potential cuts in program if the Legislature enacts tax cuts.
Hegar said his estimate includes a $7.5 billion surplus that will be left over from the current biennium, coupled with $110.4 billion in projected general revenue from taxes, fees and other income through the 2016-17 biennium. Deducted from that total will be about $5 billion set aside for transfers to the Rainy Day Fund and State Highway Fund, leaving $113 billion in state general revenue for the next two years.
Federal dollars and other revenue would give the state $220.9 billion for the upcoming budget, said the comptroller.