Monday, January 31, 2011

Committee Winners

Last session, 52% of bills never made it out of their first committee. Accordingly, which committee a bill is referred to and the membership of that committee is critically important to whether a filed bill becomes law or not. This is one of the reasons that the Lt. Governor and the Speaker have enormous power over the legislative process, because they appoint the committees and refer the bills.

Let's examine two issues in the context of Senate committee appointments: tort reform and gaming. Tort reform advocates were extremely unhappy with Senate State Affairs Committee last session for reporting out legislation that weakened tort reform. This session, Sens. Carona and Harris were replaced on the committee with Sens. Huffman and Williams, providing tort reform advocates a 5 - 4 majority on the committee.

Ordinarily, gaming legislation would also be referred to State Affairs. However, because gaming opponents now have a 5 -4 majority on State Affairs, I expect gaming legislation to be referred to Senate Business & Commerce Committee. In addition to Sen. Carona replacing Sen. Fraser as Chairman of Business & Commerce, Sen. Whitmire was added to the committee giving gaming supporters a solid 7 votes on Business & Commerce.

Tort reform and gaming were both apparent winners in the Senate committee appointments.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Senate Springing into Action; House Will Have to Hustle to Keep Up

Article 3, Section 5(b) of the Texas Constitution provides:

"When convened in regular Session, the first thirty days thereof
shall be devoted to the introduction of bills and resolutions, acting upon
emergency appropriations, passing upon the confirmation of the recess appointees
of the Governor and such emergency matters as may be submitted by the Governor
in special messages to the Legislature. During the succeeding thirty days of the
regular session of the Legislature the various committees of each House shall
hold hearings to consider all bills and resolutions and other matters then
pending; and such emergency matters as may be submitted by the Governor."

Yesterday, the Senate suspended the constitutional order of business so that Senate committees can begin meeting next week. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst has already appointed the members of the Finance Committee, which will begin budget hearings on Monday. Dewhurst stated the membership of the other Senate committees will be announced today or tomorrow, and presumably these committees will also begin meeting next week. Last night, the Senate passed and sent to the House the voter ID bill.

Only two new members were elected to the Senate for the 82nd Legislature as compared to 37 new members in the House. The House was also convulsed by a leadership challenge for 70 days after the November 2 elections. These dynamics positioned the Senate to drive the legislative process vis-a-vis the House, and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and the Senate are taking full advantage so far and springing into action.

House committee preference cards were due into the Speaker's office yesterday at 6 p.m. Traditionally, House committee appointments are released at the end of the last legislative day of the week. This would point to House committees being appointed by next Thursday, February 3. Expect the Speaker's office to feel pressure to meet this timeline, because the House is going to have to hustle to keep up with the Senate legislatively.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Senate Budget Hearings Begin Next Monday

Lt. Gov. Dewhurst announced the appointment of the Senate Finance Committee, which is comprised of the same members from last year. Sen. Ogden announced that the Senate would begin budget hearings next Monday. Dewhurst further announced that the other Senate committees would be appointed late Thursday or Friday of this week. The Senate then began the process of convening as a Committee of the Whole to consider SB 14, the voter ID legislation.

The Senate is off to a quick start!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object

The House released its base budget this week, which does not spend any of the rainy day fund or contemplate increased revenue. As expected, its a bleak picture. The Senate will release its version of the budget next week.

The budget debate reminds me of the irresistible force vs. the immovable object. The irresistible force is the perspective by knowledgeable budgeteers that the required cuts are simply too deep. The immovable object is the overwhelming voter mandate to cut spending and absolutely not to raise taxes -- but voters still want their services. How it will end up is anybody's guess at this point.

A couple of observations. While the Senate is open to reworking the Margins Tax, that idea appears to be stillborn in the House. I believe it likely that the rainy day fund will ultimately be used to defray the shortfall in the current biennium. Higher education is still perceived as being "fat", and there is not much sympathy for avoiding deep cuts there. Increasing motor vehicle registration fees is an idea that is being taken for a spin.

Either the force or the object will have to give: We just don't know which one yet.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Rules and Rankings

The Senate adopted its rules for the 82nd Legislature and maintained the 2/3rds tradition except for voter id. Legislation requiring a voter to present photo identification at the polls will only require a majority of the Senators present to be debated on the floor. All other legislation will require 2/3rds (21 votes if all 31 Senators are present). The House, with 101 Republicans, is expected to pass numerous pieces of conservative legislation. It will be fascinating to watch how such legislation fares in the Senate with the 2/3rds rule in effect. The House is expected to adopt its rules on Monday.

For the seventh consecutive year, Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell was named the top law firm lobby practice in Texas by Capitol Inside. "The team that Robert Miller leads at Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell has crowned the list of the most powerful law firm lobby practices in Texas since the category was conceived seven years ago. Locke Lord - for starters - has the top law firm lobby shop in Austin because it wants to be number one and works aggressively to not only keep that distinction but to solidify its lock on it more year year."

Locke Lord professionals ranked in the Top 50 lobbyists in Texas were: Robert Miller, No. 7; Yuniedth Midence Steen, No. 20; and Gardner Pate, No. 50. Consultant Nef Partida was ranked No. 14 in Texas of political consultants who lobby. Way to go team!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Biennial Revenue Likely Higher

Comptroller’s office notes that the $4.3 billion deficit for the current biennium comes from the budget adopted in 2009, and does not reflect the roughly $2 billion in cuts agencies adopted earlier this year under direction from the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker. The actual deficit should be closer to $2.3 billion. This means the $72.2 billion number will likely be higher, perhaps $74 or $75 billion available for the current biennium.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Hutchison Not Seeking Reelection in '12

Sen. Hutchison is preparing to announce that she will not seek reelection in 2012.

The race for her seat will immediately begin. Already in the race for the Republican nomination are: Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams; Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones; and former Secretary of State Roger Williams. Expect former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz to quickly announce that he is in the race, and Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert will also jump in.

All eyes then turn to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. If he runs, he becomes the frontrunner because of his statewide visibility and his personal wealth. Dewhurst will wait until after the legislative session before formally announcing his decision on whether or not to run.

Democrats who will look at the race include former Comptroller John Sharp.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

And They're Off

The 82nd Texas Legislature will convene at Noon today. Two interesting votes will take place.

The House of Representatives will elect its presiding officer as the first order of business, and Speaker Joe Straus will be re-elected by a wide margin. Yesterday, 70 out of 101 members of the House Republican Caucus expressed their preference for Straus. As the preferred candidate of the Republican Caucus and with pledges from all but two Democrats, Straus will receive over 120 votes to be reelected as Speaker.

The Senate will vote on its procedural rules for the 82nd Session as the first order of business (Lt. Gov. Dewhurst is constitutionally the presiding officer). The key rules provision is a requirement that legislation receive support from 2/3rds of the Senators present before it can be debated on the Senate floor. With 19 Republicans out of 31, this rule requires the votes of at least two Democrats before a bill can be debated on the floor. Conservative groups have called for the 2/3rds rule to be eliminated so that Republicans will not need Democratic support to bring legislation to the floor. However, the collegial, bipartisan tradition of the Senate will prevail today, and the Senate will again adopt the 2/3rds rule.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Monday is a Momentous Day

The 82nd Regular Session of the Texas Legislature commences at Noon on Tuesday. It will consume all of my time over the next five months, but I will have a front row view from the galleries above, and lobbies adjacent to, the House and Senate floors. This blog will provide selective thoughts and observations of mine regarding what is occurring, and will share my "View from the Gallery." All observations and opinions expressed in this blog are mine alone, and not those of my law firm, colleagues or clients.

Even though the Legislature does not convene until Tuesday, Monday will be a momentous day. Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay's punishment phase and sentencing begins at 9 a.m. Monday before Judge Pat Priest in Austin. Whatever sentence is rendered will add fuel to the partisan fires that are already burning brightly in Austin.

Comptroller Susan Combs will release her revenue estimate for the remainder of FY 2011 and the upcoming FY 2011 - 12 biennium. Estimates of the deficit have recently ranged from $18 to $25 billion. On Monday, we will know.

Finally, the House Republican Caucus is scheduled to meet in the Reagan Building at 1:30 p.m. They will consider whether the Caucus should take an official caucus position and endorse a Republican member for Speaker. Stay tuned!