Two Bexar County lawmakers are gearing up for their days in Austin – to craft a budget and shape new laws for Texas. Republican Representative Lyle Larson of District 122 is on a mission to keep the state on a conservative course. Democrat Representative Mike Villarreal of District 123 is going to Austin in the political minority, but still looking to be a major part of the legislative process.
The legislature meets in regular session on the second Tuesday in January of each odd-numbered year. The Texas Constitution limits the regular session to 140 calendar days and in that time the 150 representatives and 31 state senators are required to produce a balanced budget.
The legislature started the 2011 session dealing with a multi-billion dollar deficit, and ended up seeing over $5 billion cut from the state’s public education budget. The 2013 session isn’t as financially grim, but battles over the budget are again expected with conservatives committed to keeping taxes low.
"My focus -- sitting on natural resources -- is water, and I've traveled all over the state meeting with river authorities, ground water districts and large public utilities for the last year looking at the drought of 2011. I think that the alarm did go off for the state and we have record lows in inventory, both in ground water and in surface water, and we need to develop projects to sustain the growth that we've got economically is going to be based on if we do something."
Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst has said he is considering tapping into the state's "rainy day fund" to help fund some projects, and Larson says that he believes the idea has promise.
"I've been talking about it for a year, of taking a billion dollars out of the rainy day fund and working with the water development board. They've indicated that if we created a revolving water infrastructure fund, we would be able to hopefully build out about $8 billion to $9 billion dollars worth of projects over the next 25 years."
School finance lawsuits are currently in the courts and there are expectations that the legislature will have to take up some form of education finance reform this session.
"I believe that we are not going to see any major changes to formula funding this coming session. My sense is that the mood is, 'Let's wait and see what the courts tell us to do.' My sense of history also tells me that the legislature does not act until the Supreme Court weighs in and tells us, 'We're going to close your schools unless you change your ways.' It unfortunately always has to come to that."
Many states are expanding Medicare and Medicaid to take advantage of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but Texas has held that it will decline the federal money.
"It doesn't make sense for us not to participate in this national program (Affordable Care Act) that most likely all other states are going to participate in. We need to figure out a way to make this happen. I think part of the hesitation is wanting to tailor the Medicaid program. If that's truly the case -- if it's not just sort of an ideological fight the governor wants to pick with the Obama administration -- then fine, let's figure out a way of negotiating with Washington so that we can put into place some tailored policies..."