Texas House delay on water measure ratchets up tension with Senate

By ROBERT T. GARRETT Austin Bureau rtgarrett@dallasnews.com
Published: 21 May 2013 10:58 PM
Updated: 21 May 2013 10:59 PM

AUSTIN — A House-Senate showdown over water and schools pushed the Legislature beyond some of its customary deadlines Tuesday, as tempers frayed and the Senate’s new budget chief became a target of House members’ wrath.

For a second consecutive day, the two chambers insisted that the other go first and show good faith by passing one of the linchpin bills needed to secure a complicated budget deal and avoid a special session.
Neither did.

Instead, Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, made a surprise evening announcement that the House would blow by its normal deadline for giving at least tentative approval to Senate measures. That deadline was midnight Tuesday.

The House later voted, 148-1, to suspend the deadline rule so it could wait until Wednesday to take up a constitutional amendment the Senate badly wants.

The amendment asks voters to bless a new, more aggressive state effort to address the strains of drought and population growth by building more water reservoirs, pipelines and re-use systems.

The Senate-passed measure also would allow lawmakers to avoid a vote to exceed a limit on the growth of state spending. Straus and House leaders have ridiculed that as cowardly and a bad precedent.

The House nonetheless agreed Friday to go along. In return, House budget negotiators extracted a Senate promise to add $200 million for public schools to the session’s second emergency spending bill.

The Senate hasn’t moved that bill, which also requires a two-thirds approval in each chamber because it takes billions from the state’s rainy day fund.

The Senate’s delay has irritated the House, just as the House’s slow-walking on water has irked senators.

Waxahachie Republican Rep. Jim Pitts, the House’s chief budget writer, said part of the problem was that House members haven’t seen a draft of the Senate version to ensure their priorities are included.

Shortly after Straus announced the delaying maneuver on the water measure, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, stormed onto the House floor.

Williams spoke heatedly for at least a minute with the speaker and his chief of staff and then left, declining to comment. Later, he issued a statement that read: “They should take their time,” and declined to elaborate.

Senators said privately, though, that they were dumbfounded that Straus gave them no warning. They called it extremely rare for a chamber to cavalierly waive a hard deadline for bills’ passage near the end of a session.
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said the standoff shows “how passionate both sides are to get some final resolution for things that they believe in.”

Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who heads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, acknowledged that some House members were offended by what they saw as Williams’ huffy answers to Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, at Friday’s public unveiling of the grand bargain on the budget.

The two are members of the House-Senate conference committee on the budget and have battled over how to reduce a nearly $1 billion balance of unspent discounts for poor people on their electric bills.

The electric bill discounts, paid from what is called the System Benefit Fund, have complicated resolution of the budget. Last week, Turner, the House’s No. 2 budget writer, was unable to hold House Democrats behind his and House leaders’ desire to spend the hoarded fee money to weatherize poor people’s houses and give them discounts.

Williams wants to return nearly all of the unspent System Benefit Fund money to households and businesses in areas where ratepayers have a choice of electric retailers. In negotiations with the House late last week, Williams agreed to reduce by $100 million his rebate plan to help pay for the education boost. The Senate tentatively approved refunding $630 million to ratepayers.

Williams and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst say the House must swallow the refunds, pass the water amendment and cut the rest of the budget by $100 million, and they’ll make sure the Senate adds the $200 million for schools. That would bring to $3.4 billion the undoing of last session’s $4 billion cut to basic state aid for schools.

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