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OPINION: State Capital Highlights: Governor gives lawmakers his state budget priorities

AUSTIN — On Feb. 17, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered his first State of the State address during a joint session of the Texas House and Senate and released his recommendations for the two-year 2016-2017 state budget.

In his 43-page Governor’s Budget document, Abbott said he aims to: “Constrain the size and growth of government. Reduce agency spending. Suspend, reduce, and eliminate unnecessary taxes and fees. Ensure government supports job creation and is accountable and transparent.”

Abbott is recommending general revenue spending of $99.4 billion for 2016-2017, slightly less than a 5 percent increase in general revenue spending compared with the current budget.  “By keeping spending levels lower than the growth in population plus inflation, we can ensure that the size of government does not grow. This allows Texas to significantly reduce tax burdens,” Abbott asserted, and promoted the building of the budget on the following “core principles”:

– Passing a constitutional amendment to limit the growth in state spending to the historic growth in the state’s population plus inflation.

– Limiting the size of government by reducing most state agency general revenue expenditures by 3 percent.

– Securing additional funding for transportation infrastructure by passing a constitutional amendment to dedicate one half of the motor vehicle sales tax to transportation needs and ending many transportation funding diversions.

– Stimulating private sector job growth by permanently decreasing the business “franchise” tax by $2 billion, combined with comprehensive reforms. 

– Providing property owners with $2.2 billion in property tax relief. 

– Using any revenue that exceeds initial estimates or a portion of any surplus cash to reduce state non-self-supporting debt.

– Preventing future overspending by passing a constitutional amendment ending the use of funds in statutorily dedicated accounts for budget certification; 

– Providing the governor expanded line-item veto authority to ensure prudent and sensible spending reductions.

In a set of official proclamations released Feb. 20, Abbott named five emergency items for state lawmakers to address without delay: (1) improvements to early education; (2) higher education research initiatives; (3) transportation funding; (4) border security funding; and (5) ethics reform. The Texas Constitution requires lawmakers to take action on the governor’s emergency items by March 13, the 60th day of the 140-day regular session of the 84th Texas Legislature.

With the governor’s wishes now expressed, committees in both houses of the Texas Legislature will continue to work on their own versions of a state budget for the next fiscal biennium. Those versions will have to be reconciled by the two bodies, and ultimately, with the governor, who has veto power.

Court rules on immigration

On Feb. 16, a Brownsville U.S. district judge issued a preliminary injunction, pending the outcome of a multi-state lawsuit, to stall an executive order President Obama issued last fall that would allow some five million undocumented immigrants to apply for work permits and avoid deportation.

In issuing the injunction, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen reasoned that the U.S. Administrative Procedure Act’s requirement that public notice and a public comment period did not take place before a change in U.S. immigration policy could take effect.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton lauded the ruling and noted in a Feb. 20 news release, “Texas leads a 26-state coalition fighting the president’s attempt to unilaterally grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.”

The Obama administration has filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for a stay of the district court’s injunction.

Same-sex marriage is conducted

Austin State District Judge David Wahlberg, citing “unconstitutional prohibitions against same-sex marriage” in Texas, gave Travis County the green light to proceed with official paperwork culminating in a marriage ceremony uniting two women on Feb. 19.

Attorney General Paxton quickly obtained a stay from the Texas Supreme Court that prevents same-sex marriages. Paxton also seeks to invalidate the one marriage that was conducted.

Gov. Abbott said, “Article 1, Section 32 of the Texas Constitution defines marriage as consisting ‘only of the union of one man and one woman’ and was approved by more than three-quarters of Texas voters. I am committed to ensuring that the Texas Constitution is upheld and that the rule of law is maintained in the State of Texas.”

The constitutionality of same-sex marriage is a matter pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. A ruling is expected by June 30.

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