We're off! But not exactly running.
The 83rd Texas Legislature convened Tuesday amid much pomp and circumstance. The 181 members of the Texas House and Senate took our oath of office, and the House wisely re-elected Joe Straus of San Antonio as speaker.
But the real work of the 140-day session is yet to come. My colleagues and I are anxious to get going, but the Texas constitution forbids a quick start out of the gate. In fact, bills cannot be passed during the first 60 days unless an emergency is declared by the governor.
For now, action on the House and Senate floors will be limited to resolutions and recognitions, and the legislative process will be focused in committees. But as the session moves forward, there will be plenty of time to conduct our business, and there's a lot that needs to be done.
The session began on a much more positive note than the one just two years ago, with Comptroller Susan Combs announcing the state will have $8 billion more than expected for the current biennium and $101.4 billion in general purpose funds for the next two-year spending period. That means lawmakers will be able to pay a $5 billion Medicaid bill left over from the last session and restore funds that were cut from public education in 2011. School funding will be the top priority for me this session, along with additional funding for child abuse prevention programs, and water and roadway infrastructure.
There seems to be a bipartisan consensus emerging to address the state's long-term water needs. As a member of the Natural Resources Committee, and the senator for a good portion of drought-prone West Texas, I support the growing call for spending at least $1 billion from the state's rainy day fund for the State Water Plan - a 50-year blueprint for water infrastructure projects and water use policies that focus on conservation and water quality.
The devastating drought of 2011 and a new dry spell that is taking hold of Texas tell us that the time for action is now. Texas cannot thrive without reliable sources of water for agriculture, industry, and municipalities. We must look to the future and put these forward-looking water-security policies in place.
Another fundamental need, particularly in and around energy-producing counties, is roadway repair and maintenance. I will carry legislation to create a road improvement fund comprised of oil and gas severance taxes and managed by the Texas Department of Transportation.
The resurgence of oil and gas production in South Texas and the Permian Basin has created thousands of jobs and spurred the state and local economies, but all that activity has taken a heavy toll on our roadways, and counties should not have to shoulder the burden of repair costs alone.
The resurging economy and the oil booms have replenished the state's coffers, including the rainy day fund. This gives state lawmakers an incredible opportunity to invest in Texas' future. There may be different visions of exactly what that future holds, but it's hard to imagine that any will be realized if we fail to protect and educate our kids, maintain our state highways and county roads, or ensure a safe, reliable water supply.
The starting gun has fired on the 83rd Legislature. The constitution doesn't let us get off in a sprint, but that's okay. With so much to accomplish, a marathon pace is better to get us where we want to go.