The 83rd Legislature has begun, and while we don't know yet how the session will shape up, some broad contours have emerged. I am, as the saying goes, cautiously optimistic.
For one thing, we got off to a much better start than in past sessions. The Senate avoided a contentious battle that would have severely diminished the power of the minority and the comity that has been the hallmark of our chamber.
In past sessions, some members attempted to eliminate the 2/3rds rule. Simply put, this rule means that the full Senate cannot consider bills without approval of a 2/3rds majority. This allows all members to have a voice, which forces us to be more deliberative and considerate of all members' views. As our first order of business, we unanimously adopted the rules, including the 2/3rds rule.
We also received good news on the budget, which is at the core of the Legislature's obligations. The Comptroller projected that we will have $101.4 billion available.
Our state agencies have estimated their needs -- the baseline necessary to provide their current services -- at $96 billion per year. Budget writers have begun with annual expenses of $89 billion, but have signaled they are open to discussion. As Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams said to the Texas Tribune, this is a starting point based on last session "so that this Legislature can make the spending decisions."
I hope that we will have a sincere conversation about restoring education funding, which was cut by $5.4 billion last session. We can, and I believe will, do better by our children.
I also hope that we will give serious consideration to expanding Medicaid. Texas is a wonderful place, all the more so for those who have access to health care. But too many do not; again, we can do better.
There are many other issues that we will cram into this session: standardized testing, school vouchers, bilingual education, and early childhood programs; government transparency; women's health and family planning; transportation infrastructure; access to higher education; border affairs; gaming; business taxes; and managing energy and natural resources.
El Paso and our Big Bend region are affected by all these issues, by some more directly than others. For example, because our community has relatively low property values -- a situation that disproportionately affects border school districts -- education funding is vital to our future.
Then, there are community-specific goals, such as designating the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso -- which includes the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine and the Gayle Greve Hunt School of Nursing -- a standalone health sciences center, which will give us greater say in its future.
We also will attempt to get funding for buildings at Texas Tech and UTEP and take the steps necessary for UTEP to become a Tier One university, which would enhance our ability to "brain-gain," to attract both researchers and research grants.
And, since I now represent the Big Bend region, I also will work to strengthen another of our fine regional institutions of higher education, Sul Ross State University.
There is so much yet to come. I hope you will engage in the process, because there is so much at stake. Follow the issues in the news, contact my office, sign up for my newsletter (www.senatorjoserodriguez.com), and use the Legislature's resources (www.capitol.state.tx.us), which includes agendas, video, and documents.
With your involvement, we are building a New Texas, with opportunity for all its residents. I am proud to be part of this effort, and to represent the best of Texas, District 29.