Dispatches from the Dome

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of occasional columns—Dispatches from the Dome—providing a brief roundup of the week's work at the state Capitol.
Every day now, the Texas Capitol gets a little more crowded, a little louder, a little more energetic.

Why? Because the 83rd Legislative Session, after its first 40 days, is starting to pick up steam. The committees have been named, bills are being filed and special interest groups are starting to book the Capitol steps on a daily basis.

First floor debate set

Look to the House next week for the first action, when lawmakers take up an "emergency" supplemental budget bill that spends $4.8 billion right now to fill a gap in Medicaid funding from the last two years before the program runs out of cash midsession.

It is a fairly routine bill, and it cuts into the state's reported $8.8 billion cash surplus, but lawmakers said it was not unexpected.

It will not pass without a fight from the House Democrats, however. They support funding Medicaid but have also pushed state leaders to declare school finance an "emergency" matter and take it up right away.

Committee work

Senate committees have been meeting for a while now, but House committees start meeting in earnest next week—organizing their agendas and preparing to schedule public hearings on bills.

The Senate Nominating Committee made some headlines this week when it quizzed State Board of Education Chairwoman Barbara Cargill on whether her conservative political views would affect her decision making. (She said they would not.)

The committee will decide whether to confirm her nomination to return to the position—no small thing for a committee that has not approved an SBOE nominee since 2005. That vote is scheduled for next week.

Also, the House Transportation Committee heard from officials at the Texas Department of Transportation that the state needs $4 billion more in annual state funding to build and maintain necessary road projects.

Fewer bills

Some talk around the Capitol is about the fact that lawmakers have filed many fewer bills and resolutions than they normally do by this time in the legislative session, just around 2,700.

By the filing deadline last session, lawmakers had filed 10,315 bills and resolutions; they passed slightly more than half of them.

Plenty more bills could be filed by the March 8 deadline, but observers said they have been amazed at how slow the filing has been this session.

One reason is that the committees had yet to be organized, and because of a large freshman class and several committee leaders retiring after last session, most lawmakers were waiting for the shakeup before figuring out which bills to file and when.

There is also the intense focus this session on larger, more long-term projects—water, transportation, public education—that have taken attention away from smaller issues, another theory on why the filing is low right now.

Quote of the week

"I would have slept better last night if I knew we were going to do that." —House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, after his committee passed the supplemental budget bill unanimously.
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