“We’re just going to have a real short, informal talk about what we did to you,” Texas state Sen. Kip Averitt told an audience at Waxahachie City Hall on Wednesday afternoon, providing his constituents with a summary of the 80th Legislature.
The 2007 session was “pretty unique,” Averitt said, noting the “unprecedented” turmoil revolving around the race for speaker of the House. Though Speaker Tom Craddick won the challenge made by local Rep. Jim Pitts at the session’s start, Averitt said he thought the challenge would bring about changes.
“I thought that (the challenge) would be a reality check for the speaker, but it turns out payment got canceled on that check,” Averitt said, noting another break from tradition for the Legislature was there was no traditional cooling-off period at the end of the session.
During a session’s last days, lawmakers traditionally don’t work on any new legislation, Averitt said, saying the time is used to review and make corrections to legislation.
This year, the House suspended the rules in order to work on and pass items “up to the last minute of the last day,” Averitt said, saying this resulted in no final review of legislation.
“So, come September when all these bills come into effect, we may find that somebody snuck something in there,” Averitt said.
Overall, the 80th Legislature was “a good session, and as far as District 22 is concerned, it was an excellent session,” the senator said.
As chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, Averitt was in charge of working on the budgets for several of the state’s agencies including Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
While the Legislature “is always going to be a compromise situation,” it did complete a number of accomplishments, Averitt said.
The Legislature fully funded water projects, the senator said, explaining the state will provide funds for the state water plan.
With the anticipated doubling of the state’s population within the next few decades, this move will work to ensure the state’s supply supports the growth.
One of the most important steps of this process is to put it into action, Averitt said. “It doesn’t do any good to plan if you don’t implement them.”
The Legislature was aggressive in working on air quality, Averitt said.
Noting that Ellis County is within the Dallas-Fort Worth attainment area, Averitt said the county is in compliance and the area is “on the cusp” of reaching attainment.
The Legislature has allocated $100 million to get older cars and trucks off the road, the senator said, saying 74 percent of air pollution in the DFW area is from sources such as cars, trucks, construction equipment and other motorized equipment.
A 2009 model year car produces 2 percent of the emissions a car manufactured in 1992 did, Averitt said. “Do that 40 or 50,000 times, and you’re making a serious dent.”
Cement plants and utilities will be expected to do better, the senator said, noting an “ultra-clean energy bill” encourages industry to meet 2020 standards today.
“If this is accomplished, Texas will have the cleanest energy generation in the country,” he said, noting the state is the nation’s leading producer of wind energy and has a goal to have 25 percent of its energy generated from renewable sources by 2025.
Lawmakers addressed the deterioration of the state’s parks and increased funding 80 percent, Averitt said, saying the additional funding “is extremely important.”
The funds will be used for repairs, maintenance and upgrades that have been backlogged, the senator said, adding that TPW has been provided a plan on how to run its operations to meet demand and needs.
Texas’ child healthcare program eligibility was reinstated to 12 months, Averitt said.
“When we passed the CHIP program back in the day, it was the best in the country,” and while the state previously cut back the program, Averitt said he is proud healthcare has been restored and that taking care of children’s health makes sense.
By receiving preventative care when they are young, costs later in their lives are reduced, he said, saying the program assists working families who can’t afford health insurance.
“There are three kinds of people on the finance committee,” Averitt said with a smile. “Those who can count and those who can’t.”
Joking aside, Averitt said budgeting “is a productive process and when you’re in the middle of it you can make things happen.”
The budget grew “a conservative $3.5 billion,” the senator said, saying funds went to priorities such as water, air and child healthcare.
From $5 to $6 billion of the $14 billion surplus will be used toward property tax cuts enacted during the last special session prior to the 80th Legislature’s convening, Averitt said.
When the state was faced with billions in budget shortfalls two sessions ago, the state took steps such as delaying payroll a day to put it on the next cycle and borrowing from the “rainy day fund,” the senator said.
The remaining surplus funds went to restoring that “rainy day fund” and getting state payroll back on schedule, Averitt said, adding that while some characterize such actions as “smoke and mirrors,” by taking the steps the state was able to address the shortfall and not raise taxes.
Averitt took questions from the audience on several topics.
On allowing video lottery terminals at racetracks, Averitt said the issue “didn’t even get on first base.” He said he would support their placement at the tracks because of the presence of law enforcement and lottery officials and the estimated $1 billion in additional revenue they could represent. He said he opposed VLTs beyond the tracks’ borders. Ellis County Farm Bureau president Eldon Sparkman asked if the topic of eminent domain would be brought up in the next session. It will, Averitt said, saying a bill supporting steps to ensure better and fairer compensation in eminent domain passed the Legislature “overwhelmingly” but failed to receive the governor’s approval. Relating to oil and gas exploration in the Barnett Shale, Averitt said the county needs to create a groundwater district to protect its resources, saying there will be “intense pressure” on groundwater in the coming years. The state has created incentives for oil and gas-drilling companies to purchase water-recycling equipment, he said. On transportation, it was asked if the state’s size was the reason Texas is building more roads and not encouraging public transportation. The space does play a role, Averitt said, saying, “We need more mass transit efforts.”
The state currently plans to pay for those roads by exacting tolls that would exceed the gas tax increase of 5 cents per gallon Averitt said he proposed.
The state needs to address the siphoning off of gas tax funds for other projects, a situation “to the point now where money from other funds is being siphoned to pay for roads,” Averitt said.
· Averitt also discussed his three-part water bill. The first article deals with environmental flows, the senator said, explaining that as more development occurs, more water makes its way downstream, causing ecological and economic concerns for communities near the mouths of rivers. The article calls for a scientific study to determine target levels for waterways and identified 16 “pristine river segments” in the state for preservation.
Article two concerns conservation and land stewardship, Averitt said, adding that while it is on a voluntary basis, the bill encourages landowners to use proper techniques to manage runoff. Article three designates 19 reservoir sites.
· Averitt noted Texas ranks last in the country in the number of people with health insurance and that the Legislature funded health care at community colleges, but “for some reason the governor had a burr under his saddle about it and vetoed half of it.” Responding to a question from Dr. Harold Nolte of Navarro College as to whether Petty intends to run again, Averitt replied, “I doubt it.”
In closing, Averitt said the good news is “no special sessions - so y’all are safe for the next year and a half.”
The continued issues regarding the speaker of the House and the contest that will likely ensue by those seeking the office could make for interesting times, but “we’re all about the love and the peace on the Senate side,” Averitt joked.
The senator encourages any constituents who have questions or issues to contact him at his office, saying, “I’m there and my job is to help you with your problems, so don’t be bashful.”
E-mail Anthony at Anthony.Trojan@waxahachiedailylight.com