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Committee Appointments Signal Real Opening Bell for 83rd Session

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OpeningBellSpeaker Joe Straus has a much more perplexing challenge than his counterpart on the other side of the Capitol, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. After all, the tall, genial Houstonian, first elected to preside over the Senate in 2002, has only thirty-one senators in his charge. Poor Straus, of San Antonio, recently elected to his third term as Speaker without dissent, has 149 other members he has try to herd. And another big difference is Straus is chosen by his peers and Dewhurst is elected by the voters.

The last election cycle one was an unusual one for the Senate in that five members of that body (four voluntarily and one by voter choice) did not return from the 82nd session. Each of the departed chaired a committee. So, Dewhurst had those five empty slots with which to play his musical committee chairs contest. He began the process after the primaries were done last summer by naming Tommy Williams of the Woodlands to lead the Senate Finance Committee. Later in the fall he filled Sen. Williams' vacated slot at the Transportation Committee with Robert Nichols of Jacksonville. After the session began in January, the Lt. Gov. completed the lineups by adding two new members to the Finance Committee, Glenn Hegar of Katy and Joan Huffman of Houston. Joining Nichols on the Transportation Committee for the first time are Dan Patrick, Houston; Carlos Uresti, San Antonio; Donna Campbell, New Braunfels; Kelly Hancock, Fort Worth; and Ken Paxton, McKinney. The latter three are all freshmen members, and Paxton will serve as vice chairman. (Incidentally, should you ever be on the Senate side of the Capitol and not remember a Senators' name, shout out, “Mister (or Madam) Chairman!” and chances are very good that the Senator will reply. With one vacancy currently because of the death of Senator Mario Gallegos, the senate has thirty members and each one is a chairman or vice-chairman. How's that for being inclusive?)

Mr. Straus’ leadership skills were amply tested and proven as he had the thorny job of replacing more than a dozen committee chairs. Some of these vacancies were due to retirement and a handful were caused by an ousted incumbent. The normally lengthy process of committee assignments was likely enhanced by the fact that forty-one members are serving in the freshman class.

The House Transportation Committee is again chaired  by Larry Phillips of Sherman; Larry has served on the Committee for his entire career which started in 2003. Joining him in returning to the committee are his vice-chairman Armando (Mando) Martinez, of Weslaco; Joe Pickett, of El Paso; Linda Harper Brown, of Irving; Ruth Jones McClendon, of San Antonio; and Yvonne Davis, of Dallas. New to the committee this session will be Cindy Burkett of Mesquite, Debbie Riddle of Houston and freshman Bobby Guerra of McAllen. Departing the committee is former vice chairman Drew Darby of San Angelo. Mr. Darby will chair the Redistricting Committee and will, even more importantly, continue in his previous role as Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees TxDOT. Joining Mr. Darby on this critical subcommittee will be John Raney, Bryan, vice chairman; Trent Ashby, Lufkin; Cecil Bell, Magnolia; Bryan Hughes, Mineola; Marisa Marquez, of El Paso; and Sergio Munoz, Jr., Mission. Raney, Ashby, and Bell are all freshmen.

Speaker Straus again selected Jim Pitts of Waxahachie to lead the all-important Appropriations Committee; never one to beat around the bush, he held a hearing on January 31, the same afternoon the committees were announced. Because of the earlier naming of committees, its Senate counterpart already had several hearings under its belt by that date. This year, the state funding bill started in the Senate, SB 1 (the two houses alternate each biennium), but the House will initiate the Supplemental Appropriations Bill. By the time you read this, the Supplemental Bill will be signed by Gov. Rick Perry. This bill was required by last session's bill, which shorted the state Medicaid costs by about $4 billion and those bills of hospitals, doctors, and others in the medical field will come due by this March. State leaders rightly counted on a much healthier financial picture for the state than during the last state budget cycle. In fact, in his state of the state message Gov. Perry advocated using $3 billion of the Rainy Day Fund to build roads and construct water related facilities. This is a far cry from his "hands off" approach of two years earlier. Doubtless the state's huge surge in energy exploration and production has created a stouter revenue stream for Texas. With that good news has come some really serious damage to roads in several of the heavy shale production areas. Several bills have been filed to develop a strategy to fund repair of these damaged areas. Answers to these and many other perplexing questions will have to be resolved soon to meet the legislature's closing date of May 27.

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