AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Lawmakers at the State Capitol wrapped up their first week back at work. While much of the first week was taken up with ceremonial events and procedural work, there were moments of tense debate.

There was little debate surrounding the reelection of Rep. Dade Phelan as Speaker of the House. The Beaumont Republican won the post in a 143-3 vote. After the vote, Phelan laid out some of his priorities for the House.

“Texans want a reliable supply of water, resiliency from flooding, dependable energy and high-speed internet across this great state. They want exceptional schools with exceptional teachers,” Phelan said. “With a once-in-a-lifetime budget surplus, now is the time to put a down payment on the future of Texas.”

He also spoke about the need for legislation in the wake of last year’s deadly school shooting in Uvalde.

“I want to remember the families,” Phelan said. “We can find sensible, meaningful change.”

One day after the vote, some of the most conservative lawmakers in the House pushed to change the practice of the speaker appointing Democrats to chair committees. Committee chairs have power to control what legislation advances to the floor for a vote.

Some Republicans argue that since their party has majority control of the House, Democrats should not be given the ability to have the power that comes with chairmanships.

On Wednesday, as House members voted on the rules for the chamber, Representatives Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) and Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) filed amendments to prevent Democrats from being able to chair committees.

The amendments failed, some by floor votes, others killed by points of order raised by both Democrats and Republicans in the chamber. On Thursday, a group of Republican supporters, wearing red, rallied outside the Capitol, urging the lawmakers to continue their fight.

“After yesterday, it’d almost be hard to believe there’s any Republicans in Texas,” Slaton told the group. He told the group the fight is far from over.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) says he’s ready for the fights to come. He leads the House Democratic Caucus.

“We will use every page of our rule book, every comma, every colon, every subchapter, to defend the values of people for the people in this state,” Fischer said.

But Fisher also expressed a willingness to work with Republicans, in particular on ways to make sure the state’s record budget surplus is used to benefit constituents. Some of the Republicans who pushed to limit the power of Democrats in the chamber also voiced the need for bipartisanship.

Freshman State Rep. Nate Schatzline (R-Fort Worth) told supporters that, following his anti-abortion beliefs, he would push for legislation to bring down the cost of adoptions in Texas.

“That bill is going to take bipartisan support,” Schatzline said. “I’m here to tell you that that’s okay for us to work with people across the aisle when it comes to issues where we can,” he continued.

Schatzline also told the crowd he supports legislation to ban abortion pills and gender affirmation surgery, issues where there’s little likelihood of getting support from Democrats.

“On other issues, we’re going to war, and you have my commitment on that,” said Schatzline said to cheers from the Republicans gathered outside the Capitol.

Lawmakers move to temporarily attach Texas Veterinary Board to another state agency

Just one day after the 88th legislative session gaveled in, legislative staff have already tasked lawmakers with taking a closer look at the future of a state agency plagued with problems: the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.

In a report released this week, staff for the Sunset Advisory Commission offered “options” for deciding how to move forward with the agency in charge of licensing and regulating Texas animal doctors. The report comes after years of issues with “unreliable and inconsistent data collection and management practices” that Sunset staff said have “undermined” the agency’s enforcement efforts and prevented it from meeting “basic expectations.”

In 2022, KXAN investigators discovered dozens of disciplinary documents were missing from the agency’s public licensee look-up website, which could prevent pet owners from seeing a veterinarian’s disciplinary history. KXAN also found a backlog of complaints tied up in the agency’s review process.

These issues persisted at the TBVME, following three different Sunset Advisory Commission reviews over the last six years that “repeatedly documented” similar data and management issues.

In the last year, several top leaders at the TBVME stepped down, leaving a new executive director and board president to face the Sunset Advisory Commission in a hearing on Thursday. This group of lawmakers, along with the commission’s staff, routinely review the effectiveness and performance of state agencies.

Lawmakers on the commission voted to move forward with one of the Sunset options, which would temporarily attach the TBVME to a different state agency, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR), for the next four years.

With this route, TDLR will “provide policymaking and administrative oversight” to the Veterinary Board. TBVME staff would shadow TDLR staff, who could also advise on how to procure a new database. The Veterinary Board members would act as an advisory board to TDLR on these matters.

  • Read the full Sunset report on the TBVME here

The entire legislature will need to approve this recommendation from the Sunset Commission, but the Chairman, Senator Charles Schwertner, said he felt like this was a necessary step in the right direction.

“The Vet Board needs improvement across the board, and I think TDLR will give the tools, oversight, manpower, and the direction that they need to take,” he said.

During discussion, lawmakers emphasized that the goal of the arrangement would be for the veterinary agency to come back under Sunset review in 2027, and ultimately regain full control over its current duties and operations.

Sunset staff offered other potential suggestions for consideration, including the creation of an interagency work group to provide guidance to the TBVME and the adoption of several specific oversight recommendations to ensure the agency addresses its issues.

The work group, it suggested, would be comprised of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, the Texas Medical Board, the State Board of Pharmacy, the Department of Information Resources, and both major universities in the state with veterinary medicine programs: the Texas Tech University System and Texas A&M University.

Under the final option, Sunset staff laid out specific statutory changes that it says should be addressed, regardless of what other action is taken.

These include requiring the agency to develop consistent methods for collecting, tracking, and analyzing trends in its complaints, require the agency to prioritize complaints based on the risk they pose to the public, and require the agency to publish more information on its website — including accurate disciplinary histories for the veterinarians licensed by TBVME.

Border visits bring new calls for solutions to address migrant crossings

On the day President Biden completed his first presidential visit to the southern U.S. border, the people seeking asylum and warmth outside of the Sacred Heart Church in El Paso expressed hope that he would take away a glimpse of their reality.

“We know that we broke the law,” said John Carrasquero, who moved away from his young daughter in Venezuela and crossed into the U.S. illegally seven days ago. “But if we have an opportunity we can make a difference in things. For example, I would like to work, because I have a family. I would like to help my family, also myself, to change my life.”

The Sacred Heart Church has been a refuge for migrants since the city saw a sharp rise in border crossings late last year. Even though the crowds shrank substantially in the last few weeks, hundreds of people still wait there for aid.

Some queued for scant boxes of donated bananas and pan dulce, as young children rolled toys along a sidewalk lined with sleeping bags. One man rested under the shade of city trashcans as he shined a sign that read “We are human.”

“It has been a blessing, but it’s also been overwhelming,” Pastor Timothy Perea said. “The blessing is that we’re able to collect local communities, churches, to come together and provide shelter, food, clothing, hope, whatever they need.”

After Air Force One landed in El Paso, Biden met Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on the airport tarmac, where Abbott presented the President with a letter critical of the President’s policies. “Your visit to our southern border with Mexico today is $20 billion too little and two years too late,” the letter read in part.

While en route to the El Paso County Migrant Services Center, Biden’s motorcade made an unexpected stop at the border fence and looked through the wire at the city of Juarez.

“They need a lot of resources. We’re going to get it for them,” said Biden, responding to a press question about Abbott’s letter.

The President was joined by Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso. She called the visit productive and hoped it would be a step toward getting funding and changes needed along the border.

“The other thing that has impacted what we’ve seen in El Paso is really a lack of modernizing investment and a lack of modernizing our laws,” Escobar said at a news conference following the visit.

Biden toured the migrant center, which processes 300-500 migrants each day. He did not see the scene outside Sacred Heart. Critics of his visit claimed that clean-up efforts and security sweeps before the President’s arrival prevented him from seeing the magnitude of the issues brought on by the number of migrants crossing into El Paso.

Art Del Cueto, Vice President of the National Border Patrol Council, voiced frustration with the visit. “You can continue cleaning it up, continuing the dog and pony show. We’re not going to get nowhere in this administration. We’re not going to get nowhere with fixing the problem,” Del Cueto said.

President Biden left El Paso after a few hours, heading to Mexico City for meetings with the leaders of Canada and Mexico. At a news conference after those meetings, he spoke about the importance of working with other countries to address migration.

“We’re going to continue our efforts to address the root causes of migration,” Biden said. He referenced a $4 billion request to Congress to provide funding to help decrease violence and cut poverty in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Those are the home countries of many of the migrants coming to the U.S.

“We can do it by preventing people from wanting to have to leave in the first place by helping their communities, in fact, better their circumstances,” Biden added.

On Monday, a delegation of eight U.S. Senators visited the El Paso area, touring some of the same areas visited by President Biden. Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn said it’s time for Congress to act.

“Our system’s broken and it’s our responsibility, even in this polarized political environment, to try to come up with solutions,” Cornyn said.

Record surplus complicates Texas budget debate

Texas is entering the 2023 legislative session with a record-setting $32.7 billion budget surplus, the state’s top revenue estimator Glenn Hegar announced Monday, setting the stage for lawmakers to make major investments into their priorities while complicating the debate over what those priorities should be.

Comptroller Hegar’s Biennial Revenue Estimate reports Texas has $188.2 billion available to spend over the next two years, more than ever before and 26.3 percent more than the last biennium.

“This is truly a historical, once-in-a-lifetime budgeting session,” Comptroller Hegar said. “They have bigger opportunities to make impacts that impact Texans today that are struggling with inflation, or impact the future generations as they come forward with long-term decisions they’re going to make in the next 140 days. It’s truly what I deem a once-in-a-lifetime session.”

Hegar says massive spikes in sales tax revenue are most responsible for the cash flow into the state treasury being “beyond what anyone could have ever imagined.”

Sales tax collections make up 53 percent of the general revenue funds for the next two years, largely due to inflated prices that Hegar says have caused Texans to spend an extra $45 billion on taxable goods in the last year. He estimates sales tax revenues will climb 9.1 percent over the last biennium, to nearly $88 billion.

A 12 percent spike in oil production tax collections and a nearly 5 percent increase in motor vehicle-related taxes also contribute to the record estimate.

Hegar cautions lawmakers that despite the optimistic budget forecast, he also expects Texas to experience a mild recession this year. He urges lawmakers to prioritize one-time investments that will not require reoccurring expenses in less flexible sessions.

“Let’s be prudent, let’s make very important decisions for today and for the future, but also know that the budget of today won’t always be there two years from now,” Hegar said. “That’s the biggest cautionary tale that I can make sure to stress to the legislature and to the public.