AUSTIN, Texas — Following a week of wobbly talks over a new Texas budget, House and Senate negotiators met publicly Monday to settle some of the fine print and described making "very positive" progress in private about big-ticket items.
There are two weeks left to strike a deal on those major spending items — education, water, transportation and tax cuts — or else the Republican-controlled Legislature could roll into a special summer session.
House leaders suspended negotiations for multiple days last week over differences not about what to prioritize — or even how much to spend — but instead the methods of finance. The stalemate has raised the possibility of the Legislature being pushed into overtime for the fifth time in seven 140-day sessions under Gov. Rick Perry.
Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner, the No. 2 budget-writer in the House, wouldn't go so far as to predict a compromise, but sounded a hopeful tone following an hour-long public meeting between the 10 negotiators.
"The conversations have been very positive, respectful, and quite frankly I'm optimistic," Turner said.
He added: "Today was a significant step forward. But I would tell you, we are a long way from home."
Those significant steps Monday included agreeing on some of the relatively smaller items in a budget that, on paper, calls for about $100 billion in state spending. It includes a 12 percent pay hike for state judges, as well as closing some prisons and giving widely expected yet tentative approval to re-funding the state's embattled $3 billion cancer-fighting agency.
The money was in jeopardy after a series of controversies within the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, last year. So long as a major reform bill clears final passage, CPRIT would be fully funded for 2014-15 with $595 million for research and business grants.
"I still believe that (CPRIT) is one of the best things the Legislature has done in the past years," said Republican state Sen. Jane Nelson, who sponsored the bill that will mandate the ouster of the agency's entire 11-member oversight board.
Budget negotiators adjourned Monday without taking up spending for education and health care, the two biggest expenses in the state budget. Public schools that were stripped of $5.4 billion in 2011 are poised to win back at least $3 billion under either the House or Senate plan.
Yet how to pay for those rollbacks, plus $2 billion for a state new water fund, is causing an impasse. Perry has also told lawmakers he won't sign a budget without significant tax cuts, and is using $1.8 billion in relief as the bull's-eye.
The Senate wants voters in November to approve tapping the state's Rainy Day Fund to pay for priciest budget items. House leaders, however, see that as punting on the task of governing, and have instead floated the idea of busting the state's spending cap to draw down the rainy day money itself.
"I don't want to go beyond it either," Turner said of the spending cap. "But I want water. And I do believe we need to do more on transportation. And I do believe we need to do more on education. If someone can show us how to get there and stay below the spending cap ... I'm all ears."
TEXAS HOUSE APPROVES MORTON CRIMINAL JUSTICE BILL
The House on Monday approved the Michael Morton Act, a measure designed to prevent wrongful convictions and named in honor of a Texan who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
It would create a uniform "open file" policy in Texas, compelling prosecutors to share case files with defense attorneys that can help defendants' cases.
Morton, 58, was sentenced to life in prison for the 1986 slaying of his wife Christine, but freed in October 2011, after DNA testing was done on a bloody bandanna originally found near the couple's Austin home. Investigators said the DNA evidence led them to another man, Mark Alan Norwood, whose DNA was in a national database as a result of his long criminal history.
Norwood was convicted in March and sentenced to life in prison for killing Christine Morton. He also has been indicted in a 1988 slaying of another woman who lived near the Mortons.
The district attorney at Morton's trial, Ken Anderson, now a state district judge in Georgetown north of Austin, is accused of deliberately withholding evidence from the defense that indicated Morton's innocence.
On April 19, a court of inquiry — a special proceeding to determine wrongdoing by court officials — determined that Anderson acted improperly during Morton's trial. He is now facing criminal contempt and tampering with evidenced and government records charges.
The version of the bill passed in the lower chamber is unchanged from the one the state Senate passed unanimously last month. It must clear a final, procedural House vote before it heads to Gov. Rick Perry to be signed into law.
TEXAS HOUSE VOTES TO WEAKEN UNIVERSITY REGENTS
Texas lawmakers moved to assert more control over state higher education on Monday when the House voted to require that most university regents be appointed while lawmakers are in session, and limit their powers to fire campus presidents.
University system regents are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Lawmakers upset with University of Texas regents appointed by Gov. Rick Perry and attempts by some board members to oust Austin campus President Bill Powers, moved to rein in their powers.
Powers, who has held the job since 2006, has clashed with regents on various issues, including tuition costs and the roles of teaching and research at the university, for more than two years.
Under the bill given preliminary House approval Monday, regents' terms would be staggered so that all regular appointments would be made during legislative sessions in odd-numbered years. That would allow the Senate to immediately hold confirmation hearings and limit the governor's ability to stack a board with off-year appointments who could spend more than a year voting on school matters before they are confirmed.
Off-year appointments could still be made if a regent leaves their post.
The bill also would bar regents from firing campus presidents without a recommendation from the system chancellor. And regents would be required to undergo training for ethics and federal student privacy laws.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the chairmen of the Senate and House higher education committees. It still needs final House approval before it goes back to the Senate, which previously passed a similar version.
Perry has not publicly indicated if he will support the bill or veto it. Branch said he worked with Perry's office to find a compromise bill the governor could accept.
BILL CRACKING DOWN ON TEEN TANNING CLEARS HOUSE
The Texas House has approved raising to 18 the minimum age for using a tanning facility.
The bill by Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman cleared the Senate last month. The lower chamber used a voice vote Monday to pass it.
The measure must clear a final, procedural House vote before heading to Gov. Rick Perry.
The current minimum age is 16 1/2 with parental permission. Supports say it should be raised to help reduce skin cancer.
A bill analysis reports that there are about 70,000 new cases of invasive melanoma annually, and the disease is one of main causes of cancer deaths in women between 25 and 30.
The bill is supported by doctors but opposed by the tanning industry and conservatives who call it an erosion of "parental rights."
HOUSE OKS ETHICS BILL SENATE TRIED TO RECALL
The Texas House has approved requiring the disclosure of donors to some tax-exempt, politically active organizations.
The bill would crack down on what supporters call political "dark money" but has been opposed by tea party groups.
Passing it 99-46 Monday may have sent a purely symbolic message, though, since the bill could still be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.
When the Senate approved it, so many grassroots groups bristled that tea party-backed Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston took the unusual step of trying to recall it. But the House had already begun working on it.
Repeated attempts to then amend the bill on the House floor, thus killing it by forcing it to conference committee, also failed.
Democrats and moderate Republicans say it increases transparency. Opponents maintain its anti-free speech.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"I think Kumbaya's about to be over." - Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, following a Democratic caucus meeting. The lack of acrimony so far this year has prompted some to call it the "Kumbaya session."