Other bills in wings at special session

By Peggy Fikac and Lisa Sandberg
San Antonio Express-News Austin Bureau
Web Posted: 06/27/2005 12:00 AM CDT

AUSTIN — Some see the current special legislative session on school funding as a new chance for other failed proposals, from judicial pay raises to university construction money to telecommunications changes.

But their only hope depends on passage of school and tax reforms, the only topic Gov. Rick Perry put on the agenda when he called lawmakers back here.

Unlike regular sessions, which occur every two years, the governor is the only one who can call special sessions and control what they're about. It's one of the office's few sources of real power and almost as significant as that other big one, the authority to sign bills into law or veto them.

If another stalemate develops over school funding and taxes — and early indications are pointing in that direction — a burning desire by some lawmakers to work on other topics could create an undercurrent favoring compromise. A special session can't last more than 30 days.

"All of those other issues are floating around in the legislative ether right now. None of those are going to be addressed until we address the most important issue in front of us, and that is the reforms of our public schools, the taxpayers' property tax reduction and the reforms for those taxpayers," Perry said as the session began last week.

"We're not going to talk about tuition revenue bonds (for university construction). We're not going to talk about judicial pay. We're not going to talk about a telecom bill. We're not going to talk about anything until this is finished," he said.

"At that particular point in time, I will be open to discussing expanding the call to some other issues that are important to the state, but not before this is done."

That doesn't mean lobbyists and lawmakers aren't trying. Phil Wilson, Perry's deputy chief of staff, said he's fielded calls about a number of issues.

"Some have asked for things such as telecom to be considered. Some have requested that telecom not be considered," he said.

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, whose telecommunications bill — and his strenuous efforts to attach the measure to other legislation — were defeated during the regular session, said he had high hopes the issue would be resurrected soon.

His proposal would make it easier for phone companies to enter the cable TV market, a concept backed by San Antonio-based phone giant SBC.

King said Perry told him Wednesday that he would allow it to be considered if lawmakers reach a school finance deal.

King, chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee, said he would hold hearings on the matter even as work on schools and taxes continues.

Others are pushing lawmakers to revisit the issue of providing more than $1 billion in state money for public university construction projects.

The Legislature's failure — on the regular session's last day — to reach consensus on that issue left university administrators around the state steaming, and it exacerbated tensions that already existed between the House and Senate.

Dozens of institutions were affected, including San Antonio's University of Texas Health Science Center, the proposed Texas A&M campus on the South Side and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst indicated that if there is a school finance deal, Perry would add tuition revenue bonds to his short list of items up for discussion.

"I'm going to start working on a draft bill," said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

But he said he feared that many of the same troubles that doomed the bill last month — too many projects, too little money — would resurface.

"It's a hard bill to carry," he said. "Everybody wants a lot."

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, said she had written to Perry to urge him to put the issue on the special session agenda.

UTSA is bursting at the seams to accommodate new students and "desperately" needs a building for its engineering program, she said in an e-mail.

"Room for students and additional faculty is essential if the university is to continue to be a top-flight university," McClendon said.

Faculty members at UTHSC "are working out of offices in temporary buildings, much like mobile homes," she added.

"If San Antonio is going to attract faculty of the highest quality, we need to place them in office spaces that allow them to connect to the best technology and to the best resources available."

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who has warned that Texas may lose judges if lawmakers don't raise their pay to keep pace with the times, said he's hoping lawmakers will reconsider that issue as well.

A judicial pay raise bill died in the regular session.

Because lawmakers' pensions are linked to judicial pay, their retirement also would be boosted if it passes.

"It has been clear to me since before the last regular session that the governor has been a proponent for ensuring that judges have the capacity to remain on the bench and that he has the ability to recruit new judges for vacancies," Jefferson said.

"If it can be done, it certainly should be for the sake of the state and for the judiciary and ultimately for Texans. ... I think it's an issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later."pfikac@express-news.net