While the 2015 legislative session is still months away (thank goodness), the Texas House of Representatives is already at work.
During the interim between legislative sessions, a great deal of work goes on to help prepare for the upcoming session.
I spent much of the past few weeks in Austin working on two issues that I feel are important to all Texans and especially to the residents of Denton County — earthquakes and highway funding. What could be more groundbreaking than that? (Pun intended.)
On May 12, the Energy Resources Subcommittee on Seismic Activity held our first meeting to investigate the recent increase in earthquakes in North Texas and throughout the rest of the state.
As chairwoman of the subcommittee, I have spent more time over the past few weeks learning about earthquakes than I ever dreamed I would, but it has been a most interesting exercise.
The subcommittee first heard from Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes and Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett.
Both mayors spoke about the series of earthquakes that began in late 2013 and continued through January 2014.
Most of the earthquakes that occurred in the Reno/Azle area have been relatively small in magnitude, but there is nothing minor about waking up to your house shaking in the middle of the night.
The people affected by these earthquakes deserve answers and my subcommittee is committed to addressing the problem.
We also heard from a number of experts in geology, seismology and oil and gas production. (I am pretty sure that at one point there were more Ph.D.s in the room than non-Ph.D.s.)
The testimony from the experts acknowledged that there is a correlation between the recent increase in oil and gas operations and recent increases in seismic activity.
However, the subcommittee was also reminded repeatedly that correlation is not causation.
One important fact that the seismologists and geologists agreed upon was hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” was almost certainly not the cause of earthquakes. Testimony centered more on the potential for disposal wells to increase the likelihood of an earthquake.
As the subcommittee continues to gather evidence and make recommendations, I expect disposal wells to be one of the areas we focus on moving forward.
The second issue that I have spent a great deal of time on this interim is highway funding and budget transparency.
During the 2013 legislative session, I was privileged to to be chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Budget Transparency and Reform.
The subcommittee was charged with making the Texas budget more transparent, and one of the key pieces of legislation to come out of the subcommittee was House Bill 7 by Rep. Drew Darby.
This legislation, combined with the hard work of the budget conference committee, helped reduce the reliance on dedicated accounts by $1.3 billion.
Dedicated accounts are simply areas of the budget where the money collected is designated or “dedicated” for a specific use.
For example, a portion of the sales tax collected on sporting goods sold in Texas is used to fund our state park system.
In some cases, the funds collected exceed the amount needed and/or spent for the intended purpose and over time large amounts of money collect in those dedicated accounts.
As the 2013 legislative session began, more than $5 billion was sitting unused in dedicated accounts. By the time that the final budget was approved, and for the first time in many years, the amount of money in dedicated accounts was actually reduced by more than $1 billion.
Speaker Joe Straus has called for the next step in budget transparency — ending diversions from the State Highway Fund. According to Straus, the Texas House will propose a budget next year that uses all of the money in the highway fund for transportation instead of sending some of those dollars to other state agencies.
Various taxes and fees, such as the gas tax and fees on drivers’ licenses, go into the State Highway Fund to pay for transportation. But for almost 80 years, some of that money has also helped fund agencies that are not directly related to transportation.
For example, the Department of Public Safety receives $813 million from the highway fund and another $243 million from the fund is used to pay for state employee benefits. Using the State Highway Fund exclusively for transportation would increase funding for roads by about $1.3 billion every two years.
The state of Texas is committed to fully funding the important work of our DPS officers, and it will be our job as legislators to fund our obligations within existing revenues.
As everyone in Denton knows, we certainly could use an increase in road funding, and as a legislator who has fought for increased transparency in the Texas budget, I applaud this approach to increase highway funding and improve transparency in the Texas budget.
Texas is blessed to have a Legislature that only meets for 140 days every two years and I am certainly glad for every day I get to spend in Denton rather than Austin.
However, my colleagues and I are hard at work addressing the pressing matters of Texas as we approach the 2015 legislative session.
REP. MYRA CROWNOVER has represented District 64 in the Texas House of Representatives since 2000. House District 64 includes Denton, Lake Dallas, Corinth, Shady Shores, Hickory Creek, Krum and the northwest part of Denton County.