AUSTIN, Texas -- A special session of the Texas Legislature is in full swing.
Lawmakers convened the special session Wednesday and immediately took steps to extend the life of several key state agencies.
Lawmakers want to wrap up the special session before the July Fourth holiday weekend.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry called the Legislature back to Austin to address three issues: preventing the agencies from expiring in 2010, authorizing $2 billion in bonds for road building and the transportation contracts. Lawmakers failed to approve those items in the regular session that ended June 1.
The Senate quickly passed the bill extending the Department of Transportation, the Department of Insurance and three other smaller agencies until Sept. 1, 2011. A House committee has passed the bill and the full chamber is expected to vote as early as Thursday.
Those agencies were supposed to be part of the normal renew and review process under Texas law during the regular session. But they got shoved aside when partisan bickering over a voter identification bill and a standoff on transportation funding stalled bills in the final days before lawmakers left town.
The road bonds issue also is expected to get easy approval on Thursday. The bonds were already approved by voters statewide in 2007.
The House sponsor of a measure that would allow the state to continue contracting for privately built toll roads said he's not sure the bill can pass before Friday - if at all.
State leaders have said they want to keep the special session short and hope to finish their business by Friday. But 1 of a trio of bills that Gov. Rick Perry wanted addressed may derail lawmakers' hopes of being finished in time for the July Fourth holiday on Saturday.
Officials said the toll road measure is only necessary to extend the timeline for toll road agreements made with private partnerships.
"The only reason we're doing this is for private toll roads? That can't be right," Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said during a committee hearing on the bill.
"Why is that so important but insurance reform is not? Or expanding the (Children's Health Insurance) Program for 300,000 children is not?"
Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, the bill's House sponsor, said he's not sure the bill has enough support to pass, but lawmakers also could address it during their next regularly scheduled session in 2011.
The measure is having trouble in the Senate as well
Several senators from North Texas were surprised to learn that three such projects already under way include one being built with federal stimulus money but drivers on a restricted lane will still pay tolls.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, suggested the bill may not pass his committee.
"I'm going to try, but it's the first two (bills) that we have to pass," Ogden said.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the Senate may be open to a version of the contracts bill that is limited only to a few projects set to be finalized in the next two years before lawmakers return for the 2011 session.
Opponents of such contracts worry they take control away from local governments. Supporters say they are needed to finance road projects that might not otherwise get built.
A temporary state representative was sworn in Wednesday.
Valerie Corte, wife of Rep. Frank Corte Jr., took the oath of office to fill the seat while her husband serves in military duty in Okinawa.
The San Antonio Republican, a Marine Corps Reserve colonel, serves as operations officer for the Marines' 3rd Civil Affairs Group. Valerie Corte also filled in for her husband in 2006, while he served in Iraq.
AFTER HOURS ROCKIN'
A cover band led by House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam is back in action.
The Bad Precedents, made up mostly of lawmakers and other Capitol types, wasted no time scheduling a gig to kick off the special session. The bipartisan rock band, known for their cover of the song "Low Rider," planned to play at a bar on Sixth Street Wednesday evening.
Proceeds from the event will go to the Austin Autism Society.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"I'm tired of this changing the terminology because the public doesn't like it. Every toll road is now a 'managed lane.' Now that's BS." - House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam of Waco, commenting on testimony from a Texas Department of Transportation official.
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