Every Texan agrees wholeheartedly with House Bill 2021’s goal of increasing legislative oversight and decision-making power over significant infusions of federal aid that Texas receives when the Legislature is not in session. Starting in March 2020, over $16 billion in federal COVID-19 aid was allocated to Texas universities, teaching hospitals, and state agencies overseeing health, nutrition, employment, housing, public safety, and social services through two of the federal relief packages: the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and the CARES Act. This 40 percent increase in the “usual” amount of federal aid in the state budget – some of it provided in relatively flexible grants such as the $8 billion in Coronavirus Relief Funds for state government – took place with inadequate notification, input and involvement of the House and Senate members, even those on Appropriations and Finance Committees. This in turn made it difficult for legislators to help the public understand what resources were available to help our communities recover from the pandemic and the economic crisis it triggered. So while we agree that HB 2021 is a response to a clear and legitimate need for an improved federal funds interim budget execution process (beyond any in statute or the Appropriations Act Article IX, Sec. 13.02 Additional Federal Funding language, HB 1 as filed), the proposal as filed raises some concerns.
The first has to do with having only six elected officials on the new board, combined with the requirement of an affirmative vote of a majority of the board members from each chamber in order to adopt a proposal to use federal funds. This creates a potential scenario in which as few as two House or Senate members could vote “no” and prevent Texas from being able to access the federal aid. The public notice and hearing requirements in HB 2021 presumably are also how House and Senate members who are NOT on the board would have a chance to provide input before any final decisions are made, but increasing the size of the board to include two more Representatives and two more Senators is another option to consider.
Finally, Sec. 317.033 gives the board authority to propose accepting or rejecting “federal funds made available to state after the effective date of the [GAA] the availability of which could not have been reasonably anticipated or included in the act before its final passage by the legislature.” Every Texan is concerned that the intent is to include the CRRSA (Dec. 2020) $5.5 billion in aid for public schools, as well as the $30+ billion that the American Rescue Plan Act has allocated to Texas. We understand that the Legislature has many questions awaiting clarification from federal agency rules before final allocations can be made, but believe there is still time for the full House and Senate to at least create a framework that ensures these critically needed dollars start flowing to our communities as expeditiously and equitably as possible.