Week In Review
Gov. Perry Stresses Education in State of the State Address
AUSTIN - Governor Rick Perry delivered his first State of the State address to a Joint Session of the Texas Legislature on Wednesday, January 24, in a packed House Chamber.
Among the lawmakers and guests was state royalty, Miss Texas 2000 Tara Watson of Lufkin, who was at the Capitol as a guest of Sen. Todd Staples of Palestine.
Perry opened by speaking about the recent capture of the fugitives who escaped from the John Connally Unit in Kenedy on December 13.
"We are thankful for the work of thousands of law enforcement officials and concerned citizens in bringing this manhunt to an end," Perry said, "and we are currently working in conjunction with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office to extradite the six felons back to Texas for trial."
Following the news of the inmates' capture, Perry began his address by stressing the current "strong and vibrant" condition of the state, but offered a caution for the future.
"But no one should be mistaken as I stand before you," Perry said. "I am not here merely to discuss the state of the state, but the state of our future. And as we look into the future, we should not ignore some warning signs."
Perry touched on several key issues, including transportation, health care and infrastructure, before unveiling the centerpiece of his address.
"These are the challenges worthy of our every vigilant effort," Perry said. "And that effort starts with education."
Among other proposals, Perry called for increased investment in both public and higher education, including using almost $700 million in capital gains from the Permanent School Fund to improve educators' pay and benefits. Perry also called for increased funding to state grants in hopes of increasing college enrollment numbers.
To prepare for the future, Perry reminisced about the past: "My fellow Texans, the challenges before us are nothing more than opportunities. Our history is rich with examples of men and women who were undaunted by the adversity of their time."
Senate Adopts Resolution Calling for 'Border Czar'
The Senate on Wednesday, January 24, unanimously voted to adopt Senate Concurrent Resolution (SCR) 16, a petition to President Bush to appoint a "border czar." SCR 16 was sponsored by Waco Senator David Sibley, the chair of the Business and Commerce Committee, and 27 co-sponsors.
Secretary of State Henry Cuellar and Lt. Governor Ratliff joined more than a dozen members of the Senate in calling on President Bush to appoint a "border czar," who would coordinate U.S.-Mexico border affairs as a member of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Supporters of the measure said increased traffic and trade between the U.S. and Mexico since the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 now make it necessary to look from a different perspective at how the two countries conduct business.
According to the Texas Center for Border Economic and Enterprise Development, trade between the U.S. and Mexico has grown from $87.4 billion in 1994 to an estimated $214 billion last year.
Upon Senate passage of the resolution, Lt. Governor Ratliff offered praise for Sibley and SCR 16: "Sen. Sibley, I think you're to be commended for this initiative." On Thursday, the House of Representatives informed the Senate that the lower chamber had also approved the measure, which will now be sent to President Bush.
Senators Discuss 2001 Legislative Priorities
Members of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus presented their agenda for the 2001 Legislative Session at a Capitol press conference on Tuesday, January 23.
Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, the group's chair, said he and his fellow Democrats expect the bi-partisan tradition of the Texas Senate to continue.
"We're optimistic about this session," Barrientos said. "We are confident we'll have a good working relationship with (Lt.) Governor (Bill) Ratliff and our other Republican colleagues. Whether Democrats or Republicans, we all want what's best for Texas."
The Democratic Caucus' agenda focuses on education, health care, criminal justice, and border issues as well as state employee pay raises and environmental issues.
"It looks like a lot of good ideas," said Waco Sen. David Sibley, the chair of the Senate Republican Caucus. But Sibley questioned where the money to fund many of the initiatives would come from.
Sen. Shapleigh Files Bill to Fund Teacher Health Insurance
El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh on Thursday, January 25, announced the filing of Senate Bill (SB) 389, designed to fund insurance coverage for every teacher, school employee and retiree.
SB 389 would provide benefits comparable to those state employees receive. Shapleigh said his plan would provide educators with better insurance for less money. Under SB 389, individual coverage would be provided without charge, with dependent coverage at one half of cost.
According to figures released by Shapleigh's office, 43 percent of teachers are considering leaving the profession, citing low pay and poor benefits. And 42 percent of teachers work second jobs.
Shapleigh said the bulk of the funding for the $3 billion plan would have no impact on Texas' General Revenue. The plan calls for money already earmarked to education to be redirected toward insurance, leaving $100 million, or 10 percent of the expected budget surplus, to come from General Revenue funds.
Representatives from Texas Classroom Teachers Association, the Texas State Teachers Association and the Texas Association of Professional Educators endorsed Shapleigh's plan.
Sen. Haywood Bill Seeks Statewide Agriculture Policy
Wichita Falls Sen. Tom Haywood on Monday, January 22, announced the filing of SB 331, which calls for a statewide agriculture policy.
"Agriculture has been a stalwart in our state's history, heritage and economy," Haywood said. "It has been a critical element in our economic, cultural and historical development as well as a vital component of a diversified state economy and a self-renewing natural resource."
SB 331 is based on the findings of the Joint Agriculture Policy Committee, which was charged with developing a sound agricultural policy for Texas in the 21st century. The committee examined the condition of agriculture, the state's current programs in support of agriculture, and the role of the state in preserving the agriculture industry.
The bill addresses 16 specific areas of interest in the agriculture industry, ranging from water availability to state tax policy. The legislation also proposes improvements to rural economic and infrastructure development as well as research and education efforts.
Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff voiced his support of SB 331, calling the measure "long overdue," and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs joined the bill authors in stressing the importance of agriculture to the Texas economy.
Sen. Bivins Files Business, Education Legislation
Sen. Teel Bivins of Amarillo announced his filing of SB 344 on Tuesday, relating to the oil and gas severance tax and other issues. Bivins said the intent of SB 344 is designed to provide a sliding scale for collecting severance taxes for oil and gas, with the goal of preventing Texas' oil and gas producers from facing a crisis similar to the one of the late 1990s, when the Legislature passed SB 290, an emergency measure that temporarily exempted producers from paying severance taxes while oil and gas prices were critically low.
On Thursday, Bivins announced that he was filing SB 385. The bill is designed to better prepare Texas high school students or college and the modern workplace by making the college preparatory curriculum the standard in all Texas high schools by 2004.
Senate Committee Schedule Intensifies
The number of Senate committee meetings increased significantly, with most meeting this week. Finance, Jurisprudence, Natural Resources, State Affairs, and Redistricting were among the committees conducting business.
The intensified committee schedule signals a quickening pace for the Texas Senate.
"I think you'll see the committees gear up now and we'll get some work done," Lt. Governor Ratliff said Monday.
The Texas Senate stands adjourned until 1 p.m. Monday, January 29, 2001.