WEEK IN REVIEW
State Worker Pay a Hot Topic at the Capitol
AUSTIN - Pay raises for employees of the State of Texas was a topic on many minds at the Capitol on Wednesday, January 31, 2001.
The Finance Committee held a special hearing at 7 p.m. Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis, the chair of the committee, said the idea behind the timing was so state workers could testify without having to miss work. Wednesday's hearing was the first time the Senate Finance Committee has held a public hearing at night.
More than 200 persons, ranging from budget experts to state workers to lobbyists, packed the Finance Committee hearing room and parts of two overflow rooms for the unprecedented night-time hearing. Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Houston Sen. Jon Lindsay at one point left the hearing room to speak with the state workers in the overflow rooms. Senators Carlos F. Truan and Eddie Lucio, Jr. also personally visited with state employee groups.
The committee also heard from representatives from Motorola and Southwest Airlines, who told the senators about great lengths to which private-sector employers go to attract and retain top employees.
After hearing from numerous expert witnesses, the panel took testimony from among the scores of state workers who were at the Capitol for the hearing. Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos is heading an informal working group of the Finance Committee to study the pay raise issue.
Jane McFarland, the chair of the Small State Agency Task Force, a group of approximately 75 agencies with fewer than 100 employees, told the committee members that employee turnover is a major problem.
"Turnover is very critical for these small agencies," McFarland said. "We believe low pay is at the heart of this turnover."
The subject of state employee pay first came up Wednesday in a morning press conference, where the Texas Public Employees Association (TPEA) called on the Senate Finance Committee to include an across-the-board 8.25 percent increase in each year of the 2002-2003 biennium.
The Senate Finance Committee, along with the House Appropriations Committee, writes the legislation each session that sets budgets for all state agencies and outlines Texas' general spending priorities for the following biennium, or two-year period. The Finance Committee will hear testimony from every state agency and countless other groups throughout the session.
TPEA Executive Director Gary Anderson said reports issued last year by the State Auditor's Office indicate that high employee turnover is costing Texas several hundred million dollars in recruitment and training costs. Anderson said the high turnover is caused by experienced workers leaving state jobs for higher-paying jobs in the private sector.
Senators Tom Haywood of Wichita Falls, a member of the Finance Committee, and Todd Staples of Palestine and State Rep. Elliott Naishtat of Austin joined Anderson at the press conference. Staples said finding a way to give state employees a pay raise should be a high budget priority this session.
"I think we all realize that the wheels of state government turn because of dedicated men and women who provide a valuable service to all Texans," Staples said. "And, clearly, this is the correct approach to take to provide reasonable and rational solutions."
Ellis later told reporters that he agrees that state employees should get a pay raise, but cautioned that the 2002-2003 budget will be tight.
"A top priority for all of us in state government is to try and avoid a potential crisis in terms of the turnover rate among state employees," Ellis said. "I think that state employees are some of the hardest-working individuals in the state of Texas. We did give them a modest pay raise last session, not nearly as much as we would like to have given, but we did make some progress. And I'm hopeful, depending on resources, that we can make even more progress this session."
Ellis said he would like to be able to fund an across-the-board pay raise combined with targeted increases in areas with particularly high turnover. He added that the Finance Committee has formed an informal working group to study the turnover rates and determine how effective pay raises would be in reducing turnover. A prison guard pay increase is also a top priority, Ellis said.
Following the special nighttime hearing that ended at 11 p.m. Wednesday, it was right back to work at 8 a.m. on Thursday for the Senate Finance Committee.
Committee Conducts Meeting in Spanish
In another first for the Texas Senate, the Business and Commerce Committee conducted its organizational meeting completely in Spanish on Tuesday to stress the importance of being bilingual as trade between the United States and Mexico continues to grow. For the non-Spanish speakers on the committee and in the audience, the meeting was translated into English and the text made available on a television monitor.
School Safety Legislation Takes Aim at Campus Violence
Plano Sen. Florence Shapiro filed legislation Monday that proposes to establish permanent funding for The Texas School Safety Center.
Located in San Marcos, the Texas School Safety Center is a joint effort of the Criminal Justice Division of the Governor's Office and Southwest Texas State University. The center provides educators with training and technical assistance aimed at reducing school violence and promoting safety. More than 2,100 Texas educators have received training since the center opened in 1999. The center also maintains an interactive web site that focuses on school safety and violence prevention. The center's web address is www.txssc.swt.edu.
"The Texas School Safety Center has been doing a great job, but has been funded by a grant from the Criminal Justice Division of the Governor's Office," Shapiro said. "In effect, what we're saying here today is that we, as state leaders, recognize the center's success and the good things they do for Texas schoolchildren."
According to the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, police in 1998 referred to the commission an average of one juvenile violent crime every 90 minutes, a homicide every four days, a sexual assault every 5 1/2 hours, an aggravated assault or attempted homicide every 2 1/2 hours, a burglary every 66 minutes and a drug referral every 47 minutes.
Nationwide, more than 250,000 students between the ages of 12 and 18 were victims of violent crimes ranging from sexual assault to robbery to aggravated assault in 1998, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In session following the announcement of SB 430, the Senate unanimously approved Shapiro's Senate Concurrent Resolution 112, proclaiming January 29, 2001, Texas School Safety Day.
Zaffirini Pledges to Expand Meningitis Prevention Bill
Laredo Sen. Judith Zaffirini on Tuesday announced that she plans to expand Senate Bill (SB) 31, a bill she pre-filed in November that initially focused on informing college students about bacterial meningitis.
After hearing from a Texas woman, Frankie Milley, whose son Ryan died of the disease, Zaffirini decided to broaden SB 31 to include Texas children regardless of age.
"You can count on me to work on Senate Bill 31 and to expand it in such a way that information will be provided to all children," Zaffirini said, "and especially to parents and to educators that makes sure that everybody will understand not only that the vaccine is available but especially the symptoms of meningitis."
Bacterial meningitis is a dangerous and sometimes fatal disease which results in inflamation of the meninges, or lining of the brain. Some victims die withing hours of experiencing symptoms, while those who survive can suffer brain and organ damage, deafness, blindness, massive skin damage and amputations.
Milley, who advocates meningitis awareness around the country, said a broadened SB 31 would bolster those efforts.
"We need to protect our children. It's too late for mine, but it's not for everybody else's," Milley said. "Texas can be a leader in the country with this bill if we expand it."
Shapiro Announces 'Statewide Mobility Package'
On Tuesday, Sen. Florence Shapiro of Plano announced the introduction of her "Statewide Mobility Package," a group of bills addressing transportation issues ranging from commercial truck safety to toll road construction to statewide transportation bonds.
Shapiro was joined by Senators Eddie Lucio, Jr. of Brownsville and Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso and a group of civic and business leaders that advocates increased spending on state transportation projects.
Education Board Nominee Approved
The Senate approved Gov. Rick Perry's nomination of Grace Shore to chair the State Board of Education on Wednesday. Shore is from Gregg County. Her term will expire on January 1, 2003.
Other Senate News
The Senate recognized a special guest in session Tuesday, Chicago Cubs manager Don Baylor. Baylor is a graduate of Stephen F. Austin High School in Austin and attended Blinn Junior College in Brenham. During his 19-year major-league career, Baylor was an All-Star and American League Most Valuable Player in 1979 and is one of eight players in history with at least 250 home runs and 250 steals in a career.
Chosen Major League Baseball's Roberto Clemente Man of the Year in 1985, Baylor is involved with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and has worked with the Ronald McDonald House.
The Senate on Monday approved Beaumont Sen. David Bernsen's Senate Resolution 94, recognizing Orange County Day from his 4th District in Southeast Texas. The Orange County group's presence was especially conspicuous: members of the Greater Orange County Chamber of Commerce wore bright orange blazers.
In Thursday's session, the Senate passed a pair of resolutions sponsored by Corpus Christi Sen. Carlos F. Truan. The first, Senate Resolution (SR) 136 proclaimed February 1, 2001 Jim Wells County Day at the Capitol.
The second, SR 139, commended Tejano R.O.O.T.S. (Remembering Our Own Tejano Stars), a non-profit organization that founded the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame Museum. The museum honors the tradition of Tejano music and its musicians of the past and present. The museum is in the Jim Wells County city of Alice, the "Birthplace of Tejano Music."
Lake Jackson Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown had some special guests on hand Tuesday, the 5-A State Champion Katy Tigers Football Team. Following recognition by the Senate during session, Brown joined the team for a group photo on the south steps of the Capitol.
Twenty-seven Senate bills were referred to committee on Thursday, bringing the week's total to 129. The Texas Senate stands adjourned until 1 p.m. Monday, February 5, 2001.