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March 9, 2001     (512) 463-0300

WEEK IN REVIEW

Natural Resources Committee Chair Files Texas Emissions Reduction Plan

AUSTIN - Lake Jackson Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown announced Wednesday that he has filed Senate Bill (SB) 5, dubbed the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan.

"I think after we talk about it you'll see that every Texan will love half of it, and probably every Texan will hate half of it," Brown said. "And that is because everyone will love the incentive part of the bill, and most everybody will probably not like the contribution part of the bill."

The bill proposes a system of incentive programs intended to reduce emissions across the state by focusing on reducing diesel emissions, creating incentives for leasing or buying low-emissions vehicles and alternative fuel vehicles, energy-efficient appliances and buildings and a technology research and development program.

Businesses and consumers would share in the cost of funding the programs. For example, it would cost more to renew driver's licenses and vehicle inspection stickers. The cost increases would vary depending on the area of the state.

In cities such as Houston and Dallas, which are in more danger of exceeding federal emissions guidelines and triggering federally mandated emission reduction action, the cost increase would be greater than in other areas of the state. Brown said the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan is intended to supplement the federal Clean Air Act of 1990, not replace the federal legislation.

Thirty-seven Texas counties are potential "non-attainment areas," meaning they are in danger of mandatory federal action if emissions are not reduced. Brown said SB 5 is designed to improve air quality statewide and avoid federal intervention while still encouraging economic growth.

Brown, the chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, was flanked by regulatory and business representatives and a spokesman for Public Citizen, a health and safety advocacy group, when he announced the bill. La Porte Sen. Mike Jackson, a co-sponsor of the bill, and Senators Jon Lindsay of Houston and Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth also joined Brown when he announced the bill.

Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) Commissioner R.B. "Ralph" Marquez called SB 5 "the most comprehensive" emissions reduction plan in the country. Marquez's re-appointment to the TNRCC was confirmed by the Senate in February with a warning from some senators that the TNRCC must do a better job of improving Texas' air quality.

Legislators Seek to End Racial Profiling

Dallas Sen. Royce West briefed media Monday about SB 1074, a bill aimed at ending the practice of racial profiling.

San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a co-author of the bill, State Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, representatives of the governor and lieutenant governor, law enforcement and civil liberty groups joined West when he announced the bill. Statistics show that African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to be searched when stopped by a police officer than whites.

"We cannot and must not ignore repeated complaints that are received from citizens of this state and all over America who feel they are victims of racial profiling," West said. He added that he believes the majority of law enforcement officers execute the proper procedures and judgement.

A key proposal of the bill is the installation of video cameras in law enforcement vehicles. Recorded tapes would be subject to review in order to properly examine all police encounters with the public.

Senate Passes Amended Colonia Bill

The Senate voted final passage Tuesday of a bill sponsored by Brownsville Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., that would help county governments combat the spread of unincorporated subdivisions commonly known as colonias.

The measure, the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 517, would allow county governments to adopt rules controlling lot size, the size, number and location of buildings on lots and infrastructure standards for unincorporated areas. The vote on final passage of CSSB 517 as amended was 22 votes for, 7 against and two present but not voting.

CSSB 517 first came up in Monday's session. A floor amendment sponsored by Waco Sen. David Sibley, one of nine co-sponsors of the bill, was added Monday that would apply to all counties in Texas, leading several senators to question the bill's scope.

Statewide Poll Finds Support for Better Educator Benefits

On Monday, Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos discussed the findings of a recent Scripps Howard Texas Poll. The poll, which surveyed 1,000 Texans, accumulated information concerning public school teacher and school employee health insurance.

According to the poll, 87 percent of participants felt a better benefit program is needed. State employees and employees of state colleges and universities receive fully funded coverage and half-cost coverage for dependents. A similar program has been proposed for public school employees.

Eighty-five percent of respondents also supported public school pay raises.

Bill Would Keep Austin Light Rail Hopes Alive

Barrientos announced Thursday that he would serve as the Senate sponsor of a House bill that is part of an arrangement to secure additional funding for Central Texas transportation improvements.

Taylor State Rep. Mike Krusee authored House Bill (HB) 2440 as part of an agreement with Austin Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority, often referred to as Capital Metro. HB 2440 would require any future light rail elections in Austin to be held during a general election, in November of even-numbered years. The move is intended to increase voter turnout.

Under the agreement, Capital Metro would contribute more than $120 million to finance Central Texas transportation projects.

"I think Capital Metro is providing invaluable help to solving these problems," Barrientos said. He added that the plan would focus on Central Texas' "most critical" transportation projects.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the Central Texas area has the lowest average speeds, highest congestion and highest fatality rate on IH 35, which runs from Laredo to Duluth, Minnesota. The plan calls for Capital Metro to use $91 million from its light rail funds to help finance other regional transportation projects. Another $30.4 million from part of Capital Metro's one-cent sales tax would be earmarked for local transportation projects in the Central Texas region.

New Awareness Brought To Mental Illness

Houston Sen. John Whitmire on Monday advocated more funding for mental health and retardation programs.

Whitmire said necessary services are inaccessible by many suffering from mental disabilities. Texas is ranked 41st in the nation for mental retardation funding and 43rd in mental health funding. He also said the lack of funding has led to an influx of homeless and a larger prison population. He offered statistics that 10,000 Texans are waiting for community- and home-based services.

He also urged his colleagues to make a point of publicly acknowledging the problem during speeches.

Children's Healthcare Issues Move Forward

The Senate passed a bill Tuesday sponsored by Arlington Sen. Chris Harris that would make the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) an option for court-ordered medical support of a child.

State law requires anyone paying child support to also provide for health insurance, but does not list CHIP as a coverage option. CSSB 236 would authorize the use of any potential health insurance product, including CHIP, to be considered in meeting the medical support requirement under the child support system.

On Thursday, the Health and Human Services Committee took public testimony on a group of bills focusing on improving healthcare and other assistance for the state's poor. Among the bills was SB 373, authored by Moncrief, who is the chair of the committee, that would simplify the application process for Medicaid for children. The bill would allow families to apply by mail.

Other Senate News

Brown announced an omnibus bill Thursday focusing on another of Texas' high-profile issues -- water.

A key provision of the measure, SB 2, is the creation of the Texas Water Policy Council with members from the TNRCC, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Department of Agriculture. Three public members would also serve on the panel. The Texas Water Policy Council would coordinate state water policy initiatives.

The Criminal Justice Committee voted Wednesday to send to the full Senate a substitute to SB 795. The bill, sponsored by Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis, would make convicted criminals forfeit any profit derived from the sale of memorabilia associated with violent crimes.

Among the witnesses who testified in support of the bill was a woman whose 15-month-old daughter was killed by a nurse. The woman testified she later found letters the nurse had written from prison offered for sale on an Internet site.

In session Wednesday, the Senate voted to pass a proposal sponsored by Wichita Falls Sen. Tom Haywood, CSSB 331. The bill would lay the foundation for a comprehensive agriculture policy. But several senators voiced concerns about what happens when agricultural interests collide with public health and safety factors. Senators Mario Gallegos of Houston, Sibley and Truan voted against the bill.

Today is the 60th day of the 77th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature, the deadline for filing bills and joint resolutions that are not local or have not been declared an emergency by the governor. As of Thursday, 1,501 bills had been filed in the Senate. For more information about the Texas Legislature, please go to www.capitol.state.tx.us.

The Senate stands adjourned until 1 p.m. Monday.

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