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March 30, 2001     (512) 463-0300

WEEK IN REVIEW

Senate Unanimously Passes Budget Bill

AUSTIN - The Senate on Wednesday unanimously voted passage of the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB)1, the General Appropriations Bill for the 2002-2003 biennium.

The General Appropriations Bill sets state budgets and outlines spending policies. CSSB 1 proposes a budget of $111.7 billion for the next two-year fiscal period, a 9.2 percent increase over the current state budget. The bill does not include any tax increase.

Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis, the chair of the Finance Committee which drafted the 800-page bill, said the panel focused on four key priorities: health and human services, state employee pay, public education and higher education.

"The Texas Senate has created a blueprint that meets the basic needs of a growing Texas while making significant investments in our families," Ellis said. "We are all proud of this budget."

Of the total proposal, $47.9 billion is earmarked for education. Another $34.7 billion is allocated for health and human services. Combined, education and health and human services account for 75 percent of the budget.

After the Finance Committee voted out CSSB 1 on Monday, Ellis told the Senate Education Committee, which has held several hearings to explore teacher and employee health insurance proposals, that he intends the $200 million figure to be a starting point for funding an insurance plan. He said as much as an additional $1.9 billion could be derived from other funding sources, including individual school districts' share.

"I'm not sure that we did as much as we wanted to do in any area," Ellis said. "But we did the best that we could do with the available resources."

CSSB 1 also recommends across-the-board pay raises for state employees including prison guards.

"I praise the leadership of Chairman Rodney Ellis and the dedicated work of the entire Senate Finance Committee on (CSSB 1)," Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff said. "This budget is tighter than the last, but we were successful in covering our most pressing needs and priorities without raising taxes."

As Lt. Governor, Ratliff customarily does not vote on bills being debated in the Senate, although he continues to represent District 1 as a state senator. He broke that custom Wednesday by joining the vote in favor of CSSB 1.

The Finance Committee heard testimony and budget requests in almost daily hearings over the last two months. Every state agency and numerous groups appeared before the committee during the hearings process. Ellis said Monday that the budget contains "no fat" and cautioned that there simply is not enough money available to meet every funding request.

"This committee has made every attempt to utilize the limited funds available that provides the most benefit for the people of the state of Texas," said Arlington Sen. Chris Harris, the vice chair of the committee.

CSSB 1 will now go to the House of Representatives for consideration. The House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. Rob Junell of San Angelo, will draft its own version of an appropriations bill. When any conflicting issues between the Senate and House versions are resolved, each chamber must approve a single bill to go to the governor.

Senate Vote Opens Door to Use of Highway Bonds

Legislation authored by Brownsville Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., to allow the state to issue bonds to finance road construction was approved by the Senate on Thursday.

CSSB 241 would allow the use of bonds to fund highway projects. The Committee Substitute for Senate Joint Resolution (CSSJR) 10 proposes an amendment to the Texas constitution to remove the bond prohibition. Because the Texas Constitution prohibits the use of bonds, the change required two pieces of legislation.

If Lucio's legislation is approved by both chambers of the Legislature and signed by Governor Rick Perry, the proposed constitutional amendment will go before voters in November.

During floor debate, Senators David Cain of Dallas and Jon Lindsay of Houston spoke against the bill, while Bryan Sen. Steve Ogden, who, along with El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and Laredo Sen. Judith Zaffirini, coauthored the legislation, complimented Lucio on the proposals.

Floor amendments sponsored by Lucio were added to both pieces of legislation. The amendments are intended to ensure that rural road investment does not suffer as a result of using federal bonds to finance highway construction.

Ratliff, who has opposed the use of bonds in the past, said he encouraged Lucio to add the amendments to address the concerns about rural roads.

"That was the concern that I had with the GARVEEs," Ratliff said. "He agreed to accept the amendment and so it became something that I could allow him to pass."

GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle) bonds are used to fund road construction in other states. They are issued in anticipation of future federal highway funds that can be used to pay off the bonds.

"I have said before that I don't believe that this measure is nearly as beneficial in regard to stretching our highway dollars as the proposal, the constitutional amendment, which will allow us to build roads partially funded by tolls, partially by taxes," Ratliff said. "I think that that measure is much more important so far as stretching our dollars than GARVEEs or any other proposal that's out there."

Lucio said the legislation provides Texas with other options to fund highway construction. He pointed to congestion, particularly in border areas, as evidence of the need for new ways to fund highway projects.

"We're talking about a permissive bill here, an option that TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) would have, to be able to have innovative financing for our highway system," Lucio said.

"I'm trying my very best not only to address (border) issues, but also, with this legislation, the entire state of Texas."

Senate Passes Workers' Rights Bill

On Tuesday, the Senate passed a bill authored by Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan regarding workers' rights. CSSB 624 would void liability waivers signed by employees of companies that do not participate in the workers' compensation system.

Currently, employer participation in the workers' compensation system is voluntary in Texas. In describing the bill, Duncan warned that without the bill's waiver provision Texas might be forced to make participation mandatory.

The bill took on greater importance to its author after the announcement Thursday of a Texas Supreme Court ruling that upholds the strength of liability waivers signed by employees of companies that do not participate in the state workers compensation system. In a personal privilege speech on the Senate floor the same day, Duncan said CSSB 624 would void those waivers and send a clear legislative intent for the Supreme Court to follow.

Senate Passes Bill Addressing School Start Date

The Senate passed a bill Tuesday sponsored by Lucio that would establish a more uniform starting date for public schools.

Under CSSB 108, school districts would be prohibited from starting classes earlier than the week in which August 21 falls. The bill first came up on the Senate floor Monday, but Lucio left the bill pending without moving for final passage after unexpected opposition arose to his motion to debate the bill.

Opposition continued Tuesday, with Senators Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, David Bernsen of Beaumont, Steve Ogden of Bryan, Florence Shapiro of Plano and Carlos F. Truan of Corpus Christi voting against bringing the bill up for debate. CSSB 108 was finally passed on a voice vote.

Lucio said the bill is intended to allow time for children of migrant families to get back home before the beginning of the school year. Many migrant families travel out of state to work during summer months.

CSSB 108 will now go to the House of Representatives for consideration. If the bill becomes law, it would be effective on September 1, but would not apply to school districts until the 2002-2003 school year.

Other Senate News

On Thursday, the Senate for the first time this session voted against taking up a bill for consideration. CSSB 272, authored by Dallas Sen. John Carona, deals with interest rates charged on some unsecured loans and regulation of lenders. When the bill was first debated in Wednesday's session, several senators argued that it did not do enough to protect consumers, leading Carona to leave the bill pending. El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, among others, expressed concerns that the bill did not go far enough to protect consumers.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed CSSB 1164, a bill authored by Truan that is intended to prepare for upcoming federal decisions about military base closures. The bill would have Texas military bases prepare reports concerning strategies to keep the bases open. The reports would include information regarding private-sector investment in the installations and surrounding communities.

The Senate passed a measure Wednesday authored by Duncan that would direct the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts to set up an advisory committee on state investments. The bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1547 was easily passed, but not without the opposition of Truan, who questioned having an appointed body in control of what he said could be as much as $21 billion in state money.

On Thursday, the Senate unanimously adopted Senate Resolution (SR) 595, a measure honoring Cesar Chavez. A migrant worker, Chavez is remembered for organizing other migrant farm workers. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Chavez died in 1993.

SR 595 was sponsored by Truan.

Waco Sen. David Sibley held a press conference Thursday to announce SB 1783, a bill intended to make advanced telecommunications services, such as high-speed Internet access, more available in rural areas. The bill would also reduce a tax on consumers telephone calls. Sibley, said the Business and Commerce Committee he chairs would begin hearings on the bill next week.

Witnesses from across the state were at the Capitol on Thursday to give testimony before the Redistricting Committee. Committee Chair Jeff Wentworth said he would like to tackle the redistricting process in a special session. More than 200 attended the hearing.

There are 60 days left in the 77th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature. For more information about legislation and the Texas Legislature, please visit www.capitol.state.tx.us.

The Senate stands adjourned until 10 a.m. Monday.

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Remember to visit the Texas Senate on the Web at www.senate.state.tx.us (English) and www.senate.state.tx.us/Senado.htm (Spanish).

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