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April 20, 2001     (512) 463-0300

WEEK IN REVIEW

Education Committee Chair Introduces School Employee Insurance Legislation

AUSTIN - Amarillo Sen. Teel Bivins today announced the filing of legislation to provide a state-funded health insurance program for public school teachers and employees.

School districts, Regional Education Service Centers and Open Enrollment Charter Schools would be able to participate in the optional plan. Active teachers and employees as well as retirees would be eligible for coverage.

Bivins said the Senate Education Committee has done extensive work on school employee health insurance, hearing testimony from numerous groups to come up with a proposal.

"What I've tried to do today is get the cumulative work of the last two months reflected in a bill, Senate Bill 10, that four Republicans and four Democrats on the committee have co-sponsored," said Bivins, the chair of the committee. "I'm pleased with the bi-partisan support. I think that it reflects a bi-partisan commitment on the part of the Senate to begin the process of funding a public school district employee health insurance plan."

Senate Bill (SB) 10 would include at least five tiers of coverage. Teachers and employees would have the option of selecting their plan or could waive coverage altogether.

The State of Texas would contribute approximately $1 billion a year to the plan, Bivins said. If the state's portion is not enough to fund at least the basic coverage level, the school district must make up the difference.

"We don't get all the way home," Bivins said. "On the other hand, we've gotten a long way down the road if we were to adopt this plan. As I've said many times before, I think this plan represents a Chevrolet, not a Cadillac."

Bivins said the Education Committee will hear the bill Monday.

Senate Passage of Texas Emissions Reduction Plan

Lake Jackson Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, the chair of the Natural Resources Committee, won Senate passage Tuesday of the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 5.

The bill, dubbed the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, would create a system of incentive programs intended to improve air quality 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, businesses would receive incentives for installing emission-reducing equipment, while consumers would pay 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.

Thirty-seven counties in Texas are potential "non-attainment areas," meaning they are in danger of mandatory federal action if emissions are not reduced.

Following a lengthy floor debate, CSSB 5 was easily passed by a vote of 29 for, 1 against and one present but not voting.

Wrongfully Accused Would Receive Greater Compensation Under Bill

The Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would increase the level of compensation for persons wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Under CSSB 536, authored by Ellis, an individual could receive $25,000 for each year spent in prison. The bill would also provide compensation for lost wages, counseling and medical expenses and court expenses.

Current state law places a $50,000 total cap on compensation, which was established by the Legislature in 1965.

"Sometimes it's not enough just to say 'I'm sorry,'" Ellis said. "When such a life-altering mistake has been made, the state clearly has a moral obligation to help wrongfully imprisoned Texans the opportunity to rebuild their lives."

CSSB 536 would allow compensation if an individual receives a full pardon or the conviction is vacated, dismissed or reversed based on innocence.

Anthony Johnson, a Houston man who served nine years for a rape conviction before being freed on DNA evidence, was in the Senate gallery when the bill was passed.

"Compassion is not a sign of weakness. It is a hallmark of justice," Ellis said. "This common-sense reform sends a signal that Texas will stand up to right a wrong."

Senate Passes Broad Water Policy Bill

The Senate on Thursday voted to pass CSSB 2, a measure authored by Brown that focuses on statewide water policy.

A key provision of the bill is the creation of a fund to finance water management strategies of Texas' 16 regional water planning groups. The fund would be supported by a 5-cent per container surcharge levied on water bottlers.

The bill would also create the Texas Water Policy Council which would coordinate state water policy initiatives.

One of the sticking points during floor debate on CSSB 2 was whether industry or agriculture would have priority when it comes to water that is not already earmarked for domestic and municipal uses. An amendment sponsored by Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan was added to the bill that would give industry and agriculture equal priority in such cases.

Senate Votes to Ban Gender Discrimination in Health Care

CSSB 8, a measure authored by Dallas Sen. David Cain that would ban gender discrimination in health care reimbursement rates, was passed by the Senate on Thursday.

Cain cited a study conducted by Texas Woman's University that found that insurance reimbursement rates for female-specific surgeries average 32 percent lower than other procedures.

"Low reimbursement rates force doctors and hospitals to decide whether to get out of the business of providing female-specific care or to curtail services," Cain said. "Either way, the availability of health care for women and newborn children suffers."

Cain said almost 1 million women live in one of the 156 counties in Texas that do not have an OB/GYN.

"This act says the reimbursement rates should be equalized," Cain said. "Reimbursement should be based on the time it takes to take care of a patient, not the gender of that patient."

First Ladies Kick Off Phone Donation Campaign

Sally Ratliff, the wife of the Lt. Governor, and Nelda Laney, the wife of House Speaker James E. "Pete" Laney joined Texas first lady Anita Perry at a Wednesday press conference announcing the kickoff of the Texas Donate a Phone campaign.

The campaign will collect and refurbish wireless phones and distribute them to family violence shelters. The phones will be given to victims of family violence for emergency use.

"This is a remarkable effort and I'm so pleased to see Texans working together to combat domestic violence," Sally Ratliff said.

Bill Targeting Human Cloning Wins Passage

The Senate on Thursday voted passage of CSSB 102, a measure sponsored by Flower Mound Sen. Jane Nelson that is intended to prohibit human cloning by making it a first-degree felony with a fine of up to $10 million.

"We believe that this is the toughest anti-cloning law in the nation," Nelson said.

Other Senate News

On Friday, the Senate passed CSSB 704, authored by Dallas Sen. Royce West. The bill would allow a school district to discipline an educationally disadvantaged student for a dress code violation only if the district provides a way for the student to get clothing, without charge, that complies with the dress code.

The Senate on Wednesday passed a bill authored by Laredo Sen. Judith Zaffirini intended to streamline the application and eligibility process for children's Medicaid. Current law requires a face-to-face interview. CSSB 43 eliminates the interview requirement. On Friday, the Senate passed SB 40, also authored by Zaffirini, that would establish a tuition assistance program for licensed vocational nurse students who agree to practice in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

The Redistricting Committee heard public testimony Wednesday on the most recent proposals for the redrawing of Texas Senate districts.

On Thursday, the Finance Committee considered SB 86, a proposal authored by Ellis that proposes to lengthen the current three-day sales tax holiday on clothing and shoes to two weeks. SB 86 would also expand the list of exempted items to include backpacks and school supplies.

There are 39 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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