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April 25, 2001     (512) 463-0300

Senate Vote Would Change
Judicial Selection Process

AUSTIN -The Senate today voted final passage of legislation that would change the way many judges are selected in Texas.

Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, the author of Senate Bill (SB) 129 and Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 3, said the legislation will help reduce partisanship and the influence of money in judicial elections.

SJR 3 would create an amendment to the Texas Constitution under which the justices and chief justice of the Supreme Court, the presiding judge and judges of the court of criminal appeals, and the justices and chief justices of the court of appeals would be appointed by the governor. Following the appointed term, the judges could run in a retention election during a general election.

The accompanying legislation, SB 129, the enabling legislation would create retention elections for non-partisan judicial candidates and prohibit straight-ticket voting for judges.

Proposed constitutional amendments require a 2/3 vote to pass in the Senate. Although several senators objected to the idea of changing the judicial selection process, the legislation had enough support for passage.

SJR 3 and SB 129 will now go to the House of Representatives for consideration. The proposed constitutional amendment will go before voters in the November General Election if the legislation is signed into law by Governor Rick Perry.

Also in today's session the Senate approved a measure authored by Palestine Sen. Todd Staples that would require a challenge of a voter's registration to include specific information. SB 1309 would require a sworn statement challenging a voter's registration to properly identify each challenged voter. The challenge also must be based on specific knowledge of a voter's lack of qualifications.

The Senate also approved the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 1053, a measure authored by El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh that's intended to improve access to medical services in the border region.

"In the Blue Ribbon (Task Force) on Uninsured in Texas we came across a very serious issue in different parts of our state, and that is the disparity of Medicaid reimbursement and CHIP capitation rates," Shapleigh said.

Utilization rates are used to determine Medicaid reimbursement rates and Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) capitation rates. CHIP captiation refers to the discounted rate at which health care providers are reimbursed.

The problem, Shapleigh said, is that the 43 Texas counties along the Mexico border lack an adequate health infrastructure, which has resulted in barriers to medical service and low utilization rates. CSSB 1053 would require the Health and Human Services Commission to increase the Medicaid reimbursement to physicians who care for Medicaid and CHIP recipients in the border area.

"What (CSSB 1053) does is this: it provides a methodology of recalculating rates in order to eliminate disparities in these 43 counties to the extent that funds are specifically appropriated for this purpose."

Shapleigh added that he did not expect the state to be able to fully fund the bill, which would cost an estimated $118 million, in the upcoming budget.

In other news, the Senate confirmed a group of gubernatorial appointments, though not without pointed comments about the ethnic makeup of the University of Texas (UT) System Board of Regents and UT executives and deans.

An April 24 letter written by University of Texas at Austin President Larry R. Faulkner to San Antonio Sen. Frank Madla concerning appointments at the university only added to the tension.

The letter read in part, "It is often the case, even though the situation is getting better, that there are not enough minority applicants who yet possess the education and experience necessary to compete for faculty or high-level academic appointments. Thus, it is key that we do a better job in educating and mentoring minorities. At the University of Texas, we are committed to doing so."

San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, among several other Senators, criticized the attitude of the letter and UT's record of appointing minorities to high-level positions.

"It is extremely hurtful to stand on this floor today to have to respond to -- again -- another offensive affront to the changing demographics of this state," Van de Putte said.

In committee news, the Redistricting Committee continued to discuss the latest plan for redrawing Texas' political boundaries. The committee also heard public testimony on the process. The chair of the committee, San Antonio Sen. Jeff Wentworth, won final passage in the Senate today of the Committee Substitute for Senate Joint Resolution (CSSJR) 35, which proposes a constitutional amendment that would require that redistricting be handled in a special session beginning in 2010. Redistricting is done every 10 years, following the U.S. Census.

If approved by both chambers of the Legislature and signed by the governor, the proposed amendment to the constitution would be on the ballot in the November general election.

The Senate is in recess until 8 a.m. Thursday, when bills on the Local and Uncontested Calendar will be taken up. The Senate will then reconvene at 10 a.m.

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