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May 18, 2001     (512) 463-0300

Senate Approves
Workers' Compensation Overhaul

AUSTIN - The Senate today voted passage of a bill that would make sweeping changes to Texas' workers' compensation system.

House Bill (HB) 2600 is intended to rein in growing costs in the system, thereby encouraging more businesses to participate, said the bill's sponsor, Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan.

"The cost of workers' compensation insurance has skyrocketed," Duncan said. "The primary focus if you look at it, if you analyze the cost drivers in the system, it's no longer the trial lawyers that can be blamed.

"It is the fact that the medical costs in the system are exceeding the medical costs in other workers' compensation systems around the country. They're exceeding the escalation in cost generally in Texas by significant amounts. Once again, Texas is now faced with the possibility of a workers' compensation system in collapse."

HB 2600 has been under scrutiny for several weeks, with scores of protestors following the bill's progress in the Legislature. Several hundred witnesses registered to testify when the bill was heard by the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.

One of the key provisions of HB 2600 is the creation of health care networks for injured workers. The networks were at the heart of much of the floor debate on the bill.

Several senators, led by Mario Gallegos of Houston, questioned Duncan about the fact that numerous workers' groups around the state oppose the bill and the possibility that injured workers' will not be as free to choose their doctor under the network plan.

Although HB 2600 was the subject of a lengthy and sometimes heated debate, the bill was passed by a 25-5 vote.

Also in today's session, the Senate passed HB 1200, a measure sponsored by Arlington Sen. Chris Harris that would allow school districts more freedom to grant property-tax breaks to encourage new investment. Under the bill, the tax break can be applied only to new projects, Harris said.

Harris said Texas has not been as successful at attracting new businesses and growth as it has been in the past.

"In the year 2000 we were down below the 35th state in attracting new business," Harris said. "We've got Oklahoma and New York both attracting more new business than Texas does."

Corpus Christi Sen. Carlos F. Truan rose to oppose HB 1200, saying the bill amounted to "corporate welfare" and that Texas schools cannot afford to give away tax money.

"It seems to me what we ought to do is bend backwards to influence the education, the preparation of people in this state, and I think businesses will be attracted to our state even more," Truan.

Truan's argument was echoed by El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, who cited a report that said corporations consider the education and skill level of the workforce, among other factors, instead of tax codes.

Senators Jane Nelson of Flower Mound and Troy Fraser of Marble Falls, who both own manufacturing businesses, disputed the report, saying that tax breaks provide a strong incentive to businesses.

After a lengthy debate, and a personal privilege speech by Truan blasting the bill, HB 2600 was passed by a 25-5 vote.

The Senate also gave approval to the Committee Substitute for House Bill (CSHB) 299, a measure sponsored by El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh that would raise the speed limit to 75 miles per hour on some rural highways in sparsely populated counties.

A proposal aimed at the shortage of healthcare professionals working in rural communities was also passed by the Senate today. CSHB 1018, sponsored by Wichita Falls Sen. Tom Haywood, would direct the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners to implement a quicker licensing process for physicians coming from out or state or other countries who will practice in rural areas.

At the conclusion of today's session, several members of the Senate Democratic Caucus spoke to reporters about the apparent death of the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 499, the bill to redraw Texas' 31 Senate districts that was produced by the Senate redistricting committee.

The redistricting process has become a charged, highly partisan issue in the historically bipartisan Senate.

Senators on both sides of CSSB 499 and alternative proposals by Waco Sen. David Sibley said the redistricting bill is dead in the Senate.

If the Senate is unable to pass a redistricting bill for its members own districts, the task will be undertaken in the summer by the Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB). The LRB is made up of Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff, House Speaker James E. "Pete" Laney, Attorney General John Cornyn, Comptrolle of Public Accounts Carole Keeton Rylander and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst.

The Senate stands adjourned until 9 a.m. Monday.

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