WEEK IN REVIEW
Senate Approves Workers' Compensation Overhaul
AUSTIN - The Senate on Friday 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.
Environmental Policy Bill Targets Grandfathered Plants
On Monday, the Senate passed a broad environmental regulation bill that included an amendment that would require so-called grandfathered plants to be brought into compliance.
The Committee Substitute for House Bill (CSHB) 2912 is based on a review by the Sunset Advisory Commission of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC). The Sunset Advisory Commission conducts reviews, typically once every 12 years, of state agencies and makes recommendations on the agencies' continuing activities.
"This bill makes necessary changes that will help TNRCC increase its effectiveness, execute their duties and will benefit the agency and the public in the long run," said Arlington Sen. Chris Harris, the sponsor of CSHB 2912.
The bill includes provisions that would increase the agency's role in protecting the environment and give the public greater input to the agency's decision-making process.
Another key component of the bill was added as an floor amendment sponsored by Beaumont Sen. David Bernsen.
Bernsen said his floor amendment, one of more than 30 offered, would require manufacturing and petrochemical plants and pipeline facilities that were grandfathered by the 1971 Texas Clean Air Act to meet current standards.
"I think we've taken a major step forward today with the amendment on the Sunset Bill of the TNRCC to meaningfully close the grandfather loophole," Bernsen said. "It's long overdue."
Under the amended bill, facilities in the eastern part of Texas would have until 2007 to comply with emissions regulations. Facilities in the western part of the state would have until 2008.
Bill Banning Execution of Mentally Retarded Moves Forward
After a lengthy debate on Tuesday, the Senate approved on Wednesday a bill banning the death penalty in capital crimes committed by the mentally retarded.
CSHB 236 would make imprisonment for life the maximum sentence in cases in which a mentally retarded person is convicted of a capital offense. The bill would apply only to new convictions.
During Tuesday's debate, Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis, the bill's sponsor, said 15 states and the federal government prohibit the execution of the mentally retarded.
"The death penalty simply is not an appropriate sentence for people who lack the mental capacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions and it does not serve justice to execute those people," Ellis said.
Under CSHB 236, a judge would hold a pre-trial hearing to determine if a defendant is mentally retarded. The determination requires three tests: significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, deficits in adaptive functioning and onset of retardation before maturity.
"I support the death penalty, but I know that prohibiting the death penalty against the mentally ill is the right thing to do," Ellis said.
Palestine Sen. Todd Staples rose to oppose the bill during floor debate, arguing that deciding whether a defendant is mentally competent should be left to a jury.
Staples said the current legal safeguards in place are sufficient to protect against the execution of individuals who do not comprehend the consequences of their actions.
During the debate, an amendment was added that would ensure that the sentencing options reflect what is available to juries under law. The Senate
passed a bill earlier this session, Senate Bill (SB) 85, that would allow juries to impose a sentence of life without parole in all capital cases -- an option which does not exist under current law. SB 85 is up for consideration in the House of Representatives.
Senate OKs Border Investment Panel
The Senate on Monday passed SB 1837, a measure authored by El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh that would create and fund a Texas Border Strategic Investment Commission.
"It would invest as much as 250 million Economic Stabilization Fund dollars to take what is the nation's least developed area and set economic development initiatives in place so that we would not face in Texas the continual scenario of (a) declining tax base and declining per-capita income," Shapleigh said.
The Economic Stabilization Fund is sometimes called the Rainy Day Fund.
If Texas were to be divided into two states at Interstate 10, the lower half would be the poorest state in the nation, Shapleigh said.
But it was SB 1837's $250-million appropriation number and other pressing needs around the state that drew criticism from several senators.
"When you talk about another commission, another report, I can tell you faithfully I have enough reports to go from here (the Senate floor) over to the House side," Shapleigh said. "The time is now for investment. The time is now to say, 'Let's fix it. Let's not wait until manana (tomorrow).' Too often, the time to invest is manana when it comes to these issues."
Charter School Debate Makes a Sudden Stop
A heated debate on an open-enrollment charter schools measure came to an abrupt halt Wednesday when its sponsor pulled down the bill after several attempted amendments.
CSHB 6 would change the regulations covering the establishment and operations of the schools. Open-enrollment charter schools are public schools and are paid for with state funds. They are operated under a charter, or contract, with the state.
"In the bill as filed, I have attempted to strike a compromise between those who want to bring it to a grinding halt and those who want it to keep going on like a steaming locomotive, and so we have limited charter-granting authority in this bill," said Amarillo Sen. Teel Bivins, CSHB 6's sponsor and the chair of the Senate Education Committee.
"It's important that this bill pass the Senate and get to conference committee, because if that doesn't happen, and this bill fails, we revert to current law which allows for the unlimited issuance of charters."
When amendments were offered by several senators, Bivins opposed changing the bill, saying the Senate should remain in a flexible position for conference committee negotiations. Among the amendments offered included requirements that the schools meet certain academic standards to have their charters renewed or amended.
Eventually, Bivins grew annoyed with the amendments and abruptly withdrew the bill from consideration.
Bivins later reiterated that CSHB 6 would be "a vast improvement" over current law, and said that he wanted his colleagues to think of that. He added that late-session stress may have added to the tension of the debate. CSHB 6 was brought up and passed with no debate in Thursday's session.
Senate Redistricting Bill Presumed Dead
On Friday, 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 bill has been the subject of ongoing negotiations among the members of the Senate, with the sides "pretty solidly deadlocked," Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff said Thursday afternoon.
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 Ratliff, House Speaker James E. "Pete" Laney, Attorney General John Cornyn, Comptroller of Public Accounts Carole Keeton Rylander and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst.
Senate Passes Bill to Allow More Freedom to Grant Tax Breaks
On Friday, the Senate passed HB 1200, a measure sponsored by 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.
"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. After a lengthy debate, and a personal privilege speech by Truan blasting the bill, HB 2600 was passed by a 25 5 vote.
Zaffirini Recognized After 25,000th Consecutive Vote
On Thursday morning, Laredo Sen. Judith Zaffirini cast her 25,000th consecutive vote as a member of the Texas Senate. Noting Zaffirini's achievement, Ratliff asked her if she would be around for her 50,000th vote.
"Absolutely," Zaffirini replied.
There are 9 days remaining 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 9 a.m. Monday.