ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF THE 80th LEGISLATURE
The Texas Legislature enacted a lengthy list of laws affecting Texans’ daily lives. From laws that protect our children from sexual predators, more resources for border security, property tax reductions and the state budget, Texans will feel the direct impact of these new laws as they take effect during the next two years.
JESSICA’S LAW AND INTERNET PREDATOR INITIATIVES
I was proud to author and pass House Bill 8 "Jessica’s Law" – which enacts tougher punishment for sex offenders including the death penalty for certain repeat offenders. In addition, several pieces of legislation passed to ensure protection of Texas children from sexual predators and sexual offenders. Senate Bill 6 prohibits use of the internet to communicate or use sexually explicit material to minors and creates tougher penalties for those who try to meet with that person to engage in sexual conduct. It would also require internet providers to register with the state while giving the Attorney General additional tools to seek out sexual predators online.
TEXAS MEDICAID PROGRAM OVERHAUL
Senate Bill 10 contains sweeping Medicaid reforms that will provide greater control for Texas in the administration of the Medicaid program. Working with Senate Health and Human Services Chair Jane Nelson, I helped author reforms that will make the Medicaid program in Texas more efficient. SB 10 encourages personal responsibility, fiscal responsibility, rewards healthy outcomes and preventative health measures. The bill also seeks new ways for the working uninsured to obtain private insurance. This package is a major effort at finally remedying Texas’ ongoing problem of a large uninsured population and helping Texans to live longer, healthier lives.
BIENNIAL BUDGET BALANCED WITHOUT NEW TAXES
For the first time in four years, this session began with a rosy fiscal outlook. However, with money being dedicated in future years to property tax decreases for Texans, the Legislature took a conservative approach in use of tax-payer dollars by trying to limit spending. State leadership began the session by requiring that each agency cut 5 percent from its budget requests. The fiscally conservative approach paid off and once again, the Texas Legislature passed a budget without new taxes on Texans.
PROPERTY TAX RELIEF
This session, I joined with State Rep. Leo Berman in authoring legislation to ensure our elderly and disabled citizens got the same proportionate tax relief that all Texans will see. This proposition was overwhelmingly passed in the recent Constitutional Amendment election. In addition to funding the almost $15 billion in property tax relief, the legislature sought appraisal relief. House Bill 438/HJR 40 attempts to remedy increases in appraisals, which could place future property tax reductions in jeopardy. Currently, the ten percent limit on increases on homestead property appraisals is multiplied by the number of years since the property was last appraised, up to three years, which in turn allows for homestead property tax bills to increase in one year as much as 30%. This bill applies a strict, ten percent limit on annual homestead appraisal increases, which limits the increases in homeowners’ property tax bills. This is a great compliment to the successes made in property tax reductions.
HELP FOR SMALL BUSINESSES
Last summer’s property tax reform also involved a redo of the state’s franchise tax. Following a survey by the Comptroller on the reformed business tax, and after small business expressed concerns about burdens on small business owners, this legislature increased the exemption to the small business owners of the state. This exemption (tax decrease for small business owners) was doubled this session, going from those with receipts of 300,000 to 600,000 that are excluded.
IMPROVEMENTS IN EDUCATION
Following sweeping reforms and new money, the Legislature continued to find ways to improve the education of our children. House Bill 2237 seeks to create grants and programs for dropout prevention, high school success, and college and workforce readiness in public schools. Additionally, the Texas Tomorrow Fund is back to create a new savings option for families to make higher education more affordable. And finally, Senate Bill 1517 aims to strengthen the no-pass, no-play rule for students in Texas.
PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS AND A TOLL ROAD MORATORIUM
A "Landowners Bill of Rights" statement was created by House Bill 1495 to ensure that Landowners are notified of their rights for any property owner whose property is in jeopardy of being taken by the government.
Senate Bill 792 established a statewide moratorium on private toll road deals for two years. It would limit contracts to 50 years as well as give local agencies choice on toll projects. Some areas of the state were specifically exempted where projects are already underway. During the interim a committee will study the policy implications and make future recommendations for building roads to improve transportation.
CURING CANCER INITIATIVES
The Texas Legislature approved a package of bills aimed at a $3 billion cancer research initiative over the next 10 years. Governor Rick Perry and Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong urged this package to make Texas a world leader in preventing cancer deaths and attracting the best and the brightest research scientists to Texas. Texas voters will have a chance to approve this in November, which would be a major victory in the fight against cancer, which kills 35,000 Texans a year.
YOUTH COMMISSION REFORMS
After disturbing details about sexual abuse at the states juvenile correction center, the Texas Youth Commission was reformed. Senate Bill 103 is a complete overhaul of the agency and their processes. The bill will create age segregations in facilities; prohibit misdemeanants and inmates 19 or older from being committed, sets up an independent office of ombudsman, and advocacy groups for inmates. Finally, an office of inspector general will be created to investigate any future crimes at TYC facilities.
CHILDREN'S HEALTH INSURANCE
The legislature expanded coverage to an additional 170,000 children in Texas, under the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that provides coverage for many working families that cannot afford insurance otherwise. This restored many of the cuts that had occurred in 2003, when the legislature faced a $10 billion dollar budget deficit. House Bill 109 will provide primary and preventative health care such as immunizations, wellness exams, eye exams, and dental check-ups to the Texas children who do not have private health insurance or who do not qualify for Medicaid.
BORDER AND HOMELAND SECURITY
Senate Bill 11 allocates $100 million for border security, sets up a border security council to make recommendations on how them money is spent and to assure accountability. The primary focus of the money is suppression of drug and criminal activity.
STATE WATER MANAGEMENT PLAN
The first major state water management plan that is focused on conservation and ecology passed the legislature this Session. It’s the first major water bill approved in over a decade, and I was proud to work on this legislation as a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
Funding for state parks was one of the most important issues of the session. Legislation to improve parks – as well as an increase of over $150 million for state parks – was passed this session. The dollars are intended to go for facility repairs, new vehicles and other improvements. It also includes a $44 million bond issue that requires voter approval in the November election.
The legislature took a serious look at state contractors’ performance during this legislative session. House Bill 3430 will provide public access to the public. The new legislation would require the Comptroller, with the cooperation of other state agencies, to create a database of state expenditures, including contracts and grants, the amount, and a listing of state expenditures by object, down to the check level. This will provide the public with transparency into state contracts that utilize their tax dollars.
BUDGET OVERSIGHT AND SAVINGS
The state budget also included performance measures - a tool to judge outcomes and efficiencies for state agencies – that were increased by 6%. This gives additional oversight over how agencies are using taxpayer dollars. And finally, the "Rainy Day Fund" forecasts that by the end of fiscal year 2009, $4.3 billion dollars will be in that savings fund, should the state need it for a "rainy day" emergency.