My five cents...
by Sen. Robert Nichols, Senate District 3
Happy New Year! I hope you all had your black-eyed peas and cabbage for luck on January 1st as I did. As I write to you from Austin, the 83rd Legislative Session has just begun and will soon move into full swing. Set to last 140 days during odd-numbered years, the session is the time the Texas Legislature has to pass a two-year budget and any new laws. As a way to help you keep up with important issues during this time, I am writing a column I call my five cents, things you might find interesting that are happening at your Texas Capitol each week.
On January 8, I was sworn in for my third term as your state senator. While senators normally serve four year terms, our House counterparts serve two. Part of the oath of office calls for elected officials to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. This is an excellent reminder as we begin a new session to never stray from the guiding principles in the Constitution and I take this pledge to you very seriously.
Though the session began this week, we were able to pre-file bills beginning in November. So far, I have filed legislation to limit the growth of property taxes and to prohibit the use of eminent domain for recreational purposes. I have also signed on as co-author to a bill to significantly reform the state's welfare system. These bills represent some of the priorities brought to me by the citizens of Senate District 3.
The first bill, Senate Bill 95, is to slow rapidly rising taxable values on Texas homes. The second bill, Senate Bill 96, would prohibit state or local governments from taking private land for recreational purposes. I co-authored the final bill, Senate Bill 11, with Senator Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) to require drug testing for welfare benefits and to restrict the items recipients can purchase with taxpayer-paid benefits. The bill also establishes a 3-year lifetime limit on benefits.
New Counties in Senate District 3
Following redistricting last session, I am pleased to welcome Houston, Liberty, Orange and Trinity Counties to our district. Their addition brings Senate District 3 to a total of 19 counties. This includes 102 school districts, 132 cities and designated areas and 16,198 square miles. That's larger than 60 foreign countires. Because the 31 State Senate districts of Texas are apportioned by population, there are about the same number of people in each district, but the districts may be very different physical sizes. For example, some more urban districts in Houston and Dallas may be only a few square miles in size, but have the same number of residents as we do in 19 counties! Texas is a broad, diverse state.
Final Sunset Commission Meeting
This week the Sunset Advisory Commission held its final meeting to make recommendations for reforming state agencies. One of our charges involved making policy recommendations regarding the rapidly escalating water and sewer rates for Texans living in rural and unincorporated areas of the state who are supplied by a privately owned utility.
As vice chair of the commission, I advocated to move the rate jurisdiction of water and waste water from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Our workgroup reached this conclusion because the PUC's structure and expertise are focused on fair and efficient rate-related regulation, whereas TCEQ's mission is to protect the environment and is not structured to regulate ratemaking.
The Sunset Commission agreed to this transfer of rate jurisdiction to the PUC; the next step is for the change to be put in bill form and sent to the legislature for approval.
On the night before the session began, many residents of Senate District 3 made the trip to Austin to attend the Deep East Texas Council of Governments reception. It was an amazing show of involvement from the people of East Texas who are making their voice heard at the Capitol. I look forward to working with members of the delegation and would encourage more constituents to become involved.
Seeing your faces is an unmistakable reminder of exactly who I represent in the Texas Senate and to whom I am accountable. Of course not everyone can make a visit to the Capitol every session, which is why I want to update you on what is happening each week. As always, feel free to contact your Senate office if my staff or I can assist you.