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Friday, January 8, 1999     (512) 463-0300

Texas Senate Review

AUSTIN - The 76th Legislative Session will begin on January 12th and Lt. Governor Bob Bullock will still be at the reins with two new senators on board.

New faces on the Senate floor include Senator David Bernsen of Beaumont, representing District 4. As a newly elected Democrat, Bernsen's presence will change the party ratio to 15 Democrats and 16 Republicans. He labels himself a conservative Democrat and as a former commissioner with the Texas Department of Transportation, appointed females and minorities to top level jobs.

Newly elected Senator Mike Jackson will bring in five terms of legislative experience in the House of Representatives to represent District 11. Jackson, a small businessman from La Porte, will focus his efforts on criminal justice and natural resource issues.

Lt. Governor-elect Rick Perry will be at the receiving end when the gavel changes hands for the first time in eight years. He has left his post as Texas Commissioner of Agriculture and will take the oath of office on January 19th with Governor George W. Bush. Perry becomes the first Republican to be elected Lt. Governor this century.

Perry has former legislative experience in the Texas House of Representatives where he served on the powerful House Appropriations and Calendars committee. As the presiding officer of the Senate, Perry sits in another powerful position. He appoints all chairs and members of committees and has control over scheduling bills to be considered on the Senate floor.

He plans to emphasize education during his administration. Issues of debate during the November elections, including the use of publicly funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition, could find their way to the Senate floor. Perry stresses other economic issues, like tax breaks and development of the state economy, as key goals this session.

New legislation is already in the works. Texas senators have been filing bills since November 9. The 76th Legislature faces many issues from last session, including an initiative and referendum bill charting out a process to pass legislation through voter approval and abortion-related legislation that sparked emotional debates two years ago.

The results of interim studies and committees are visible in pre-filed bills. Senator Chris Harris of Arlington sponsors a bill to authorize title auditors to audit and review escrow and trust accounts of title insurance companies. A proposed constitutional amendment allows the governor to make appointments to fill vacancies in the office of district judges and in the offices of appellate justices and judges with nonpartisan retention elections of those officials .

Pre-filed bills are tough on criminals, especially sex and drug offenders. Many institutions are being targeted for increased regulations--particularly nursing homes, body piercing facilities and the telecommunications industry.

Education and economics are big issues this session. A bill sponsored by Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville designates the first instructional day of a school year for public schools statewide. Public schools would also be affected by a bill suggesting stricter, more specific guidelines to demonstrate academic achievement, making social promotion more difficult. Rules to interpret the home equity lending law could be adopted if Dallas Senator John Carona's bill passes.

Proposed legislation also reflects local events. Senator Florence Shapiro's district in Plano suffered from increased heroin use and overdoses among teenagers. She brings these concerns to the forefront by introducing a number of drug-related bills:

The brutal murder in Jasper, Texas last summer inspired legislation sponsored by Senator Royce West. The bill states that a murder motivated by bias or prejudice will be prosecuted as a capital offense.

Legislators in both houses worked on a new state constitution for Texas during the interim. If approved, the new constitution--introduced by Senator Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant and Representative Bob Junell of San Angelo--would replace a document dating back to 1876 that has been amended 377 times. Senators have already proposed eight amendments this session.

It would make changes to all branches of state government. Changes include new rules for term limits and salaries in the legislative branch, creating a cabinet for the executive branch, and merging the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals into a single court within the judicial branch.

The State of Texas could soon be associated with something everyone likes, money. Senator Carona sponsors a bill supporting the design of a quarter dollar coin commemorating the State of Texas. Whether it changes the education of the young or the treatment of the elderly, this session's events could affect the lives of all Texans.

The 76th Legislature convenes at 12 noon on Tuesday January 12, 1999, in their respective chambers.

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