State Affairs Continues Houston Hearings
HOUSTON - The State Affairs Committee continued its Houston hearings Thursday, April 13, at the Red Lion Hotel. The committee is listening to public testimony on charges issued by Lt. Governor Rick Perry for study during the interim. Plano Senator Florence Shapiro chairs the committee. Other members include Senators Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso serving as vice-chair, David Bernsen of Beaumont, J.E.'Buster' Brown of Lake Jackson, David Cain of Dallas, Tom Haywood of Wichita Falls, Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, Drew Nixon of Carthage, Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio.
The committee heard testimony on charges 5 and 9. In charge 5, the committee is directed to study mass transit authorities, specifically fiscal management and effectiveness of service. Charge 9 directs the committee to monitor House Bill (HB) 2611 and Senate Bill (SB) 138, both enacted during the 76th Legislature, Regular Session. HB 2611 relates to electronic reporting of campaign reports. SB 138 is known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and relates to government restrictions on the exercise of religion.
Richard Lewis, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Houston, welcomed the committee on behalf of the Mayor and City Council. Lewis planed to testify later in the hearing.
Tom Harrison, Executive Director of the Texas Ethics Commission, discussed implementation of HB 2611. That measure says information on political contributions and political expenditures is to be made available to the public via the Internet, complete with a search engine. The commission has made public awareness a priority, providing public briefings regularly in the State Capitol and posting information on the agency's website. Harrison announced that implementation of the project was on schedule, and that upon completion it would be the best in the United States. The goal is for the July 2000 reports to be filed electronically. Karen Lundquist, General Counsel of the Ethics Commission, assisted Harrison on technical issues.
Clark Ervin testified representing the Office of Attorney General (OAG). The OAG issued an opinion about the electronic disclosure of certain information, particularly the posting of personal addresses on the website. All information is available in hard copy from the Ethics Commission.
Douglas Laycock, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Texas School of Law updated the committee on some cases regarding Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) claims in Texas. Included in his update was a case about a church in Groves Texas where, in order to obtain a permit, 80% of the neighborhood must grant permission to allow the church to move in. In several cases, there are no pending suits, but they are being monitored, i.e. Christian Academy of Abilene, Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin among others. Shapiro noted that land use seems to be the greatest concern.
Karen Rae, General Manager of Austin's Capitol Metropolitan Transportation Authority began her testimony on Mass Transit Authorities (MTA) by thanking Senators Barrientos and Wentworth for their support. She stated that all Texas cities, including Austin, are facing similar challenges in dealing with traffic congestion. The City of Austin, Manor, Anderson Mill, and San Leanna are among the communities participating in the Austin MTA. Services provided include school busses, a large college and university shuttle, and special programs for the disabled and cyclists. The Suburban Equities Program, adopted this fiscal year, allows communities such as Leander, to decide whether or not to participate in the system. Leander has complained that it was paying more money in taxes than it was receiving in services. Currently, the City of Leander and Capitol Metro are working on an agreement to satisfy everyone. Rae called it a 'win-win' agreement. In regards to mass transit in general Capitol Metro looks to DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) for ideas. It is looking at HOV (High Occupancy Vehicles) lanes and light rail as options.
Robert Miller, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO), gave a visual presentation on his MTA which includes Houston and 14 other cities in the county. He informed the committee on their outstanding safety record. Miller noted they have the largest barrier separated HOV Lane Network in the world, 86.4 miles on the six freeway corridors. Due to this network, traffic congestion in Houston, unlike most other cities. is steadily declining.
Richard Lewis, Deputy Chief Administration Officer, City of Houston provided an overview of Houston Metro's programs, services and plans, including financial status. Lewis discussed the plans as far reaching as 25 years into the future.
John Milam, Director of Public Works for the City of San Antonio testified on funding sources. Joining Milam was Richard Tankerson, Chair of the VIA Metropolitan Transportation Authority, of San Antonio. Tankerson discussed an upcoming sales tax election.
The committee stands recessed subject to the call of the chair. It will submit a report to be used in the drafting of legislation for the 77th Legislature which convenes in January of 2001.