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April 25, 2003    (512) 463-0300

Week in Review

Friday, April 25, 2003

The Senate Finance Committee met this morning to consider House Bill (HB) 1, the appropriations bill for the next biennium, and voted out its version, Senate Bill (SB) 1, by a 13-2 vote. The committee recommended a budget for the 2004-05 biennium totaling $117.7 billion, with $58.7 billion in General Revenue Funds. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, flanked by Amarillo Senator Teel Bivins, Chair of the Finance Committee, and Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini, co-sponsor of the bill, admitted that although the bill is not perfect, it is still a good bill with strong bipartisan support that protects funding for the Foundation School Program, higher education, prisons, Medicaid, and Children's Health Insurance Programs.

The Senate approved twenty-one bills in today's session.

SenatorBob Deuell on the Senate floor
Greenville Senator Bob Deuell explains SB 1409, which will continue a pilot program for emergency medical dispatchers in parts of rural Texas.

SB 1184, by Greenville Senator Bob Deuell, would provide for notification, informal hearing, and administrative hearing processes for persons who violate certain motor vehicle standards. SB 1409, also by Senator Deuell, would continue the Texas Department of Health pilot program to test the effectiveness of using emergency medical dispatchers located in a regional dispatch resource center to provide pre-arrival instructions to 911 callers in certain parts of rural Texas.

Bryan Senator Steve Ogden said that three concerns spawned the creation of his legislation passed unanimously by the Senate today: the outdated computer system used by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the issue of fraud, and concern over homeland security. Ogden said that it is important to be able to rely on a driver's license as an individual's identification, therefore driver's license technology needs to be brought into the 21st century and made more difficult to forge and duplicate. SB 945 would incorporate technological changes necessary for DPS to ensure the security and integrity of the driver's licenses and identification cards it issues by using biometric information. Ogden estimates that it will cost approximately $45 million to completely overhaul DPS' system and the bill would increase the fee from $24 to $30 for a six year driver's license to fund it.

The Senate also approved of SB 1445, authored by Waco Senator Kip Averitt, which would facilitate the compliance with the USA Patriot Act. The USA Patriot Act is intended to help prevent money going to terrorists and requires financial institutions to have comprehensive customer identification programs in place. SB 1445 would provide a penalty for compiling or maintaining a database of electronically readable information from a driver's license or personal identification certificate.

Plano Senator Florence Shapiro introduced legislation that she says will ease a main concern of teachers. According to the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, teachers have been sued for such reasons as special education techniques and student injuries in the classroom and on the playground. SB 930 would incorporate the No Child Left Behind Coverdell Provision in federal law which protects teachers from civil liability for actions committed while fulfilling the duties of their profession, so long as they act in conformity with state law and school rules. The bill would also add specific protections from disciplinary proceedings for school professionals who use reasonable force to maintain order and discipline and cap the liability of a school professional at $100,000 for acts within the scope of duty. Additionally, SB 930 would also allow courts to refer cases to alternative dispute resolutions and provide for the recovery of attorney's fees if the professional employee substantially prevails.

Legislation aimed at correcting an oversight in current law and providing a provision to prosecute an individual who witnesses the commission of a felony but fails to report it was also sanctioned by the Senate today. SB 110, authored by Palestine Senator Todd Staples, would require an individual who has witnessed a felony that may have resulted in serious bodily harm or death to report the action to a peace or law enforcement officer. Failure to do so would result in the person being charged with a misdemeanor offense.

Three bills authored by Dallas Senator Royce West aimed at protecting nursing home residents were unanimously passed. SB 1074 would require a nursing home owner or employee to report abuse or neglect to the Texas Department of Human Services and to law enforcement. According to West, thirty-nine percent of Texas nursing homes had a violation of federal quality of care requirements that caused actual harm to nursing home residents, such as dehydration, physical abuse, and sexual assault, or placed residents at risk of death or serious injury.

SB 1073 would add certain other violations to the list of offenses which prohibit a person from being employed in a facility serving the elderly or persons with disabilities. SB 1012 would allow electronic monitoring devices to by placed in resident's rooms in assisted living facilities, in addition to nursing homes.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

The Senate gave final approval to legislation aimed at protecting Texas' freshwater areas. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reports indicate that areas of Texas rivers heavily traveled by motor vehicles for recreational purposes show signs of erosion and decreased fish habitat and vegetation. Senator Zaffirini addresses this problem in SB 155, which would prohibit motor vehicles from driving in or on the beds or banks of Texas rivers, with certain exceptions, and provide for the collection of a fee from violators.

"Navigable rivers and their beds are precious and irreplaceable state resources that deserve protection," said Zaffirini. "Ensuring that Texans have access to these areas is the right of every citizen, but that right should not come at the cost of uncontrolled damage to these natural treasures." A navigable river is defined in the bill as one that retains an average width of thirty feet from the mouth up. Exemptions to the bill include rights-of-way, private road crossings, motor vehicles used for official business or construction or maintenance of facilities, and private property land owners who have no reasonable alternative other than to cross a protected freshwater area to access their property on the opposite side.

Also passed by the Senate Thursday by a vote of 26-4 was legislation authored by Senator Staples confronting a weakness in the tax law. Staples explained that business property used in the production of income is subject to taxation, but since there is currently no penalty for non-compliance, many businesses have failed to report such property. According to Staples, this has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of property not being properly assessed and taxed. Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos proposed two amendments to SB 340 which he said would put teeth into the law by requiring owners to provide factual data, as opposed to the good faith estimate required by the bill, and by giving audit authority to appraisal districts. The Senate voted to table the two amendments.

Under legislation sponsored by El Paso Senator Eliot Shapleigh and approved by the Senate, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) would be allowed to create and administer a Technology Immersion Pilot Program aimed at improving educational achievement. SB 396 provides that students in as many as five school districts receive a wireless mobile computing device to use for educational purposes. The program would be prohibited from using money from the general revenue fund and would have to obtain funds from grants and other private sources. The Senate also approved of the companion bill, SB 699, also by Shapleigh, which would require the TEA to establish and maintain an education Internet portal that would provide, among other things, on-line classes, academic texts, and administrative tools for use by students, parents, and educators with the intent of providing a wider range of educational resources to more students.

The Senate agreed to allow the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services to develop a program to recruit foster parents from faith-based communities by unanimously passing SB 1489. Senator Ogden said that his bill intends to help solve the foster parent shortage in Texas. Ogden reported that there approximately 15,000 children under state custody who need homes and only 7,000 eligible foster homes. Under SB 1489, faith-based communities cannot be held liable for wrongful actions committed by foster parents recruited from their organization.

The Senate voted to increase the number of members in the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) from three to five by passing SB 409. The legislation, authored by Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio, would give the governor the authority to select the members provided they are from different regions of the state. According to Lucio, an expanded commission would allow for a fuller range of state interests to be addressed, make TTC more accessible to the public, allow TTC members to specialize in specific technology areas, and improve customer service.

Members of the Senate debated and gave tentative approval to legislation which would allow voters to decide whether to change the way judges are selected. Currently, judges on the supreme court, the court of criminal appeals, district courts, and family and probate courts are elected officials. If Senate Joint Resolution 33, sponsored by Lubbock Senator Robert Duncan, is approved by the voters, then SB 794 would authorize the creation of an appointment/retention system. Under this system, judges would be appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate, and then would be required to sit in a retention election at the completion of their term to allow voters to decide whether to retain the judge for another term.

The Senate finally passed SB 331, sponsored by Fort Worth Senator Kim Brimer, which was discussed in yesterday's session. The bill would establish a mechanism for gathering statistical information on a regional basis regarding minors who obtain judicial approval to receive an abortion without notifying their parents. Brimer said that his bill allows for appropriate oversight of judicial bypass without affecting the privacy of individual Texans.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Texas schoolchildren who are unable to participate in a traditional classroom setting would be offered another educational option under legislation approved by the Senate Wednesday. SB 933 would establish a virtual charter school program in an effort to increase flexibility and individualize educational opportunity for all Texas students. "Education should not be a 'one-size-fits-all' component of our society," said the bill's author Senator Florence Shapiro. Virtual schools would cater to students with special needs, students whose families move regularly, gifted and talented students who excel beyond the pace of a regular classroom, and parents who want the flexibility of home-based learning for their children, according to Shapiro.

SB 933 would establish virtual public schools chartered through a public college or university that would provide state mandated curriculum and assess student performance regularly. A significant portion of instruction would be delivered through the Internet or in a virtual or remote setting. The bill was amended to limit the number of virtual charter schools to two with a combined enrollment not to exceed 2,000 students and to require a charter school to provide bilingual and special language program services.

SB 280, by Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson, was approved by the Senate Wednesday. The legislation utilizes the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission's recommendation to continue the Texas Workforce Commission and modify several statutes. The two main functions of the agency are to oversee employment and job training services provided through local workforce development boards and to operate the state's unemployment insurance system.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

The Senate approved of legislation Tuesday aimed at driving down the cost of automobile insurance by finally putting teeth into the Texas law requiring drivers to carry liability insurance coverage, according to Dewhurst. Senator Teel Bivins, sponsor of SB 422, said that Texas leads the nation in the number of drivers that do not carry mandatory liability insurance, a figure as high as twenty percent. Bivins explained that his legislation is based on a successful Illinois statute that has taken that state's uninsured motorist rate down from seventeen percent to just below six percent.

SB 422 would require the Texas Department of Transportation to send out a mailing to a random sampling of 500,000 registered vehicle owners a year. A person who receives a notice will have thirty days to provide proof of insurance. If the person cannot provide proof, he or she will be subject to a fine and must provide proof that insurance coverage has been obtained. The vehicle registration will be cancelled if a person fails to comply.

Another provision of the bill would require insurance companies to standardize liability insurance cards to make them more difficult to counterfeit. Finally, the bill would allow consumers to buy uninsured motorist coverage with exemplary damage and non-economic damage coverages waived.

Two education bills authored by Senator Judith Zaffirini were passed unanimously by the Senate today. SB 1510 would streamline the monitoring process for Texas school districts by changing the on-site review cycle for Bilingual and English as a Second Language programs from three to five years. SB 60 would build on existing programs to implement a "system of care" model for coordination between state agencies to enhance the method in which services are provided to children who suffer from emotional disturbances and would streamline administrative operations and expenses.

Senator Steve Ogden introduced legislation aimed at protecting schoolchildren from educators who abuse or commit unlawful acts with students or minors. SB 1488 would require a superintendent or director of a school district, open-enrollment charter school, regional educational service center, or shared services arrangement, to file a report with the State Board for Educator Certification if they have reason to believe that an educator has engaged in certain incidents of misconduct. The bill would also require the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services to orally notify a school superintendent or school director when it investigates a public primary or secondary school employee.

The following legislation was also passed by the Senate this week:

Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's audio and video archive pages.

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