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February 15, 2007 (512) 463-0300

SENATE OKS EXCEEDING SPENDING CAP

(AUSTIN) -- In order to pay for the local property tax cut passed last session, the Senate voted Wednesday to approve a measure that would allow the state budget to exceed the spending cap for the upcoming biennium. According to the state constitution, the budget may not exceed estimated economic growth in Texas, as determined by the Legislative Budget Board. This year the LBB determined that growth was anticipated at 13.11 percent, which caps the budget at $63 billion in non-dedicated state funds. Cutting property taxes down to $1 per $100 valuation will require $14 billion in general revenue funds to offset the revenue loss to local school districts, but that expenditure would put the state over the budget cap.

On Wednesday, Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 20 before the Senate, which would permit lawmakers to write a budget that would exceed the spending cap, permitting an appropriation of $14.19 billion dollars devoted solely to cutting property taxes by one-third. Ogden said this resolution would allow the Legislature to deliver on last session's promised cuts without drastically slashing government services. "If we are going to live up to our promises, which is to cut property taxes by $14 billion and pay for it with general revenue, and we are going to write a state budget that is at least as good as the base bill, we have got to vote to exceed the constitutional spending cap of $63 billion by at least $9 billion," he said.

Also Wednesday, the Senate approved Senate Joint Resolution 13, by Waco Senator Kip Averitt. This measure would pass along the one-third property tax cut to Texans over 65, whose property taxes were frozen at a lower rate by past Legislatures.

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Greenville Senator Bob Deuell announced the filing of a Jessica's Law bill for Texas this week. Senate Bill 5, authored by Deuell, will follow the model of Florida's sex offender bill, named after Jessica Lunsford, a young girl who was raped and murdered in February of 2005. Many other states have passed similar legislation, but the Texas measure would have some new provisions. This bill would stiffen penalties for sex crimes against children under 14, mandating a 25-year minimum sentence for first time offenders, and it would give prosecutors the option of seeking the death penalty for second time offenders. Offenders who get out of prison would be subject to 24-hour GPS monitoring for life. Deuell said its time the state handed out harder penalties for those who would commit sex offenses against children. "As a family physician, I have seen it in my practice how these cases can affect the well-being of children and the impact it has on families and society. As I've said before, I'm simply tired of it," he said. "I'm tired of it as a Senator, as a doctor and as a father."

PHOTO
Senator Kip Averitt lays out his plan for meeting EPA clean-air standards by enhancing current state emissions reduction programs.

Senator Averitt said Thursday that the state must be more aggressive in meeting federal air pollution standards if it is to meet EPA-mandated guidelines. He filed Senate Bill 12 to enhance two state programs, the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) and the Low-Income Vehicle Repair Assistance Program (LIRAP). These programs have a combined fund balance of nearly $200 million dedicated to reducing mobile source pollution, and Averitt says its time the state spent those dollars where they were intended. "The EPA has deadlines for us, those deadlines are looming, we have money in the bank, and there is no reason we shouldn't make an aggressive effort as we approach those deadlines to do everything we can to reduce emissions in the state," he said.

SB12 would move the TERP attainment deadlines to 2013 to allow for more time to meet state and federal requirements. In addition to increasing funding to the program, the bill would expand the coverage areas for pollutant attainment areas to include the highways between TERP-targeted urban areas. For LIRAP, the bill would seek to increase participation of low-income Texans in repairing or replacing older, more-polluting vehicles by increasing the eligibility requirements from 200 percent of the federal poverty level to 300 percent, by increasing the vehicle replacement incentive from $1000 to $2500 or $3500 for hybrid car purchases, and marketing the program to increase consumer awareness. State Representative Jim Bonnen, who will carry the legislation in the House, said it's important for the air quality in Texas to help low-income individuals replace old cars. "The vital thing in cleaning Texas' air is understanding that you have to get old cars off the road," said Bonnen. "But it's also understanding that you have to provide the opportunity for our poor working Texans to get out of that old car."

The Senate will reconvene Monday, February 19, at 1: 30 p.m.

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

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