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January 16, 2009 (512) 463-0300

SENATE KICKS OFF LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Senator Duncan, Senator West, Senator Zaffirini, Senator Seliger, Senator Harris
Senator Robert Duncan (center) is escorted to the Chamber Rostrum by Senators (l-to-r) Royce West, Judith Zaffirini, Kel Seliger and Chris Harris, for his swearing in as President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

(AUSTIN) -- Lt. Governor David Dewhurst gaveled in the Senate for the 81st Legislative Session, beginning 140 days of committee hearings, floor debates, law making and budget writing. Legislators will face a number of challenges this session, foremost among them a projected revenue decrease over last biennium. State Comptroller Susan Combs released her biannual revenue estimate Monday, telling lawmakers they have about $9 billion less to work with than last session. With a growing population, increased energy demand and an uncertain national economy, state budget crafters will be scrutinizing every dollar of proposed spending.

Senator Joan Huffman, Senator Kel Seliger
Senator Kel Seliger (right) welcomes freshman Senator Joan Huffman of Houston to opening day of the 81st session.

But opening day wasnít about budget shortfalls or heated debates, it was about welcoming back returning Senators, as well as two new ones. Senators Joan Huffman of Houston and Wendy Davis of Fort Worth will bring the total number of women Senators to six, an all-time high for the Texas Senate. Senators also elected a new President Pro Tempore in Senator Robert Duncan of Lubbock. This seniority based position puts Duncan third in line for the governorship, an office he will hold whenever Governor Rick Perry and Lt. Governor Dewhurst leave the state. In nominating Duncan, his colleagues praised his spirit of bipartisanship and his legislative ability.

Another big change this session lies on the far end of the Capitol, where House Representatives have elected a new leader, Speaker Joe Straus. Straus replaces three-term speaker Tom Craddick, and while Lt. Gov. Dewhurst has only met briefly with him, he said he was impressed by what he saw. "This is a reflective, a bright individual, who wants to work with Democrats and Republicans alike," he said. " I think we'll continue to have a good working relationship with the office of the Speaker."

Energy will be a major issue this session. In order to better meet the energy demands of the growing Texas population, Amarillo Senator Kel Seliger filed a bill to bring carbon dioxide-capturing clean coal power plants to Texas. Senate Bill 483 would offer franchise tax credits, $100 billion to the first three qualifying entities, that will develop coal-burning plants that capture at least 60 percent of the CO2 they produce. These incentives, said Seliger, will put Texas at the top of the list when it comes to attracting cutting-edge coal power technology. "This provides an incentive framework that should get clean coal technology going, and it should then become the standard for coal energy production in the United States," he said.

Senator Wendy Davis
Senator Wendy Davis of Fort Worth is one of two freshmen Senators, and one of six female Senators, the most ever in the Texas Senate.

Another bill filing announced this week was Senate Bill 476, intended to increase the clout of nurses in determining their own workplace standards. Bill sponsor and Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chair Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound said attracting new nurses into the industry is vital to address the state's nursing shortage. "Our nursing shortage is critical. Unless we change some things, its going to get even worse," she said. "It's not just money and pay, itís the work environment."

Her bill would strengthen hospital nursing committees, making them standing committees that report directly to hospital administrative boards. These committees would have to be made up of at least half registered nurses, and would offer input on staffing levels, work schedules and workforce distribution. It would also offer whistleblower protection to nurses, and prohibit mandatory overtime, except in cases of disaster or emergency.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, January 26, 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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