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March 20, 2009 (512) 463-0300

WEEK IN REVIEW

(AUSTIN) — The 81st Legislature reached a significant mark last Friday, passing the 60th day of session. Senate rules prohibit most legislation from being considered before this day, so this week the Senate began passing bills not tagged as emergency legislation by the Governor. Wednesday, the Senate approved a controversial voter ID bill, one that would require Texans to prove their identity before they cast a vote. Voters would have to show one form of photo ID, like a driver's license, or two non-photo forms of ID, like a utility bill and a library card. Those without accepted ID's could cast a provisional ballot. Proponents of the bill contended that voter fraud is a serious problem in Texas, while opponents argued the bill could disenfranchise certain voters, especially the disabled and elderly.

Another bill passed Wednesday, one that could affect many Texas drivers, would increase penalties for illegally parking in a handicapped spot. SB 52 by Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini, would increase the fine for a first offense from a maximum of $500 to a maximum of $750. Penalties would increase for subsequent offenses, up to $1,100 and 50 hours of community service for a fourth offense.

Thursday, the Senate passed a bill that would permit needle-exchange programs for drug abusers in Texas. According Greenville Senator Bob Deuell, the bill's author, Texas is the only state in the nation that prevents such programs. His bill, SB 188, would allow non-profit groups to offer one-to-one syringe exchanges, in addition to drug abuse counseling and education programs for prevention of communicable diseases. Deuell said that dirty needles are a real public health issue. "As a physician, I looked at the data," said Deuell, a practicing family doctor, "and I found that it decreases HIV, it decreases Hepatitis B and C, it saves the state money."

The Transportation and Homeland Security Committee considered bills Wednesday aimed at improving the way Texas pays for its roads and highways. One of these bills, SB 855, would permit metropolitan counties to hold local-option elections to raise money to fund local transportation projects. The bill's author, committee Chairman Senator John Carona of Dallas, said it's difficult to find funding methods that have broad support. "There are very few things that we can do that we can garner political support for in sufficient amounts to make a meaningful difference," he said. "This, I believe, is one responsible way to get there, because it is voluntary and it does allow voter involvement." The bill would permit county commissioners' courts to hold elections where voters could decide to raise fees to pay for new transportation costs, from highways and bridges to light-rail service. Ballots in these elections would have to list each proposed project's cost and time to complete. While the bill considered before the committee only included the Metroplex, San Antonio and Austin regions, Carona said officials from Houston and El Paso have expressed interest in joining in.

Thursday, the Natural Resources Committee heard testimony on a bill intended to improve air quality in Texas. SB 16, by Waco Senator Kip Averitt, would direct various state agencies that deal with environmental polices to administer a grant program to encourage the development of new, more efficient and greener methods of energy generation and emission reduction in Texas. The bill would direct these agencies to encourage a transition to more efficient building codes and electric appliances. It would also seek to build the hybrid car market in Texas, offering a $4,000 rebate for purchasers of plug-in electric vehicles.

Averitt specifically pointed out provisions in the bill that would direct state officials to get involved with emission negotiations at the federal level. Because the state generates so much energy, and in turn so many greenhouse emissions, he said Texas has a lot at stake when the federal government starts to write environmental regulations. "Texas has so much to lose in that argument," Averitt said. "It is imperative, in my opinion, that somebody be speaking for our state and helping those folks in Washington, D.C., understand our Texas economy and business, and let them know about the things we're doing here and what ramifications their decisions will have on our state."

The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 23, 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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