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April 24, 2009 (512) 463-0300

WEEK IN REVIEW

(AUSTIN) — This week saw a flurry of activity on the Senate floor, with the passage of more than 160 bills in regular session. Monday, the Senate approved reforms to the Texas Department of Insurance, aimed at clarifying the way the insurance market works in Texas. SB 1007, by Katy Senator Glenn Hegar, came as a result of the Sunset process, a periodic review that all state agencies must undergo to allow the Legislature to make necessary changes to ensure effectiveness and efficiency. Hegar's bill doesn't directly address the question of insurance premiums, but it does seek to clarify the process through which TDI regulates the industry. "There is no magic formula for lowering insurance rates, and no type of regulatory system can automatically lower rates or premiums in Texas, unfortunately," he said. "This bill better defines the file-and-use system, with stronger prior approval protections as a back drop, to bring greater stability and consistent regulation in Texas."

The market in Texas operates under a file-and-use system: companies that write homeowners insurance may file a rate change with TDI, but then go ahead and charge that rate while the agency considers if it is appropriate. The commissioner may put companies under a prior approval system, where the Commissioner of Insurance must approve all rate changes before they go into effect. SB 1007 clarifies exactly when the commissioner may do this. It would also require the agency to approve or disapprove filed rate changes within 30 days. Amendments to the bill would shorten the agency's sunset period from the usual 12 to six years, and would require a company to pay back with interest rate changes deemed unfair to customers.

Tuesday, the Senate approved a measure intended to bring Texas to the forefront of the developing solar energy market in the U.S. "Texas is recognized as the national leader in renewable energy, especially in wind generation," said bill author Senator Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay. "Senate Bill 545 allows our state to become more energy independent and to meet our renewable energy goals through the installation of solar generation." His bill would create a $500 million fund intended to encourage the development of solar power in the state from small, residential rooftop panels to large utility grade solar power arrays. Money for this fund would come from monthly surcharges on electric bills; 20 cents for residential, $2 for commercial and $20 for industrial customers. The Public Utilities Commission would run the program, and would be responsible for managing a rebate program for homeowners that install solar panels.

On Friday, the Senate passed an omnibus anti-gang bill, one that enhances penalties for a variety of gang-related crimes. "This bill represents a comprehensive approach to addressing increased gang crime in Texas," said Dallas Senator Jon Carona, author of SB 11. The bill would create gang-free zones, similar to existing drug-free zones, that enhance penalties for gang related activities in and around places frequented by children, like schools and playgrounds. It would make leading a gang a first degree felony, and would increase penalties for gang members that solicit youths to join a gang or commit a crime. The bill would also prohibit people on probation from contact with gang members, and would permit judges to suspend for one year the driver's license of anyone convicted of a gang related crime.

Other bills passed out of the Senate Chamber this week include:

- SB 1387, by Seliger, which would create a regulator framework for carbon capture and storage in Texas.

- SB 921, by Fraser, which would require more transparency for boards of directors at electric co-ops.

- SB 187, by Deuell, which would permit families with disabled children and income up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level to buy-in to the Medicaid program.

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst named the conferees for the state budget bill Friday. These five senators will meet with five counterparts from the House to hammer out differences between the budgets passed by the House and Senate. They are Senators Steve Ogden of Bryan, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen, Tommy Williams of the Woodlands, Royce West of Dallas and Florence Shapiro of Plano. After members of the conference committee reach agreement, the full bodies of both houses will vote on the final state budget.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 27 at 11 a.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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