AUSTIN--Money for college could be on the way to Texans who meet requirements for academic achievement and financial need. The Hope Grant Program, formerly called the Hope Scholarship Program, will award at least $100 million to about 20,000 students who qualify. Houston Senator Rodney Ellis sponsored the Committee Substitute to Senate Bill (CSSB) 37 with support from Senators of both parties in its passage. He attributed its bipartisan success to Lt. Governor Rick Perry. Perry says the program will expand the opportunities of students throughout the state, saying "The one hundred million dollar scholarship program says to our young people that the Texas dream is available to you. Whether you live in the barrios on the border or in the suburbs a college degree is more important than ever in today's competitive global economy."
The school voucher bill barely passed out of the Education Committee Wednesday, March 24 on a straight party line vote--five Republicans for the bill and four Democrats against. Perry supports the bill and says he's not frustrated by the lack of bipartisan support. "I never get discouraged in this process. I am the eternal optimist and this will be an ongoing process and a work in progress." Senators heard mixed testimony on the school voucher bill. Senate Bill (SB)10 would give certain students living in the six largest Texas counties the option to pay for private schooling with public money. Supporters say qualifying students should have the option but its opponents argue against taking any money away from public schools. Under the bill as currently written private schools would get 80 percent of the total amount of state and local public school funding for a student's education. Bill sponsor Teel Bivins of Amarillo plans to cap the number of students who can participate to prevent a mass exodus from public schools.
A water rights bill finally passed the Senate on Tuesday, March 23 after a two and one-half hour filibuster the night before by freshman Senator David Bernsen of Beaumont. Bernsen said he wanted to bring attention to the issue before it passed out of the Senate. CSSB 143 amends the water bill passed last session. It deletes the provision mandating that all water transferred through an interbasin transfer is junior in priority to all waters in the basin. This means that no water would be transferred in times of drought or shortage. Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown of Lake Jackson sponsored the bill.
Annexation reform legislation also passed the Senate. CSSB 87, is intended to give affected residents a voice in the process. People in an area up for annexation gain the ability to negotiate for services. San Antonio Senator Frank Madla says hard work over the interim and open minds helped get the bill passed. "I think it demonstrated that it doesn't matter how divergent the views can be, individuals who are willing to solve problems in Texas can do so regardless of political philosophies."
A proposed constitutional amendment could change the way Texas voters choose judges. The Committee Substitute for Senate Joint Resolution (CSSJR) 9 would require the Governor to appoint appellate judges, which are currently elected. Supporters say it would help judges avoid ethical dilemmas while in the midst of political campaigns. Senator Robert L. Duncan of Lubbock sponsored CSSJR 9. Texans may be going to the polls no more than four times in a year if the CSSB 35 makes it into law. The bill, sponsored by Senator Florence Shapiro of Plano, consolidates some state and local elections into no more than four election days per year. She says too many elections discourage people from voting. Opponents countered that not all areas have this problem and that local officials should have the final say on election dates, not the Legislature.
Teen drug abuse in Texas has prompted new legislation from the Senate. The members voted on Tuesday, March 23, to increase penalties for dealers whose drug sales result in serious bodily injury or death to the user. Shapiro sponsored CSSB 41. She is sponsoring a package of drug-related legislation this session because of recent drug overdoses in her district. Shapiro also sponsored CSSB 43 which requires doctors to report certain illegal drug overdoses to the Department of Health.
Arguments about whether to limit lawsuits against gun makers continue in the Texas Senate. SB 717 sponsor Senator Jon Lindsay of Houston says he's trying to stop a national trend of lawsuits by local governments against the gun industry before it reaches Texas. The bill prevents the state, cities, counties, the Attorney General and other government agencies from suing gun and ammunition manufacturers without the Legislature's approval. Other Senators were concerned that even the lawyer elected to represent the State of Texas--the Attorney General--couldn't file a lawsuit without permission under this law.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 29 at 1:30 p.m.