AUSTIN -Teachers and tax cuts were the focus of the school finance proposal passed out of the Senate Wednesday, April 28. The bill allots $1.6 billion for increased teacher pay. The Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 4 increases the minimum teacher's salary by $4000 dollars a year, but only teachers who are below the new minimum salary would be guaranteed a pay raise. The bill requires schools to give at least 60% of the new state funding to teachers. The bill also provides an extra $50 million for fast growing school districts and $750 million for all districts to finance new buildings and old debt. Bill sponsor Senator Teel Bivins of Amarillo says $1.1 billion is going directly to tax cuts. Critics say it will only keep local school districts from increasing taxes. Bivins disagrees saying, "This bill results in a billion, 100 million dollars of tax dollars in taxpayers pockets."
Bivins admits that not every teacher will get a pay raise and not every homeowner will see a property tax cut. He says this bill was a compromise between competing interests and hopes the House keeps that in mind when it considers the proposal. "I'd say it's a pretty delicate balance that we've got here and if it's attempted to be pushed very far one way or the other I think we risk losing a majority vote to approve a conference committee report," said Bivins in a press conference after passage of the legislation.
Texas voters will have a chance to improve Texas highways hit hard by free trade traffic, if they approve a proposed constitutional amendment given final approval by the Senate on Friday, April 30. The Committee Substitute for Senate Joint Resolution (CSSJR) 45 allows highway improvements in areas of the state affected by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), particularly the Border area, to be funded by state bonds. Many senators agreed that the increased trade spawned by NAFTA has strained transportation along the Border but argued about the best way to pay for it. Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. sponsors CSSJR 45 and says using bonds will speed up improvements along the Rio Grande, "This one is the one that makes it possible for everything else to work, to fall into place. Without this infrastructure, without these monies being made available as a resource to the Texas Department of Transportation they cannot and they will not address those projects direly needed along the Border."
The state currently uses bonds as a finance mechanism, but not for transportation. The type of bond in this legislation allows states to use federal funds to help pay for bond costs. But Dallas Senator David Cain says Texas should stick with the 'pay as you go' method, "I sincerely believe from the bottom of my heart that the conservative position in this matter and the right position is not to fix something that's not broken."
Increased penalties for refusing to take a breathalyzer test passed out of the Senate. CSSB1774, sponsored by Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini, would lengthen the driver's license suspension period for first time and repeat offense breath test refusal and allows police officers to confiscate a driver's license at the time of arrest for breath test failure or refusal.
Courts would be required to inform juries that giving a life sentence doesn't always mean life in jail under legislation passed today. Lucio sponsors Senate Bill(SB) 39 and says that juries need to know all the facts, including that defendants are eligible for a parole hearing after 40 years, to make an informed decision. The Senate passed the bill which will be in affect for all crimes occurring on or after September 1, 1999.
Fighting gangs at the local level could get easier under legislation passed Tuesday, April 27. The Senate voted to create a statewide database containing information about street gangs. Dallas Senator Royce West sponsored CSSB 8. "It will allow law enforcement to crack down on those individuals that would organize gangs and prey on citizens whether it be crimes against a person or crimes against property," said West. West says it strikes an important balance between empowering law enforcement and protecting individual rights.
Texans may have quicker access to public information. Legislation passed Tuesday, April 27 would shorten the time the attorney general has to respond to questions from public entities about whether they need to release public records. Another provision allows the rejection of repetitious and redundant requests for information that can be costly and time-consuming. Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio sponsored CSSB 1851 and says the bill will help government agencies respond to what he calls harassing requests.
Internet access valued at $25 or less would be exempt from sales tax under CSSB 341. This brings Texas state law in compliance with recent federal law. Bryan Senator Steve Ogden sponsored the legislation which passed Wednesday, April 28.
Car insurance premiums for some Texans could be going down under CSSB 1787. The bill creates a new, cheaper, type of uninsured motorist insurance available to those drivers who are willing to give up some benefits. The bill is also designed to help reduce the number of Texans currently, and illegally, driving without liability insurance. That figure is currently estimated to be about 25 percent. Insurance cards would also be standardized in an effort to reduce fraud.
Welfare recipients who go back to work would still receive benefits during the first six months of employment. Under the current system, recipients lose eligibility once they begin a 20-hour or more per week job. Senator Judith Zaffirini of Laredo sponsored CSSB 13. Zaffirini hopes it will help ease the transition back to work.
Government agencies would have to alert the Legislature before they contract with outside attorneys under CSSB 113. Bill sponsor Senator Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay says agencies should not be allowed to award contingency fee contracts without legislative approval. He wants to make sure that money won in those lawsuits goes to the state. "This bill is about open government, accountability to the taxpayers and making sure that the Legislature gets to appropriate any money recovered by the state if the lawsuit is handled on a contingency fee basis," Fraser said. The bill is a response to actions taken during the state's tobacco lawsuit which involved multiple outside lawyers. Only future litigation will be affected.
Texas doctors would be able to join together to negotiate with health benefit plans under a bill passed Wednesday, April 28. Witnesses testifying during committee hearings on the issue showed doctors in favor but insurance companies against the bill, which is sponsored by Arlington Senator Chris Harris. Harris stressed that CSSB 1468 is not an attempt to unionize doctors; he argues it might even discourage such action.
Schools will have to work harder to keep kids in class if CSSB1561 becomes law. Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos sponsored the bill which lowers the acceptable dropout rate goal from 6 percent to 5 percent for the 2004-2005 school year. The bill would also change the way the Texas Education Agency computes dropout rates.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, May 3 at 1:30 p.m.