AUSTIN - The Texas Senate is concerned about the activities of sexual predators after they are released from prison. Senate members voted in favor of a compromise proposal that would keep track of sexual predators with electronic monitoring devices, rather than confining them to a special facility. These felons have been convicted of two or more sexually violent offenses and still suffer from mental problems which make them likely to become repeat offenders.
The bill's sponsor, Senator Florence Shapiro of Plano, says it is a unique kind of criminal that needs a unique brand of attention. "The status quo is unacceptable. The status quo we have today in Texas says very clearly that once they are released we never have a opportunity to see, hear or do anything about it. This bill would change that," said Shapiro.
The Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 29 has a much cheaper price tag and more support than the original proposal which called for confinement. Shapiro worked with Houston Senator John Whitmire on the compromise. Whitmire believes the bill will not only become law but set a precedent for the nation.
The Senate also approved a bill changing the way a community is notified when the worst sex offenders move or are released from prison. Senator Mike Jackson of La Porte sponsored the CSSB 1650, which passed on Friday.
Juveniles caught committing a crime that involves a firearm will be kept in custody up to 48 hours under the Committee Substitute for House Bill (CSHB) 1269. Under current law, juveniles are released to their parents or guardians until a detention hearing is set. Senate sponsor Senator Florence Shapiro of Plano says this will not necessarily prevent violent action like the shooting at Columbine High School but could alert officials to a problem. "I'm not sure anything we could ever do in the Legislature could change Littleton, Colorado," said Shapiro. "And I don't ever mean to reference it as though, here is the magic bullet. It is not the magic bullet." The bill is now awaiting the Governor's approval.
The state lottery may have a bigger payoff if legislation passed Monday, May 3, becomes law. The Senate voted to remove the limit on the amount of money the lottery can award as prizes in a year. The Lottery Commission will have to decrease its advertising budget as the average prize payout increases. The prize cap was put on during the last legislative session. Victoria Senator Ken Armbrister is the Senate sponsor for CSHB 844. He says that the idea of making more money out of a smaller pool was misguided, "Lottery doesn't operate that way, Vegas doesn't make their money that way. Bingo doesn't make their money that way they make their money out of enhancement of the pool."
More tax incentives are on way for Texas business. Businesses that provide day care services for their employees would get a tax cut under CSSB 58 passed Tuesday, May 4. Bill sponsor Senator Tom Haywood of Wichita Falls says this proposal will help Texas stay competitive in recruiting companies. He says the demand for child care is booming because of welfare reform and this will make it easier for some Texans to get back to work.
Texans receiving public assistance will have to get back to work sooner even if they have young children. Single parents with children under the age of four are currently exempt from the work requirement -- but that provision does not match federal law. Legislation passed this week will phase out the exemption by September 1, 2001. After that date, a single parent will only be exempt from that requirement until their child's first birthday. This change would bring Texas into compliance with federal law. Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini sponsored CSSB 666.
Voters will have another bond issue to consider in November if a constitutional amendment passed in the Senate makes it out of the Capitol. Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 34, also called the Bootstrap Self-Help Housing Program, would provide loans to colonia families who would build their own homes with their own labor. The lack of funding and the need for affordable housing in the colonias prompted this legislation.
The Senate also passed CSSB 1323, would give cities and counties the power to reject plans for new subdivisions unless a source of groundwater is assured. Bill sponsor Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio says they should make sure they have the water resources available to fit the demands before developing, especially in rural areas.
Misuse of the so-called 'date rape' drug, Rohipnol, to commit a sexual assault will have greater penalties under legislation passed Wednesday, May 5. Dallas Senator David Cain sponsored Senate Bill (SB)1100. He says the pill, which is illegal in the United States, is as dangerous as any weapon. "It's the drug's ability to steal memory that makes it so dangerous, and I believe, makes its use every bit as violent as holding a gun or a knife to a throat during a rape. Having no memory of a brutal and cowardly assault adds a whole new level of danger to a despicable crime," said Cain.
The Senate also passed CSSB 266, which allows certain private schools to participate in University Interscholastic League activities. Schools must be single sex and follow the same rules as public schools to participate. Currently, only seven schools, which are located in Dallas, Houston, El Paso and San Antonio, qualify. Armbrister sponsored CSSB 266.
Promoting diversity in graduate and professional schools in Texas is the goal of CSSB 1356, passed Thursday, May 6. Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos sponsored the bill, which sets guidelines to assist schools in their efforts to diversify their student bodies. Supporters argue that schools need to consider factors other than just test scores in deciding who is admitted. They urged the schools to consider factors like financial need and personal background. The Legislature passed a similar bill for undergraduate admissions last session. The bills are a response to the Hopwood decision which prevents Texas schools from using race as a criteria for admission.
CSHB 938, the hate crimes legislation, sparked a special meeting of the Criminal Justice Committee and a visit by Renee Mullins, the daughter of the late James Byrd Jr. of Jasper, Texas. The hate crimes legislation is named for Byrd, who was the victim of a racially motivated murder last summer. Mullins described her father's brutal murder then pleaded with senators to pass the legislation. "This was not just a crime against a 49 year old African-American that was disabled but a crime against all humanity," Mullins testified.
The bill enhances the penalties for crimes motivated by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, religion or sexual preference. Supporters say the legislation is necessary because the current statute is so vague its not even being used in the prosecution of Byrd's murder. Opponents argue that what is needed is vigorous prosecution under current law. The bill was left pending in committee.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, May 10, at 1:30 p.m.