AUSTIN - During the final days of the regular session, there are many rules affecting the progress of bills in the Legislature. The last day for the Senate to pass bills on second and third reading was Wednesday, May 25. The Senate will now focus on bills passed out of both the House and Senate. Senators have the option of concurring with amendments added in the House and sending the legislation to the governor, or requesting a conference committee to work out differences between the different versions approved by either chamber. A conference committee is made up of five members of each body appointed by the presiding officers. Sunday, May 30, will be the final day for the Senate to concur on House amendments or adopt conference committee reports. The Legislature will adjourn 'Sine Die' on Monday, May 31.
On Thursday, the Senate agreed to the budget plan that was worked out in the appropriations conference committee. House Bill (HB) 1, the $98.1 billion budget, will fund state government for the next two years. Education will get the biggest slice of the budget pie, with 60 percent of all new money. Finance Chair Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant said a healthy economy made it easier to satisfy more of Texas' needs. "I think we made a good run at addressing all of the items but not, in many cases, to the extent that we would have liked to," said Ratliff.
Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos gave the only 'no' vote on the budget plan. He argued that Texas teachers and children deserve more than they are receiving. "For the first time in a long time we have extra money to spend, and have chosen not to adequately address some of the areas we have neglected far too long," said Barrientos. The budget is the only item lined out in the Texas Constitution that the Legislature must pass each session.
Texas consumers will be able to choose their own electric providers in the new millennium if the governor signs the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill 7. The Senate agreed with House changes to a bill opening the electric utility market to competition. Supporters of the legislation, including bill sponsor David Sibley of Waco, believe Texas consumers will benefit from lower prices in a competitive market. "There will be no more business as usual, this ends the era of captive consumers in the State of Texas," said Sibley.
Legislation to provide health insurance for children in families that earn too much income to qualify for medicaid but cannot afford health insurance made its final run through the Senate on Monday. The Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, could provide coverage for half of a million Texas children. The compromise legislation ironed out by a conference committee of Senate and House members is on its way to the governor's desk.
Bill sponsor Senator Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth says Senate Bill (SB) 445 is a carefully crafted compromise. "Among all the bills that we pass this session, few will have the lasting impact on the children, indeed the future of this state," said Moncrief.
On September 1, 1999, minors in Texas will have to notify their parents or legal guardian if they want to get an abortion if CSSB 30 becomes law. The only other legal option for them is to obtain permission from a judge. Attempts to allow other options - such as other family members, members of the clergy, and justices of the peace - failed in both the House and the Senate. Plano Senator Florence Shapiro sponsored CSSB 30 and says it is a parental rights issue.
Senator Mike Moncrief hopes minors will go to their parents as Shapiro plans, but fears some will choose a dangerous, illegal abortion instead. "I have this to say to you today--I pray you're right," said Moncrief. "I pray you're right." The Senate concurred with House changes to the bill. The bill now goes to the governor's desk for final approval.
Tax credits were rolling out of the Senate on Wednesday. Small businesses would be exempt from the franchise tax under HB 551. The $120 million proposal would apply to businesses that earn less than $250,000 annually. Horseshoe Bay Senator Troy Fraser sponsored the bill. "This bill recognizes that small businesses provide the framework and the engine of the Texas economy because they create jobs," said Fraser.
Other businesses could get a break under research and development tax credits which were added on to that bill. The amendment gives tax credits to businesses that create jobs or invest in areas with high unemployment and low income, or create agricultural processing jobs in counties with fewer than 250,000 residents. The research and development tax credits apply in all Texas counties.
Also on Wednesday, the Senate passed HB 2372 which exempts over-the-counter medicine from sales tax. Houston Senator Rodney Ellis sponsored the bill which was expanded to include other sales tax cuts. The Senate adopted an amendment to create a sales tax holiday for 16 days before the school year begins; clothing and shoes costing less than $100 could be purchased tax free.
El Paso Senator Eliot Shapleigh questioned whether the Legislature has all this money to spend cutting taxes. Ratliff said they have $500 million set aside for various tax cuts including those passed this week, and they will probably work out the numbers later in the process.
Drunk drivers would lose their license when stopped under legislation passed Tuesday, May 25. Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini sponsored an amendment to HB 2031 which allows an officer to take a drunk driver's license on the spot. Zaffirini says that threat will help keep people from driving while intoxicated.
"Suspending a driver's license certainly is a deterrent that could save lives and avert tragedies," said Zaffirini. The proposal increases the length of license suspensions for both refusing and for failing a breathalyser test. The penalties are more harsh for first arrests as well as repeat offenders. Also in this bill, officers could confiscate licenses upon arrest, but then issue a temporary driving permit which would be valid for up to 40 days.
Another amendment attached to HB 2031 targeted uninsured drivers. It requires the Texas Department of Transportation to send out random notices to verify that people with vehicles registered in Texas have adequate insurance coverage. Those who do not send back proof of insurance may have to pay a fine and could have their vehicle registration suspended. Insurance identification cards would also be standardized to help reduce counterfeiting and fraud. Amarillo Senator Teel Bivins sponsored the amendment. "It is proven to dramatically reduce uninsured motorists in Illinois. And that's what this bill would do," said Bivins.
Daytime driving could be a little faster on state highways. The Senate passed a bill allowing the Texas Department of Transportation to raise the maximum speed limit from 70 to 75 miles per hour on state-maintained highways. HB 3328 also allows a speed limit of 80 miles per hour on east-west interstate highways in Texas counties with populations of less than 25,000. San Antonio Senator Frank Madla sponsored the bill.
Parents would find out if their children are being taught by uncertified teachers under the Committee Substitute for House Bill 618 which passed Tuesday, May 25. Schools would have to notify parents in writing if an uncertified or improperly certified teacher teaches the same class for 30 or more consecutive days. Beaumont Senator David Bernsen sponsored the bill.
The Senate will reconvene Saturday, May 29 at 10:00a.m.