AUSTIN - The Senate of the 76th Legislature Regular Session adjourned 'Sine Die' at 6:19 p.m. yesterday, May 31, 1999. 'Sine Die' is the Latin term for 'without another day.' Sidney Perry, daughter of Lt. Governor Rick Perry, hit the gavel for her dad for the last time during this session. The Texas Legislature convenes at 12 noon on the second Tuesday in January of the odd numbered years for 140 days. This session began January 12 and continued through May 31.
On the last day of session the Senate elected Senator Rodney Ellis to the position of President Pro Tempore. As President Pro Tempore, Ellis acts as chief executive in the absence of the governor and lt. governor. Ellis has been a member of the Senate since 1990 and represents part of Harris County.
The Senate recognized San Antonio Senator Gregory Luna on the last day. Luna has been hospitalized and was unable to return for the final days of the session. Several senators rose to speak on Luna's accomplishments as a legislator, particularly in the area of education. Luna has served in the Senate since 1993 and served from 1985-1992 in the Texas House of Representatives.
The Senate had another special moment on Monday. Secretary of the Senate Betty King was recognized for her tenure and success as the Senate's chief elected officer. King has served as Secretary of the Senate since 1977, and for the Senate since 1949. Many members spoke of her influence on maintaining Senate traditions. She is known for her patience and loyalty with both elected officials and staff.
Texas teachers, taxpayers and children will all benefit from the school finance proposal passed this session. Bill sponsor Senator Teel Bivins of Amarillo says the $3.8 billion proposal includes the largest increase in state funding for public schools in Texas history. Teachers will get a $3000 pay raise under the proposal. The state will help schools fund facilities--providing funds for paying off building debts and funding new buildings. Fast growing districts get extra help. He says the bill includes more than a billion dollars in tax cuts.
Senate Bill (SB) 4 dedicates $300 million for creating new pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs and programs for at-risk ninth graders. The bill also includes the proposal to end social promotion. The legislation is designed to reduce the number of children promoted even though they fail the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) tests. Currently, students must pass the TAAS exit tests to graduate from high school. The tests are intended to measure whether students are academically prepared for the future.
Texas students will be taking the TAAS test more often under SB 103. The tests will also be broader, including questions on science and social studies. Bivins sponsored the bill.
Money for college will be available for some Texas students. The Texas Grant Program will award $100 million in scholarships based on financial need. The money will go towards tuition and fees for about 20,000 students. Houston Senator Rodney Ellis sponsored House Bill (HB) 713.
The state budget was approved and delivered to the state comptroller. The budget is the only item lined out in the Texas Constitution that the Legislature must pass each session. The $98.1 billion budget laid out in HB 1 will fund state government for the next two years. Education will get the biggest slice of the budget pie.
Consumer and business tax relief is on the way to Texans. SB 441 includes $500 million in sales tax cuts for over-the counter medicine and a 3-day sales tax holiday in August for back-to-school clothes. Computer users will get a tax break on the first $25 worth of Internet access charges each month. Businesses will get tax credits for research and development and investing in areas with high unemployment and low income--a proposal worth over $136 million. Small businesses earning less than $150,000 will be exempt from the franchise tax. The bill also includes tax credits for businesses that provide day care services for their employees and corporations that finance before and after school programs. Ellis sponsored the bill.
Legislation to provide health insurance for children in families that earn too much income to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford health insurance has become law. The Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, could provide coverage for half of a million Texas children. Bill sponsor Senator Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth says SB 445 is one of the most important bills passed this session for Texas children. The bill was signed by governor.
Texas consumers will be able to choose their own electric providers in the new millennium. SB 7 will open the electric utility market to competition. Supporters of the bill, including bill sponsor Waco Senator David Sibley, believe Texas consumers will benefit from lower prices in a competitive market.
The cost of a long distance call within Texas should decrease under legislation now awaiting the governor's approval. SB 560 will also cap basic phone services--including call waiting-- for six years. However, Southwestern Bell will be able to set their price for optional services like Caller I.D. Waco Senator David Sibley sponsored the bill.
Minors in Texas will have to notify their parents or legal guardian if they want to get an abortion. The only other legal option for them is to obtain permission from a judge. Plano Senator Florence Shapiro sponsored SB 30.
Cars and trucks will be speeding down U.S. and state highways with the same speed limits under HB 676 if the governor allows it to become law. Trucks will only get to speed up in areas outside of cities. A county commissioners court will have input on whether to lower speed limits on certain farm or ranch to market roads. The final decision is up to the Texas Department of Transportation.
The governor signed into law a bill that lowers the legal blood alcohol content. Now drivers will only need a .08 blood alcohol content to be considered intoxicated. Galena Park Senator Mario Gallegos, Jr. sponsored SB 114.
Improving living conditions along the border was another goal of the Legislature. Colonias will have greater access to vital services such as water, sewer and electricity under a bill sent to the governor. SB 1421 was authored by senators representing areas along the Rio Grande.
Annexation reform legislation also passed both houses. SB 89 is intended to give affected residents a voice in the process and to encourage responsible annexation. People in an area being considered for annexation gain the ability to negotiate for services. San Antonio Senator Frank Madla sponsored the bill.
Businesses who do not abide by current air quality standards will have to catch up or pay the price. Some companies built before the 1971 Clean Air Act escaped the new, stricter standards. SB 766, sponsored by Lake Jackson Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown, encourages those businesses to volunteer to update their technology by ten years and reduce their emissions. Those who do not volunteer by September 1, 2001 will have to pay an increased fee for all of their emissions.
Trying your luck with the Texas lottery could be worth more. A bill allowing the Lottery Commission to set prize payout without a limit by the Legislature is on the way to the governor. HB 844, sponsored by Victoria Senator Ken Armbrister, would reduce the amount of money the agency can spend on advertising as the payout gets bigger.
The Legislature is concerned about what happens to sexual predators after they are released from prison. A proposal that would keep track of sexual predators with electronic monitoring devices, is on the way to becoming law. 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.
Many bills that died over the course of the session either stalled in a committee or were killed by a legislative deadline. Some of the most controversial issues legislators faced this session, including school vouchers and hate crimes legislation were in that group. The school voucher plan to use public money to send some Texans to private schools, failed to make it through the legislative process. Emotional debates over hates crimes legislation threatened to stall Senate action as the Legislature began winding down. The hate crimes bill never made in out of a Senate committee for consideration on the floor. The bill would have enhanced the penalties for crimes motivated by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, religion or sexual preference. HB 938 was named after James Byrd Jr, the victim of a racially motivated murder in Jasper, Texas last summer.
The governor now has the choice of whether and how legislation becomes law. He can sign or veto legislation, or allow it to become law without his signature. During the Legislative session, the governor has 10 days excepting Sundays to decide the fate of each bill. Upon final adjournment of the Legislature, the time increases to 20 days. More information on legislation considered this session can be found on the Internet at www.capitol.state.tx.us. For specific information about Senate action and activities go to www.senate.state.tx.us.