Senator Carona's Capitol Update
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CAPITOL UPDATE

April 7, 2003

Dear Friends:

For those of you just tuning in, this is Capitol Update, with your legislator, Senator John Carona. We take you to the midpoint of the 78th legislative session, where the new Republican leadership is busy galvanizing support for its fiscally conservative agenda. The 78th Legislature faces many unique challenges this year including: the change in leadership, a budget chasm and faltering economy, the Columbia space shuttle tragedy, and increased homeland security concerns since the outbreak of war. And, the Legislature must confront the herculean tasks of overhauling an out-of-date school finance system and reversing skyrocketing homeowners and medical malpractice insurance premiums.

On Friday, March 14 the window of opportunity for filing non-local and non-emergency bills and joint resolutions officially closed. Back at the Capitol, legislators and their staff are engrossed in discussions about pending legislation. With so little time left for hearings, bill authors and sponsors are scrambling to line up witnesses and shore up support in both houses for their legislative proposals. It is already evident that budget pressures have staunched the flow of bills this session and may restrict the number passed to those that show immediate results, have no fiscal impact, or require simple changes to the law.

STATE BUDGET

The revenue shortfall has dominated the 2003 session as legislators work to write a balanced budget for the next biennium. State Comptroller Strayhorn's revenue estimates keep plunging, prompting Texas leaders to reconsider all state programs. Obviously, the first and highest priority is to reduce spending, thus living within our means. Governor Perry, Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, and House Speaker Craddick led this effort by requesting that state agencies submit plans for reducing their current budgets, while still being careful to reassess the core mission of the agency and paring down to provide essential services. Both chambers have been engaged in a series of finance meetings outlining budget cut proposals for individual agencies, but further analysis and testimony have proved none of these cuts will be painless. The Governor is adamant that legislators avoid 'quick fix' solutions such as using the rainy day fund or selling off part of the state's tobacco settlement to balance the budget. He favors instead drawing from the rainy day fund to establish a more hospitable climate for economic development in Texas. The challenge is thus to make appropriate reductions that are considered good public policy both now and in the future. Since session is halfway underway, the participants must work diligently with each other and the public on writing the next budget. It might be the one great feat of the Legislature during regular session, or it might play out late into the summer in a special session.

EDUCATION

INSURANCE REFORM

TORT REFORM

Tort and insurance reform, while intuitively connected, are proving to be politically divisive. The major house bill that is just now making its way over to the Senate, is a comprehensive civil justice reform bill intended to address and correct problems that currently impair the fairness and efficiency of our court system. Its aim is to clear the dockets of non-meritous lawsuits, halt the increase in jury awards including those for non-economic damages, and address the unreasonable pressure to settle defensible claims. This litigious climate comes at too high a cost for medical providers and others in the private sector, in addition to consumers. Key components of the reform bill include: a cap on non-economic damages for medical liability claims, provisions for payment of future damages as accrued, limitations on plaintiff attorney contingency fee contracts, some cost-shifting of litigation costs, and class action reforms.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

HOMELAND SECURITY

After September 11, 2001, Governor Rick Perry appointed a Texas Task Force on Homeland Security comprised of several appointees who advised him on such matters as: emergency preparedness and response, facilitating coordination among agencies, and other related matters. The task force was able to identify issues to be addressed by state and local agencies, but did not explain how those efforts would be coordinated or how the information gathered by the agencies and governmental entities would be reported. Current proposals in the Senate and the House seek to provide a more centralized communication and coordination effort out of the Governor's office and call for the development of a statewide homeland security strategy that would complement the federal homeland security strategy and would be funded in part by federal grants. Both major bills would establish more permanent advisory councils and committees made up of representatives from various state and local agencies, and in some cases, non-governmental entities, that would coordinate and document all homeland security efforts in the state. While the House and Senate bills are very similar in structure and in intent, the Senate version precludes reports submitted to the Critical Infrastructure Protection Council, a council established by the bill, from public disclosure due to the highly sensitive nature of their content.

Other homeland security measures being reviewed address concerns about school safety, pecuniary losses for terroristic threats, Internet security, protection of natural resources from eco- or biological terrorism, and safety along the state's border and at its ports. The Governor's Office also revealed that it is developing a Texas homeland security website and has made its new Texas school safety handbook available to schools.

TRANSPORTATION

This session we have the opportunity to approve legislative policy that would improve our transportation networks, relieve congestion, and enhance passenger safety around the state by funding the Texas Mobility Fund and the Trans Texas Corridor.

HOME EQUITY LENDING

Home equity legislation filed this session is designed to provide comprehensive consumer protection for homeowners seeking more flexible payment options for their homes. The proposals on the table address one or more of the following: lines of credit, interpretative authority, cure provisions, and reverse mortgages.

WORKERS' COMPENSATION

JUDICIAL REFORM

The concept of an appointment/retention election system for judges and justices has surfaced again this session. The proposal in question would require the governor, with the consent of the Senate, to fill judicial vacancies as they arise, and then force the appointees to face a nonpartisan retention election during the general election in which voters could decide whether to retain the judges. The intent, according to the bill's author, is to make statewide courts more diverse, ensure through a screening process that judges in office are better qualified, and improve the public perception of the judicial system. If passed by the Legislature, and approved by voters, Texas would join the majority of states having an appointed/retention system.

REDISTRICTING

One Texas state senator has taken the initiative to file a redistricting bill that would establish a nine-member independent, bipartisan citizen redistricting commission to draw district lines for congressional districts, state senate districts, and state representative districts. Traditionally, the Legislature apportions Texas into senate and representative districts at the legislature's first regular session after the publication of the United States decennial census. This proposal was created in response to the 1991 Supreme Court ruling that Texas was guilty of gerrymandering. The independent Texas Redistricting Commission, comprised by gubernatorial appointees approved by the state senate, is designed to ensure that political boundaries be redrawn to make sure that each Texan is more accurately represented. Although several other states have created similar commissions, statewide support for this body is mixed, due to concerns that new lines drawn to reflect the growing population would create artificial barriers between communities with many commonalties.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM

NATURAL RESOURCES/ENVIRONMENT

AGENCIES UP FOR SUNSET REVIEW

During every biennial legislative session, 20-30 state agencies come up for reassessment by a commission of 10 legislators and public members appointed by the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House who determine whether the functions of the agencies in question are still needed in the state. The process includes many opportunities for public participation and debate on substantive issues. Among the 24 agencies slated for review this year are the Texas Aerospace Commission, Texas Department of Economic Development, Texas Ethics Commission, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the Texas Lottery Commission, and the Texas Workforce Commission. This session, leaders will be scrutinizing agencies more than ever in an effort to reduce fraud, waste, and inefficiency and generate savings for the state. State Comptroller Strayhorn recommended abolishing the Texas Department of Economic Development, deemed ineffective by both the Texas State Auditor's Office and the Sunset Advisory Commission, and transferring its economic development and tourism functions to the Governor's Office and the Texas Department of Transportation respectively.

IDENTITY THEFT

In response to recent cyber security threats in the UT System and in the nation, several legislators have proposed bills that would protect citizens and consumers from identity theft. Some of these bills would restrict the use of Social Security numbers on state records, including identification cards, and as personal identifiers in all institutions of higher education of the state. Other bills include measures to prevent further incidence of this growing problem in Texas and the nation, by omitting at least four digits of the credit cardholder's account number on printed receipts. Additional bills filed would help law enforcement combat identity theft and assist victims recovering from this theft, by establishing guidelines for the criminal investigation and reporting and by providing criminal penalties for the offense. Victims would also be able to place a freeze on their credit reports while the alleged crime is being investigated, to prevent further financial loss and damage to their credit history. Using electronic devices, such as scanners or re-encoders to obtain personal identification information from the magnetic strips of credit cards without the cardholder's consent, could also be a punishable offense.

PROMPT PAY

Issues related to the prompt payment of physicians' claims by insurers have confronted lawmakers since 1997. The 77th Legislature enacted legislation to further revise prompt-payment requirements and establish requirements for submission of a clean claim, but the bill was subsequently vetoed. Texas physicians contend that insurers are slow to pay or refuse to pay for services rendered to insured patients; insurers contend that providers do not provide complete and accurate billing information. Despite passage of state law in 1999 that was intended to accelerate payments to providers and rules clarifying the definition of a clean claim adopted by the Texas Department of Insurance in 2000, physicians still claim that insurers have been able to avoid prompt payment of claims. The Senate Special Interim Committee on Prompt Payment of Health Care Providers was established to evaluate current state law and agency rules, and to recommend ways to improve the process of paying health insurance claims. Resulting from that interim committee is a new Senate bill that provides for the regulation and prompt payment of health care providers under certain health benefit plans and establishes penalties for violations of statutory provisions.

CONCLUSION

At this stage, it is difficult to make predictions about where these proposals will go, how they will be funded, and what shape the budget will take by the end of session. As must be evident from this newsletter, it is tricky to condense and trace these legislative histories-in-the-making, but hopefully together we can see the forest for the trees.

Many of my colleagues agree that this appears to be the most difficult session in many years. In spite of our best efforts to get all major legislation squared away by June, the unique challenges we face may yet mean a special session or two. Therefore I ask, help us make the right choices by staying abreast of the issues and keeping us informed about your positions. Remember, I am always just a ring, click, or beep away. I can be reached at 800-662-0334 and news updates on my legislative projects can be found on my website at:

www.senate.state.tx.us/75r/Senate/members/dist16/dist16.htm

For more information, please avail yourself of the following resources:

Legislative Resources

Texas Legislative Information: www.capitol.state.tx.us

Legislative Reference Library: www.lrl.state.tx.us

*Toll-free phone number (to check bill status): 877-824-7038 (through June 2 or end of special session)

*Checking bill status while in Austin: (512) 463-2182 (through June 2 or end of special session)

Sincerely,

signature

John Carona

The above analysis is intended to be neutral, as required under rules of the Texas Senate.

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