What's new . . .
On November 30, State District Judge John Dietz issued his "final judgment" declaring the Texas school finance system unconstitutional and giving the Texas Legislature until October 1, 2005, to increase state education funding and bring the system into compliance with the Texas Constitution. Click here to read the Final Judgment or the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.
Texas Attorney General Abbott has begun the process of appealing the decision to the Texas Supreme Court for an expedited hearing. Regardless of the court appeal, I anticipate that the Legislature will move to enact a new school finance system during the 2005 Regular Session. There is expectation that the Governor will declare education and school finance reform "emergency" issues, which will afford them priority consideration at the beginning of the session. I look forward to the Senate taking the lead on proposing and passing a plan.
The 79th Texas Legislature will convene at noon on Tuesday, January 11, 2005, for its biennial 140-day session. The issues for the session are beginning to take shape. In addition to education and school finance reform, legislators must write a balanced state budget with another revenue shortfall expected, revisit funding for health and human services programs, improve the state's child and adult protective services, provide for more open government by recording votes, address requests for salary increases from state employees and educators, overhaul the workers' compensation system, tackle the looming prison overcrowding situation, review transportation plans and funding sources, focus on Texans' access to health care, and address water availability-to name a few.
Between legislative sessions, a wide variety of issues are studied by legislative committees. The process starts with the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House requesting ideas from legislators as to what issues they would like studied during the interim. Next, the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker appoint committees and assign them specific topics for review. The committees hold public hearings throughout the interim, legislators and their staff conduct background research, and each committee prepares a report that summarizes their hearings and research and presents recommendations for legislation. These reports are typically issued just before the legislative session convenes. Legislators on the various committees then have the recommendations drafted as bills to be filed for consideration by the full Texas Legislature. Committee chairs most often choose to sponsor the majority of legislation recommended by their committees.
A specific example of this process is the work of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. Over the past year-and-a-half, this committee, on which I serve as Vice Chairman, held public hearings and studied the issues of identity theft, the prison population, special police forces, and the Crime Victims' Compensation Fund. The following is a brief summary of the committee findings and recommendations:
With the passage by the United States Congress of the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, future laws governing this issue will come primarily from the federal level. However, the Texas Legislature should continue its efforts to safeguard the citizens of Texas from identity theft abuses; such as:
- Ensure that the Texas Department of Public Safety system, which issues Texas Driver's License and Identification Cards, is protected from abuse and only issues documents and assigns proper numbers to positively verified individuals.
- Clarify an individuals' ability to place a freeze on the disbursement of their credit information if they believe they have been a victim of identity theft.(SB99 - Ellis)
- Monitor the new Department of Public Safety Driver License Division Fraud Unit to determine its ability and effectiveness in pursuing alleged Identity Theft perpetrators.(HB163 - Berman)
Texas Department of Criminal Justice's (TDCJ) correctional facility population trends reveal that the budget decisions made in the 78th Legislature are no longer viable. The prison population is expected to exceed the operational capacity of TDCJ by Fiscal Year 2006 unless policy initiatives are implemented to:
- Strengthen the confidence of judges in the Community Supervision Programs.
- Address the growing revocation rate of felons on community supervision to prison and state jail.(HB215 - Martinez)(HB157 - Cook)
- Reduce the growing population of non-United States citizens housed within TDCJ.
- Reduce the growing geriatric population housed within TDCJ and their ever increasing medical costs.
- Support the use of drug courts to divert offenders into life-changing treatment and away from state jail or prison confinement.
Special Police Forces
The Legislature should cease the ad hoc inclusion of naming new agencies, districts and organizations as peace officers and consider a reorganization of specialized police agencies into a separate category that provides clarity to their duties, responsibilities, and privileges.
Crime Victims' Compensation Fund
Clarify the governing statues of the Crime Victims' Compensation Fund to reflect its purpose that the fund only be used to compensate actual crime victims, to operate the program, and to fund the crime victims' institution.
Over the past several weeks, the interim committees of the 78th Texas Legislature have issued a wide variety of reports. More are expected during the weeks remaining before the 79th Legislature convenes on January 11. The full report of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice and all reports issued to date by Senate committees may be read on-line by going to www.senate.state.tx.us and clicking on "Committees," "Directory," the particular committee, and "Reports." To review House interim committee reports, go to www.house.state.tx.us and click on "Committees," the particular committee, and "Interim Report."
Did You Know...?
Did you know that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has a new link on their website that allows you to access information on road conditions within Texas in "real-time"? Even though TxDOT has had an on-line option to check road conditions since 1998, the new link is both easier to use and also provides current or "real-time" road conditions. Construction and weather problems, such as floods, snow and ice, along with traffic accidents, fires, and other incidents causing significant delays will be displayed. Not every traffic accident will be posted on the site; however, major accidents with expected delays of one hour or more will be displayed. The interactive system allows a user to zoom in on a particular area or roadway for a detailed view. To view this new option, click on "View current conditions". TxDOT will continue to operate its toll-free road conditions hotline at 1-800-452-9292.
Student Opportunities . . .
Once again, the General Land Office and the Texas Adopt-A-Beach Program are pleased to announce the "Treasures of the Texas Coast" 2005 Children's Art Contest. Open to students grades K-6, the competition focuses on encouraging young artists to learn about the natural resources found along the Texas coast and help spread the message that "Trashing Texas Beaches Isn't Cool". Each entry must be postmarked by February 7, 2005, and submitted on an 8.5"x11" sheet of white paper. Fun prizes will be offered to 48 finalists and the grand prize winner will receive two round-trip coach class tickets on Continental Airlines. For more information, click here for the contest entry form and guidelines.
In Closing . . .
SEASON'S GREETINGS AND BEST WISHES FOR THE NEW YEAR TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILY.
State Senator - District 16