What's new . . .
On January 11, the 79th Texas Legislature convened. The day before, the Comptroller released her revenue estimate for the 2006-2007 biennium. Unlike last session, when the state had a $9.9 billion deficit, the Comptroller predicts that the state will have a budget surplus of $400 million. You may have noticed that the Governor's surplus estimate is $6.4 billion, $6 billion greater than the Comptroller's. These variations occur because the Comptroller's estimate assumes current spending will be maintained and enrollment in public schools and Medicaid will increase, while the Governor's estimate assumes current spending will be reduced, based on his directive that each state agency lower current spending by five percent in the upcoming budget cycle. Regardless of the amount of the surplus, the state is in a much better position than it was last session when it faced a $9.9 billion deficit. For more information on the budget, visit the Legislative Budget Board's website or the Comptroller's website.
On January 12, the Lieutenant Governor released an outline of the Senate's school finance plan. Earlier that week, the Governor declared school finance an emergency item. This status will allow the Legislature to begin working immediately on the issue. Although the details have yet to be worked out, the plan indicates what the Senate is seriously considering. Highlights of the plan include: a broad based, low rate business tax; reduction in local property taxes; the elimination of Robin Hood; and an increase in teacher salaries. Keep in mind, while the Senate can make suggestions, as required in the Texas Constitution, revenue measures must start in the House of Representatives. The Senate Plan is expected to be posted to the Senate website by the end of this week.
Also, in the opening days of the session, the Senate amended its rules to require that each substantive vote be recorded and made available on the Internet. The House changed its rules to require that a record vote must occur on amendments to legislation or on passage if requested by one House member (previously, the rule was three members). Although these changes were not written into law and do not go as far as I would like, they are a step toward more open government. Once the Legislature begins to take votes in committees and on the House and Senate floors, you should be able to access bill information on the Internet and view the voting record for a specific bill (see Did You Know below). I will continue to work to pass SJR 6, which, if passed, will allow Texans to vote on a Constitutional amendment requiring that all substantive votes be recorded and made available on the Internet.
In addition to school finance, Governor Perry designated reform of Adult Protective Services (APS) and Child Protective Services (CPS) as emergency items.
Last April, the Governor ordered the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) to conduct a review of APS, following reports of serious problems within the agency. Later last summer, the Governor ordered HHSC to conduct a similar review of CPS. This order came in response to several cases where children died at the hands of abusers or were left in a state of abuse despite CPS involvement. Within each agency, a high number of caseloads, turnover of investigators and inadequate training were cited as contributing factors to the break down. The findings of these reports form the basis of the Governor's proposed reforms.
As part of the APS reforms, the Governor proposes hiring 144 more caseworkers by fiscal year 2007, which, if estimates are correct, would reduce caseloads by 20 percent. This is in addition to 50 new caseworkers hired for the current biennium. The HHSC has already implemented many of the recommendations from the reviews including: updating the assessment test used to gauge one's living condition, mental status, and social support system; and moving from five statewide districts to nine, strengthening oversight and support of local APS offices.
The Governor's planned reform of CPS calls for an additional $250 million in funding to hire 800 new investigators (many of these could be retired law enforcement officers), and equip investigators with up to date technology. At the same time, the agency will be restructured to provide more clerical staff as support for investigators and caseworkers. Among the proposed structural changes is the creation of a new inspections division. The goal of these changes is to reduce caseloads and allow investigators to spend less time on paperwork and more time in the field.
The Governor's recommendations are a starting point as the Legislature begins working to ensure that these agencies can provide for the well-being and safety of our children and elderly. I look forward to making sure the state meets its responsibility to our most vulnerable citizens and that the failures and breakdowns of the past year do not repeat themselves.
Did You Know...?
With the wide range of issues facing the Legislature, each of you will be affected by legislation that comes under consideration in the coming months. The Texas Legislature Online provides access for anyone to keep track of the numerous bills filed this session. The Texas Legislature recently updated its online bill tracking system, making it easier for you to track bills of interest to you. Simply go to www.capitol.state.tx.us and click on legislation. From there you may see the status of a particular bill, search bills by author, sponsor, subject, and a variety of other parameters. You can elect to receive email updates, alerting you to any change in the status of a bill or when a committee is meeting. This should also be the site where you can view recorded votes once they become available.
Also, the Legislative Reference Library has a toll free bill status hotline, 1-877-824-7038. You will also find a wealth of information on the legislative process and reference material online at www.lrl.state.tx.us.
Student Opportunities . . .
The Texas Department of Transportation will award one $3000 scholarship and two $1000 scholarships to high school seniors as part of its "Don't Mess With Texas Scholarship" program. To be eligible, a student must submit a 300-350 word essay describing a litter problem in the student's school or community and how the student addressed it, along with two letters of recommendation, and a completed application. For more information and to download an application, go to www.dontmesswithtexas.org.
In Closing . . .
I hope that you will use the resource information available online to track bills of interest to you, but feel free to contact my office if you need assistance or wish to voice your opinion on any matter before the Legislature.
State Senator - District 16