What's new . . .
At the end of January, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Speaker of the House Tom Craddick made committee assignments for the 79th Legislature. I was named Chairman of the Senate Emerging Technologies and Economic Development Subcommittee and a member of the Business and Commerce, Criminal Justice, Health and Human Services, and International Relations and Trade committees. I also continue to serve as a member of the Sunset Advisory Commission. As Chairman of the Emerging Technologies and Economic Development Subcommittee, I will focus on attracting high paying jobs to our state and work to place Texas at the forefront of emerging industries and technologies, such as nanotech and biotech. A complete list of committee assignments can be viewed by clicking on House committees and Senate committees.
All of the election contests that had the potential of stalling regular legislative business in the Texas House of Representatives have now ended. Former State Representative Talmadge Heflin was the final one to withdraw his election contest against Rep. Hubert Vo. Last month, Rep. Will Hartnett, who was appointed to oversee the process of collecting evidence, held a hearing in which both sides presented evidence supporting their case. Following the hearing, Rep. Hartnett found that Rep. Vo had won the election. Mr. Heflin subsequently withdrew his election challenge.
The Legislature is now working to address many of the state's pressing issues. Over the past two weeks, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee has held hearings on SB 6, which tackles the problems in our state's child and adult protective services. Among other things, the bill will provide more training and support for investigators and greatly reduce their caseloads. The bill was passed out of committee this past Tuesday and should be heard by the full Senate by the beginning of next week. Audio archives can be heard on-line. To view a copy of the bill, click on SB 6.
The House and Senate are also in the midst of hearings on the budget. Although money is tight, legislators are working to avoid the drastic cuts in services seen last session. For more about the budget writing process, see this month's Focus section.
Since the Senate presented its school finance plan, the House of Representatives has begun holding hearings on public school finance. There are two committees working on the issue. The House Public Education Committee is focusing on education reform and school funding formulas, while the House Ways and Means Committee will work on restructuring our state's tax system with the goal of reducing local property taxes. The House Public Education Committee is hearing testimony on HB 2, Chairman Grusendorf's education reform and school funding bill. The House tax restructuring bills will be filed as separate bills, the first is HB 3, by Rep. Jim Keffer (R- Eastland).
The cost of providing out-of-county indigent care at Parkland Hospital has become a burden to Dallas County taxpayers, and I have been working with other Dallas County legislators to provide reimbursement to Parkland Hospital for such care. The taxpayers of Dallas County should not have to pay the costs for counties who choose not to provide indigent healthcare, and I am fighting to change this.
The Senate and House are each working to reform Texas' workers' compensation system. Despite having some of the highest costs in the country, injured Texas workers spend more time off work, are less likely to return to work than workers in other states, cost more to treat, and are less happy with the care they receive.
SB 5, which is being heard by the Senate State Affairs Committee, would abolish the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission (TWCC), which has six commissioners, and replace it with the Workers' Compensation Department headed by a single commissioner appointed by the Governor. The bill would also create workers' compensation care networks. The House Government Reform Committee is hearing HB 7, which would also abolish the TWCC, but instead transfer its functions to the Texas Department of Insurance and the Texas Workforce Commission and a newly created Office of Employee Assistance .
On the issue of record votes, I have requested a hearing for 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. The resolution has been referred to the Senate Administration Committee.
Friday, March 11, 2005 (60th day)
Deadline for filing bills and joint resolutions other than local bills, emergency appropriations, and bills that have been declared an emergency by the governor.
Focus... The State Budget
One of the primary tasks of the Legislature is writing the budget. I would like to explain this process for you. In the months before session, the Legislative Budget Board and the Governor prepare and submit proposed budgets to the Legislature. (For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Legislative Budget Board is made up of ten members of the House and Senate and develops recommendations for legislative appropriations for all agencies of state government.) In the beginning of January, the Comptroller issues an estimate of available revenue. As stated in the Texas Constitution, the Legislature cannot appropriate more than this estimate.
Format of the Budget
The appropriations bill is made up of ten articles. The first eight articles cover state agency budgets by functional category. For example, Article 2 covers the state's health and human services agencies. Article 9 covers general provisions and directions to state agencies and Article 10 contains appropriations for the Legislature.
Agency Budget Submissions
Last session the state used an approach known as zero-based budgeting; budgeted levels began at zero, instead of current funding levels, and each agency identified and justified funding for essential services. This session, the Legislature will return to adjusting funding based on current services.
Since the early 1990s, each state agency has developed a strategic plan and submitted a budget request to implement such plan. The key component of an agency's budget is called a strategy, also referred to as a line item, which is how the agency intends to achieve the goals and objectives outlined in its strategic plan. Each strategy also has a corresponding performance measure. For example, the primary goal of the Department of Family and Protective Services is to "protect clients by developing and managing a service delivery system." There are a wide range of strategies under this goal, from funding CPS staff, child abuse prevention grants, and programs for at risk children. One of the strategies is funding for the Community Youth Development program; the performance measure, which is outlined in the bill, is the number of children participating in the program each month.
In the House of Representatives, the Appropriations Committee takes the lead on writing the budget; in the Senate, the Finance Committee takes the lead. The House and Senate alternate who passes the budget bill first. This year, it is the Senate's turn and the budget is SB 1.
The House Appropriations Committee is divided into five subcommittees: education, health and human services, criminal justice, regulatory, and general government. Each subcommittee holds separate hearings and makes recommendations to the full committee for the agencies under its jurisdiction. Once the bill is heard in the full House, members may offer amendments to the bill. Each amendment cannot change the "bottom line" of the bill. In other words, if the amendment increases an appropriation in one area, it must decrease it in another area.
In the Senate, budget hearings are usually conducted before the entire committee, although four workgroups will hear testimony on specific areas of the bill. Also, unlike the House, the Finance Committee's version of the bill has passed the full Senate floor without amendments, in the past four sessions.
Certification by the Comptroller and Signing by the Governor
After the bill has passed both chambers of the Legislature, it must be sent to the Comptroller, before it can be sent to the Governor. The Comptroller must certify that the state will have enough revenue to cover the approved spending, since the Texas Constitution prohibits deficit spending.
As with any other bill, the Governor may veto the appropriations bill. Furthermore, unlike other bills, he may veto specific spending provisions, called line items. If the Legislature is still in session, it may override such line item veto by a two-thirds majority in both houses.
Did You Know...?
The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has implemented an awareness program to remind drivers of a state law that requires drivers to slow down or move over for stopped emergency vehicles that have emergency lights activated. Drivers pulled over by DPS troopers will now be given a flyer informing them of the requirement. SB 193, passed during the 78th Session, requires drivers to slow down to 20 miles below the speed limit or vacate the lane closest to the stopped vehicle if the road has multiple lanes traveling in the same direction.
A violation is punishable by a maximum fine of $200. If the violation results in property damage, the maximum fine increases to $500. If the violation results in bodily injury, the offense is enhanced to a Class B misdemeanor.
The Texas Department of Insurance has released its 2005 insurance price comparison guides. The new price comparisons update and replace the guides the Department previously published for auto and homeowners' insurance. The guides can be found at the following links:
Student Opportunities . . .
Secondary students are invited to enter the JasperLinks Scholarship Writing Contest. The grand prize is $1,000 for higher education. Winning entries will be published on the JasperLinks.com Website, as well as in a collective volume. Students, parents, teachers, and counselors can download the application and contest rules at http://contest.jasperlinks.com.
In Closing . . .
I encourage you to track the progression of the session on-line, and let me and our state leaders know what you think about the plans being considered. I will always appreciate hearing from you. If I or my staff can be of assistance to you, please do not hesitate to contact us.
State Senator - District 16