What's new . . .
The Texas House of Representatives has passed HB 2 and HB 3, the school reform and tax reform bills. HB 2 provides more than $3 billion in new funds for schools. Additionally, the bill includes a 35 percent cap on the amount of local funds that can be recaptured from a school district and a pay raise for teachers, librarians, counselors and nurses. HB 3 reduces local school property taxes by one-third. To make up for this reduction in revenue, the bill gives businesses the choice of paying the current franchise tax or a new payroll tax. This bill raises the sales tax by one cent and broadens its base. It also increases the cigarette tax by $1.00 per pack and adds a 3 percent tax on snack foods and soft drinks.
Look for each of these bills to undergo significant changes in the Senate. Senate leaders said last week that they plan to rewrite the tax reform bill to rely more on business taxes and less on sales and other consumer taxes, while the Senate education plan calls for $6.7 billion in new funds for education. The Senate Education Committee began working on HB 2, on Tuesday, March 29. The differences in the House and Senate plans will be addressed in a conference committee later this session.
The Senate has passed its workers' compensation reform bill, SB 5. Highlights of the bill include a network treatment system administered by the Texas Department of Insurance and elimination of the six-member board that governs the Workers' Compensation Commission. The board would be replaced by a single commissioner who would be more responsive to market changes and accountable to employers and employees. HB 7, the House of Representatives' workers' compensation reform bill, is out of committee and will be heard on the House floor at the end of the month. Again, look for differences in the two bills to be worked out in a conference committee.
The Emerging Technologies and Economic Development Subcommittee, which I chair, has been hard at work. Within the past month, the committee has heard bills that would consolidate most permits and licenses required to do business in Texas and make them available on the www.TexasOnline.com website and allow the Governor to study how other states have structured their economic development programs to fully take advantage of the 21st Century economy.
SB 6, the protective services reform bill, has passed the Senate. This bill will continue to ensure the safety and well-being of our children and elderly. The bill will reduce caseloads, give investigators and caseworkers a raise, and make investigations more efficient through the use of technology and support services. The House is still working on its companion bill, HB 6. One key difference between the bills is the House bill calls for more services to be privatized, such as case management services. The differences in the two bills will be addressed in a conference committee.
The Senate has just passed SB 1, the appropriations bill for the upcoming biennium. Highlights of the bill include: restoration of mental health, dental, and vision coverage for CHIP recipients; an increase in funding to adult and children's protective services of $236 million; and a pay raise to DPS officers, intended to make them the highest paid officers in the state. The House Appropriations Committee is still working on its bill.
My SJR 6 and SB 1140, 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, were heard by the Senate Administration Committee, on Tuesday, March 29, where they were left pending. I will now work on moving these measures out of committee so that they can be voted on by the full Senate.
I'd like to explain the conference committee process to you, since it looks like many of the session's big issues will be resolved in conference committees. A bill has to pass the Senate and the House before it can be sent to the Governor. Often times, one chamber will make significant changes to a bill when it comes over from the other chamber. When that bill is sent back to the originating chamber, the author can recommend that the body accept the changes or request a conference committee. If a request for conference committee is granted, the Lieutenant Governor and House Speaker each names five members to the committee. The committee can only address the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill; it cannot add new provisions or change any provisions in the bill that are not in disagreement unless both chambers specifically vote to make such changes. The conference committee bill must then be voted on - straight up or straight down - by both chambers of the Legislature before being sent to the Governor.
Focus. . .
With the passing of the March 11 bill filing deadline, bills are in the process of being referred to or heard in committees. Committees serve as the preliminary screening process and give the public an opportunity to testify and share their views on legislative proposals. As the forum in which bills receive the most scrutiny, the majority of bills heard do not make it out of committee and die.
There are forty standing committees in the House of Representatives, although a few of them are procedural and do not hear bills, and fifteen in the Senate, along with four standing subcommittees. In the House of Representatives, the speaker refers all bills; in the Senate this is the responsibility of the Lieutenant Governor. Bills are usually referred to the relevant subject matter committee. One key difference between the House and Senate is that bills are referred directly to a subcommittee in the Senate. Once bills are referred to committee, they are set for a hearing solely at the chair's discretion.
There are three types of committee hearings: public hearings, in which a committee takes testimony and can take official action on bills; formal meetings, in which a committee can take official action on bills; and work groups, in which a committee may discuss legislation but not take any official action. With a few exceptions, these hearings are all open to the public. Public hearings are the most common type of hearing; however, toward the end of session, when bills start coming over from the other chamber, a committee will often hear these bills in a formal meeting, since the public has already had an opportunity to testify on them.
Before a bill is heard in committee, the committee staff must distribute a copy of a bill analysis and a fiscal note, which outlines any potential fiscal impact on state or local governments. Depending on the bill, other types of impact statements may be required, as well, including: tax equity notes, criminal justice policy statements, and equalized education funding impact statements. However, these impact statements are not required before a bill is heard in committee.
During the committee process, bills are often subject to changes. This may be to address unintended consequences or concerns other members or the public have with the bill. These changes can either be in the form of amendments or a committee substitute. A committee substitute is a complete substitute for the original bill and, if adopted, is reported out of committee in lieu of the original bill. Amendments adopted in committee are only recommendations to the House or Senate and will have to be voted on separately on the floor. Because of this, if a bill has many amendments, a committee substitute will usually be adopted incorporating them.
The chair of a committee has a great deal of control over the proceedings of a committee hearing. In addition to setting the bills for hearing, no member may make a motion on a bill without being recognized by the chair. The chair may also delay further consideration of a bill, once testimony has been taken, by postponing it or leaving it pending. It is also the chair's prerogative when to bring a bill up for a vote. These responsibilities allow the chair to exercise a great deal of influence in the shaping of legislation.
The House and Senate each have different procedures for setting the bills for consideration on the floor once a bill has been reported favorably by the committee. In the House, the Calendars Committee is in charge of setting the House Calendar. As you can imagine, this is one of the more powerful House committees. In the Senate, members place their bills on the calendar. However, two-thirds of the members present must agree to hear the bill before it can be considered on the floor.
In each chamber, there is also a Local and Consent Calendar, which is reserved for bills that have no opposition. When a committee votes a bill out, its author may request that the bill be set for the Local and Consent Calendar if no one objects to the bill. These bills have an expedited hearing process on the floor.
To read more about the legislative process, visit http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/capitol/legproc/summary.htm.
Did You Know. . . ?
Texas Legislature Online has been updated to facilitate access to record vote information. When searching for a bill, there is now a link that will take you to the journal page for the most recent vote on the bill.
Student Opportunities . . .
The Texas Department of Transportation is accepting applications for summer jobs for high school and college students. This program provides valuable work experience prior to graduation. To find out more information and to apply on-line go to http://www.dot.state.tx.us/employment/summeremployment.htm.
In Closing . . .
The residents of District 16 have been very good about contacting me and sharing their comments and views on the various legislative issues that have been in the news. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you wish to express an opinion on any of the issues currently before the Texas Legislature. I always appreciate hearing from you.
State Senator - District 16