What's new . . .
School Finance - The Senate Education Committee is in the process of hearing House Bill 2, the school finance reform bill. Since the bill is in committee and amendments are being offered, it would be premature to speculate what the final bill will look like. However, I can give you a few highlights. The biggest difference in the two versions, so far, is the Senate's creation of a statewide property tax. This would have to be approved by voters in a constitutional amendment, since it has been found unconstitutional in the past. Conversely, the House version limits the amount of property taxes that can be recaptured from any one school district at 35 percent; the Senate does not address recapture since property taxes will be collected on a statewide basis. Additionally, the House version reduces school property taxes by 50 cents (the House makes this change in HB 3), while the Senate version reduces them by a lesser amount. (Since the bill is still in committee, the amount is changing on a daily basis.) To date, both bills increase funding for public education by about $3 billion. Again, this is subject to change in the coming weeks.
The Senate is also on the verge of releasing its version of House Bill 3, which restructures the state's tax system to make up for the decrease in property taxes. Although the details have not yet been released, the preliminary highlights are: an overhaul of the franchise tax; increases the state sales tax from 6.25 to 6.75 percent, compared to an increase to 7.25 percent in the House plan; an increase in the cigarette tax of 60 cents, compared to a $1.01 increase in the House plan; and a 25 percent increase in the tax on alcoholic beverages, compared with no increase in the House plan.
As the Texas Legislature works to enact a new school funding plan, the legal challenge to the current school finance system continues to move forward. The Texas Supreme Court has announced that they will begin hearing arguments in the lawsuit on July 6. I continue to be hopeful that the Legislature will adopt a school finance plan within the next few weeks that will result in an end to the court challenge of the system.
Other Education Issues - House Bill 4 has passed the House of Representatives and has been referred to the Senate Education Committee. This measure encourages use of technology in public schools and increases funding for technology. It also changes references in the Education Code to instructional materials, paving the way for more computer-based learning.
Asbestos Reform - The Senate has unanimously passed Senate Bill 15, a comprehensive asbestos reform bill. After spending more than two sessions negotiating, the Senate has crafted a bill that I believe is sound, reasonable, and balanced. SB 15 protects hardworking Texans who were unknowingly exposed to asbestos or silica by providing access to the court system, while at the same time reducing the number of marginal and frivolous asbestos claims that have overburdened the judicial system. This legislation now moves to the House for consideration.
Workers' Compensation - House Bill 7 and Senate Bill 5, the workers' compensation reform bills, have passed their respective chambers and have been referred to committee in the other chamber waiting for a hearing. Each of the bills makes numerous policy and structural changes to how workers' compensation coverage is delivered in Texas, but with different approaches. Currently, the House and Senate are negotiating which bill will move forward. Lt. Governor Dewhurst has said that HB 7, the Workers' Compensation Commission Sunset Bill, should be limited to the structure of the agency, while SB 5 should address workers' compensation policy changes. Sen. Todd Staples and Rep. Burt Solomons, authors of the two bills, are expected to meet in the coming days to work out a compromise and get the bills moving.
Red Light Cameras - The House has passed House Bill 259, legislation that would prohibit the use of red light cameras, which are used at intersections to photograph red light runners and send civil citations through the mail directly to the vehicle's registered owner. Some cities are currently using the red light cameras and argue for them as a significant aid to public safety. HB 259 is now pending in the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee.
Record Votes - Senate Joint Resolution 6 and Senate Bill 1140, the Constitutional amendment requiring that all substantive votes be recorded and made available on the Internet and its enabling legislation were heard in the Senate Administration Committee on April 28. While I am disappointed that SJR 6 was not voted out of the committee, I am pleased that SB 1140 did pass the committee. It should be heard in the full Senate in the next few weeks. I am optimistic that SB 1140 will pass the Senate and hopeful that the House will pass it as well.
APS/CPS Reform - The House of Representatives has passed Senate Bill 6, the Adult and Child Protective Services reform bill. The House version calls for a much greater level of privatization and also prohibits gays, lesbians and bisexuals from being foster parents. The Senate has expressed concerns with these two provisions added in the House. These differences will be addressed in conference committee.
Higher Education/Top 10 Percent Law - During the past month, both the House Higher Education Committee and the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education have held hearings on bills relating to the state's top ten percent law, which requires the top ten percent of a public high school's graduating class to be automatically admitted to public universities. As you may remember, the law was passed in 1997 after a federal appeals court ruled that public universities may not use race as a factor in admissions.
With the number of students admitted under the top ten percent law growing (66 percent of the University of Texas' 2004 freshman class was admitted under it) and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that race may be used as a factor in college admissions, many legislators are looking at amending the law. Bills range from capping the number of students admitted under the law to 50 percent of an incoming class; automatically accepting only the top 5 percent of a graduating class; allowing students automatic admission to a university system, as opposed to a specific campus; to requiring students to take the recommended high school curriculum to be eligible for automatic admission to a public college or university. The last bill, SB 333, is the only one that has made it out of committee, and it has the best chance of passing.
Life without Parole - The Senate has passed Senate Bill 60 which would allow Texas juries to sentence capital offenders (those who have committed a crime punishable by death) to life without parole. Under current law in a capital case, a defendant can be sentenced to life or death. An individual sentenced to life is eligible for parole after 40 years. As originally filed, SB 60 would have allowed jurors a third option in a capital case--life with parole. However, the bill was amended on the Senate floor to remove the option of life with parole, leaving a jury to choose life without parole or death. The bill has now been heard by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and should be debated on the House floor in the coming weeks.
Film Industry Incentive Program - Over the past 20 years, Texas has become home to a growing film industry. This has increased tourism and travel to our state. Canada and many other states have recently begun aggressive incentive programs to attract on-location filming. I have authored Senate Bill 1142, which creates a film industry incentive program. If this bill passes, it will allow Texas to compete again with other states and ensure that our state remains a vital force in this industry.
Budget Conference Committee - The House and Senate have named conferees for the conference committee for Senate Bill 1, the appropriations bill. The conference committee will address differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The bill will then go back to each chamber to be voted on. Currently the Senate appropriations bill is just over $1 billion more than the House. Among the differences, the Senate appropriates more funds for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), while the House appropriates more funds for public school facilities.
Focus. . .
Last month I explained the committee process, a crucial step in a bill becoming law. However, that is not the only way to enact legislation. One strategy is to amend a similar bill; this becomes much more common as the session comes closer to an end. Legislators also use this strategy to keep the proposed legislation under the radar, if the measure is controversial or will generate a great deal of opposition.
There are numerous examples of this each session. One that has been the subject of recent media coverage is Rep. Robert Talton's amendment to SB 6, the Child and Adult Protective Services reform bill. This amendment prohibits gays, lesbians or bisexuals from being foster parents. During the 2003 Regular Legislative Session, Rep. Talton filed HB 1911, which would have prevented "the placement of a child in a foster home with any unmarried individuals." This would have had the effect of preventing gays, lesbians, bisexuals and a great number of single heterosexuals from being foster parents. There was much testimony on the bill, a great deal of it from lesbian and gay foster parents, and it never made it out of committee. Two years later, Rep. Talton was able to amend a bill rather than filing a separate bill to accomplish a similar goal. Although it is unclear whether this provision will remain in the bill, this is a clear illustration of an alternative way legislators can enact their legislative agenda.
Did You Know. . . ?
Toward the end of session, there are a number of deadlines designed to prevent a logjam and to keep members from being surprised by bills in the rush of last minute business. Most of these deadlines are in the House, due to the greater number of members, but they also apply to Senate bills and therefore affect the Senate. Following are some of the key deadlines: 123rd day of session (Friday, May 13), last day the House can consider non-local House Bills; 131st day of session (Saturday, May 21), last day that House committees can report Senate Bills and resolutions out of committee; 135th day of session (Wednesday, May 25), last day the House can consider Senate bills and the last day the Senate can consider any bill. After this point, both chambers act only on amendments and conference committee reports. And finally: 139th day of session (Sunday, May 29), the last day the House and Senate can adopt conference committee reports and the 140th day (Monday, May 30), the last day of session when each chamber can only make corrections.
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 . . .
Thank you for the many comments in response to these Email Updates and on the Legislative Session in general. The volume of correspondence through my office is phenomenal and I value your input. Due to the limited space here, it is impossible to cover all bills and issues. If you have a question or comment on any issue or bill, please do not hesitate to contact me by email, phone, fax or mail. I will always appreciate hearing from you.
State Senator - District 16