79th Texas Legislature Wrap-Up
Going into the 79th Legislative Session, school finance and property tax reform, overhauling the state's workers' compensation system, and Child and Adult Protective Services reform were identified as the key issues of the session. The Legislature was successful in addressing workers' compensation and Child and Adult Protective Services. Although I am very disappointed that we were unable to enact a new school finance plan and significant school property tax relief, I am pleased that a host of other issues were successfully addressed. Following is a summary of the school finance/tax reform debate and some of these other issues, which bills passed, and how they will affect you. Most of these bills are on the Governor's desk. He has until June 19 to sign, veto, or allow them to become law without his signature.
School Finance/Tax Reform
The Legislature was unable to reach a compromise between the House and Senate versions of HB 2 and HB 3 , the school finance and tax reform bills. Although each bill passed the House and Senate and were referred to conference committees, in the end, the conferees did not reach an agreement to present to the House and Senate for a vote. Proposals that died in HB 2 included a teacher pay raise, restoration of the educator health insurance stipend to $1,000, textbook funding, and establishing a statewide school start date after Labor Day (a proposal which I opposed). The Senate version of HB 3, the tax reform bill, featured a half percent increase in the sales tax, a broader based business tax and a lower decrease in property tax reduction. This plan originally included a statewide property tax which I voted to have removed from the plan. The House plan featured a one percent increase in the sales tax, a fifty cent decrease in school property taxes, and two types of business taxes: a tax at 1.5 percent of payroll; or the current franchise tax, which is the greater of 4.5 percent of earned surplus or .25 percent of capital. Negotiations continued through the final days and hours of the session, but time simply ran out on reaching an agreement.
In the closing days of the session, the conference committee on SB 1, this session's budget bill, reached a compromise on the measure. Highlights of the $139 billion budget include: nearly $37 billion in public education spending, a six percent increase from the current budget; almost $18 billion in spending for higher education, also a six percent increase from the current budget; the restoration of dental, vision and mental health benefits to the Children's Health Insurance Program; and a pay raise for most state employees. Click here for a summary of the major provisions of the state budget. The budget is the only bill on which the Governor has line item veto power, meaning he can veto "lines" in the budget while allowing the budget as a whole to become law.
Child and Adult Protective Services Reform
The conference committee for SB 6 also reached an agreement. The compromise calls for an additional 2,500 workers at Child Protective Services, including about 1,300 new investigators. This will reduce the average caseload from 74 to 45. Furthermore, Adult Protective Services will get about 144 new caseworkers. Other changes include improved training for caseworkers and transferring many foster care and case management services to private agencies. The ban on gay or bisexual individuals serving as foster parents, which was amended onto the bill on the floor of the House, is not part of the final bill.
Workers' Compensation Overhaul
Along with school finance and the budget, restructuring our workers' compensation system was one of the priorities of the 79th Legislature. This also proved to be one of the most difficult issues to resolve. The House and Senate each passed their version of workers' compensation reform mid-way through the session, and there were significant differences between the two proposals. For much of the latter part of the session, the two chambers were at an impasse. Only in the closing days were they able to come to a compromise. Here are the highlights of the bill, HB 7, that passed: the creation of a managed care style network for doctors, the provision of clear coverage guidelines, an increase of injured workers' benefits by up to 12 percent, replacing the workers' compensation commission with a separate division and commissioner within the Texas Department of Insurance, and the creation of an Injured Employee Counsel to serve as an advocate for injured workers.
SB 1140, which would have required that all substantive votes made by the Legislature be recorded and made available to the public over the internet, was voted out of the Senate on May 12. Upon arriving in the House, it was referred to the State Affairs committee. Although the bill was not heard by the committee, I was happy to see that it received the support of the Senate and look forward to working on this issue in the future.
Teacher Retirement System Changes
One of the most difficult issues this session was the proposed changes to the Teachers Retirement System. SB 1691 addresses the escalating pressure on the Teachers Retirement System, by attempting to ensure the long term stability of the fund. Provisions that would discourage early retirement by teachers, which would reduce financial pressure on TRS, were the most controversial.
HB 2702 was the major transportation bill of the session and addresses many issues related to the construction and financing to the Trans-Texas Corridor. One of the most important aspects of the bill is that conversion of most non-toll roads into toll roads would either have to be approved by the commissioners court or voters of the county in which the proposed toll road is located. The bill also addresses rail along the corridor, adequate compensation for acquisition of private property, and access to the corridor.
Asbestos Lawsuit Reform
SB 15, a comprehensive asbestos reform bill, was passed by the Legislature this session. After spending more than two sessions negotiating, we came up with 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.
Parental Consent for Abortion
HB 1212 and SB 1150 were two bills that would have required parental consent for abortions performed on minors. Both of these bills died. However, after HB 1212 was killed on the House floor on a point of order, Rep. Phil King amended the State Board of Medical Examiners Sunset Bill, SB 419, to prevent physicians from performing abortions on minors without first obtaining their parents' written consent. This bill finally passed and is on the Governor's desk for review.
The 79th Legislature enacted several bills to help prevent Texans from being victims of identity theft. Victims of identity theft are often faced with a host of problems related to damaged credit after the identity theft has been discovered. Numerous bills were filed this session to address this, many of them authored by Rep. Helen Giddings, who has been a victim of identity theft. HB 628 will prohibit debt collectors from pursuing collection of a debt if: the charges were made by an unauthorized user, the debt collector received written notice that the charge was unauthorized, and the authorized user filed a police report that the charges were unauthorized and provided the debt collection agency with a copy of that report. SB 99 will bar lenders from using damaged credit, resulting from identity theft, as a reason to deny credit to a victim of identity theft.
Life Without Parole
Numerous reforms to our state's criminal justice system were enacted this session. SB 60 will give Texas juries the option of sentencing capital defendants to life without parole. As originally filed, the bill would have added the option of life without parole, while keeping life with parole. The bill was amended in the Senate to remove the option of life with the possibility of parole. Texas juries will now have the option of sentencing those convicted of a capital murder offense to life without parole or to death, when prosecutors seek the death penalty.
The Legislature also enacted significant probation reform. HB 2193 will shorten the length of probation for some offenses to five years but still allow for a judge to extend the time up to ten years. The bill would not change the length of probation for violent crimes and sexual offenses, but would allow a judge to review a case upon completion of half of the probationer's term. This change will allow Texas to concentrate its resources on those offenders who need the most supervision.
Sex Offender Registry
HB 867 would update our state's sex offender registration, which has been the subject of numerous revisions since it was created in 1991, and would make several other changes to the sex offender registration laws, including: adding two offenses to the list requiring registration, eliminating the requirement for newspaper notification, creating a process for the early termination of registration obligations for some persons, and requiring all of those subject to registration to give a sample for the state's DNA database.
Red Light Cameras
Last session, legislation was filed allowing cities to use red light cameras and was summarily defeated in the House. However, later that session an amendment was added to a transportation bill to allow cities to issue civil penalties to motorists. Some cities have interpreted this language to allow the use of red light cameras. Angered by what they saw as a legislative trick, the House passed HB 259 which would have prevented cities from using red light cameras. The bill easily passed the House but was unable to make it through the Senate. As a strong supporter of local control, I support allowing cities to make this decision, and I did not support this bill.
The Sunset process is a review of state agencies to determine how they can be made more efficient and effective in meeting their legislative mandates, what other statutory and structural changes need to be made to improve the agency, and ultimately whether or not that agency should continue, be merged into another agency, or dissolved. Typically, an agency is reviewed every eight to twelve years. Each interim, the Sunset Advisory Commission reviews anywhere from twenty to thirty agencies. During the next legislative session, legislation is filed reflecting these recommendations. Each session, a "catch-all" sunset bill is also filed should an agency specific sunset bill fail to pass.
This session numerous sunset bills failed to pass and those agencies were included in the catch-all bill. The Texas Education Agency (TEA), Texas Lottery Commission, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission were among those agencies whose sunset bills failed to pass. The TEA sunset bill died in the House when the bill became a vehicle for vouchers, and the Lottery Commission sunset died when there was an attempt to amend the bill to allow video bingo. All of the agencies whose sunset bill failed to pass will be continued and reviewed again during this interim.
In addition to HB 3, which provided for a reduction in school property taxes, there were a host of other bills that addressed rising property taxes. Following is a brief overview of some of these bills.
HB 784 would have provided for an annual 5 percent cap on increases in one's property appraisals. The bill was defeated on the House floor.
HB 1006 would have lowered the rollback rate from 8 percent to 5 percent of total property taxation (The rollback rate is the percentage of tax increase, which includes increases in appraisals and actual tax rate, at which point voters can petition to challenge the increase in an election.) and lowers the requirements to call for a rollback election to 10 percent of voters in the county or municipality that voted in the most recent Gubernatorial election. This bill passed the House and Senate, but the Senate did not appoint conferees for the conference committee and the bill died.
SB 1351 will allow property owners to use arbitration, rather than more expensive litigation, to contest increasing appraisals. This bill has passed both chambers and has been sent to the Governor for his signature.
SB 18 will impose stricter disclosure requirements on cities and counties proposing increases in tax rates and lower the requirement for a rollback election to 7 percent of registered voters. This bill has passed the House and Senate and has been sent to the Governor for his signature.
The Legislature passed HJR 6, which allows Texans to vote on a Texas Constitutional amendment that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman and prevent the state or any of its political subdivisions from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage. Although Texas passed the Defense of Marriage Act last session, many legislators argued that putting this change in the Texas Constitution will prevent a state court from ruling that the Texas statute is unconstitutional. On November 8 voters will have the opportunity to vote on this Constitutional amendment.
Legislation was filed this session that would restrict the use of corporate, union, and anonymously donated money in elections. HB 1348 would have banned anonymous donors from financing political ads that target a candidate in the final 60 days of an election, while clarifying which administrative costs corporations and unions are allowed to pay. The bill was not voted out of the House Committee on Elections and was the subject of a rare motion on the House floor to bring it out of committee without an affirmative vote and directly to the floor. This move failed and the bill later died in committee.
Top Ten Percent Law
There were numerous proposals filed this session aimed at reworking Texas' top ten percent law, which provided that seniors who graduate in the top ten percent of their graduating class are automatically admitted to any state college or university. These proposals ranged from capping the number of top ten percent admissions to any school at 50 percent of the incoming freshman class to allowing automatic admission to any university system as opposed to an actual campus. Ultimately, none of the proposed reforms passed.
There were numerous bills filed that would impact private property rights and the ability of cities to restrict development. These are sometimes competing interests, and it was the legislature's goal to find a balance between them. SB 574, which passed, will allow developers to avoid some city restrictions, such as tree preservation, if they owned the property prior to when the city requirements were put into effect. One bill that did not pass, HB 2833, would have required cities to reimburse landowners for any reduction in property value that is a result of restrictions on the development of that land. This bill passed the House but failed to receive the necessary votes to be brought up on the Senate floor. Opponents feared it would cause a rash of litigation against cities and viewed it as an infringement on local control.
Production of Methamphetamine
HB 164 will restrict the distribution of pseudoephedrine, an essential ingredient in the production of methamphetamine. The bill will require that non-liquid pseudoephedrine, which is used to make methamphetamine, be removed from pharmacy shelves. Buyers must now be 17 or older, show photo ID, and purchases will be limited to two boxes per visit. Furthermore, these purchases will be logged by the store with the buyer's name, date of purchase, and product bought.
Jury Pay Increase Hoping to increase turnout for jury duty, the Legislature enacted SB 1704, which will raise jury pay from $6 a day to $40 a day after the first day of service. In El Paso County, which currently has a jury pay rate of $40, the increase doubled jury turnout. The last state mandated increase in jury pay was in 1954. The bill raises the necessary funds by increasing court costs for those convicted of offenses, other than pedestrian or parking offenses.
Other Issues that Failed to Pass
- Vouchers for private schools
- Overhaul of state's water laws
- Telecommunications reform
- Expansion of gambling in Texas
- Changes to Texas' tuition deregulation law
- Ban on cell phone use while driving
- Tuition Revenue Bonds for Colleges and Universities
In Closing . . .
It is unclear whether or not the Legislature will be called into special session by the Governor to address school finance and property tax reform issues. Governor Perry had previously stated that he would not call a special session to address these issues if the Legislature was unable to find a solution in the regular session. Additionally, the Texas Supreme Court has set July 6, 2005, as the date that they will begin hearing testimony on the state's appeal of a district court decision that declared the state's funding system for public schools unconstitutional. However, legislative leaders have stated that they will continue to work toward an agreement and the Governor has pledged to call a special session once agreement is reached. I continue to support resolution of school finance, including modification of the Robin Hood share-the-wealth provisions of the law, and property tax relief issues by the Legislature; not the courts. I also support doing it now. I am deeply disappointed that this was not accomplished during the regular session, but will keep working to reach agreement and encourage the Governor to call a special session on these issues. As always feel free to contact my Capitol office, at 1-800-662-0334, if you have any questions regarding the legislative session.
State Senator - District 16