What's new . . .
Hurricanes dominated the news in Texas (and the nation) in September. Following Hurricane Katrina, an estimated 200,000 evacuees arrived in Texas from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. With the devastation in these states, it appears our neighbors will be staying for some time to come. The State of Texas is doing all it can do to assist them as they make this difficult transition. As of September 20, nearly 45,000 evacuees have enrolled in our public schools, and the Texas Education Agency has created a one-year emergency certification for displaced educators. The Texas Workforce Commission has established workforce centers at several major hurricane shelters, including the Reunion Center and has set up a hotline for employers who would like to hire evacuees (800-818-7811). Evacuees are also able to apply for food stamps and Medicaid; Texas will receive 100% reimbursement for the cost of these programs from the federal government.
With efforts in full swing to help Hurricane Katrina victims, Hurricane Rita devastated the Texas-Louisiana border areas on September 24. As of this writing, about 400,000 residents in southeast Texas are still without electricity and other utilities. Some estimate that it may be a month or longer before services are fully restored in some areas. An estimated 2.7 million people evacuated the coastal area in the days before Rita made landfall. The evacuation highlighted many flaws in the state and local evacuation procedures. Governor Perry has just named a statewide task force to review and recommend improvements to this process.
The Legislative Budget Board which was scheduled to meet on September 21, canceled its meeting and should meet later this fall. The Board, which is made up of members of the House and Senate, can allocate state funds when the Legislature is not in session. Governor Perry had requested that the board consider allocating $660 million in unspent funds using budget execution authority. Some of the items the Governor wanted considered included $200 million to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates to nursing homes, $10 million for a Texas A&M pharmacy school in Kingsville, and $38.5 million for a Texas Tech Medical School in El Paso. Unsure of the fiscal impact of Hurricane Katrina, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick, who serve as co-chairs of the Board, did not want to allocate those funds at this time.
Governor Perry has named former Comptroller John Sharp chair of a committee that will study our state's tax system. Sharp served in both the Texas House and Senate and as Comptroller from 1990 to 1998. The tax reform panel will consider a wide range of business and consumer taxes, except an income tax, with the goal of lowering property taxes and providing new sources of revenue for public schools. Governor Perry has not named the other members of the committee.
As of this date, the Texas Supreme Court has not yet issued a ruling on the state's school finance court case. Although District Judge John Dietz gave an October 1 deadline for the state to fix the school finance system or stop funding public schools, the state's appeal of his ruling to the Texas Supreme Court has effectively removed that deadline pending the court's ruling.
Focus. . .
On November 8, you will have the opportunity to vote on nine proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution. Before being sent to voters for consideration, each amendment must pass the Legislature with a two-thirds majority vote. Since the Texas Constitution was first approved in 1876, it has been amended 432 times out of 606 amendments that were submitted to voters for approval. The italicized text is the actual ballot language; it is followed by a brief summary of the amendment and some of the pros and cons of the amendment. If you would like more detailed information go to the House Research Organization's or the Texas Legislative Council's analyses of the proposed amendments.
AMENDMENT NO. 1 (H.J.R. No. 54)
The constitutional amendment creating the Texas rail relocation and improvement fund and authorizing grants of money and issuance of obligations for financing the relocation, rehabilitation, and expansion of rail facilities.
This amendment would create a Texas rail relocation and improvement fund in the state treasury to relocate, rehabilitate, and expand privately and publicly owned passenger and freight rail facilities and to construct railroad underpasses and overpasses.
Supporters say the relocation of rail lines from congested urban areas will reduce congestion, encourage investment and promote safety, while reducing the amount of hazardous materials shipped through highly populated areas. Opponents point out that the railroad industry is not state regulated, so the state should play no part in the industry's investment decisions.
AMENDMENT NO. 2 (H.J.R. No. 6)
The constitutional amendment providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman and prohibiting this state or a political subdivision of this state from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage.
This amendment would define marriage in Texas as the union of a man and woman, and that the state and its political subdivisions could not create or recognize any legal status identical to or similar to marriage, including such legal status relationships created outside of Texas.
Supporters say adoption of the proposed amendment would prevent potential legal challenges to Texas' marriage statutes, while opponents contend that a constitutional prohibition is unnecessary, since Texas law already prohibits same sex marriages. They also contend that the broad language of the amendment may nullify common law marriages or legal agreements between unmarried persons.
AMENDMENT NO. 3 (H.J.R. No. 80)
The constitutional amendment clarifying that certain economic development programs do not constitute a debt.
This amendment would provide that local economic development program loans or grants (other than debts secured by a pledge of ad valorem taxes or financed by the issuance of any bonds or other obligations payable from ad valorem taxes) do not constitute or create debt.
Supporters contend that this amendment is necessary to ensure that municipalities will be able to fulfill their obligations under certain economic development agreements. Opponents contend that the amendment will undermine the constitutional protections for taxpayers regarding the creation of public debt and that it is unnecessary to amend the Texas Constitution based on a single lower court case.
AMENDMENT NO. 4 (S.J.R. No. 17)
The constitutional amendment authorizing the denial of bail to a criminal defendant who violates a condition of the defendant's release pending trial.
This amendment would authorize a district judge to deny reinstatement of bail or new bail to a person accused of a felony, if their bail had been revoked or forfeited as a result of their violation of a condition of release related to the safety of a victim of the alleged offense or to the safety of the community.
Supporters say that the proposed amendment will ensure that if a person violates a condition of their release they would be denied bail, this would protect the public and the due process rights of the accused. Opponents contend the amendment is unnecessary, since a court or parole panel may order a person to be confined while awaiting a revocation hearing, if that person commits an act that threatens the safety of the victim or the community.
AMENDMENT NO. 5 (S.J.R. No. 21)
The constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to define rates of interest for commercial loans.
This amendment would authorize the Legislature to exempt commercial loans from state usury laws that set maximum interest rates. These loans are made primarily for business, commercial, investment, agricultural, or similar purposes and not primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.
Supporters point out that usury laws are meant to protect borrowers in weak bargaining positions from unscrupulous practices, however, in commercial transactions, both parties would have enough bargaining power to prevent this. Opponents contend that not all commercial borrowers are equally sophisticated, including many small businesses.
AMENDMENT NO. 6 (H.J.R. No. 87)
The constitutional amendment to include one additional public member and a constitutional county court judge in the membership of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
This amendment would increase the size of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct from eleven to thirteen members by adding one public member and one constitutional county court judge.
Supporters contend that constitutional county court judges should be represented on the body charged with governing their conduct and that increasing the number of public members will allow for additional public oversight. Opponents contend that the interests of constitutional county court judges are already represented on the board by county court and other lower court judges already on the commission and that the four public members are enough to ensure sufficient public oversight.
AMENDMENT NO. 7 (S.J.R. No. 7)
The constitutional amendment authorizing line-of-credit advances under a reverse mortgage.
This amendment would authorize new options for reverse mortgage agreements for senior homeowners allowing them to draw advances at unscheduled intervals, if and when needed, and only in the amounts needed, during the loan term.
Supports point out that Texas is the only state that does not allow some form of line-of-credit reverse mortgages and that this would give senior Texans the flexibility to borrow and repay money in accordance with their needs. Opponents say that this may allow borrowers to accumulate too much debt and that reverse mortgages are not subject to the safeguards that apply to other loans secured by a borrower's homestead.
AMENDMENT NO. 8 (S.J.R. No. 40)
The constitutional amendment providing for the clearing of land titles by relinquishing and releasing any state claim to sovereign ownership or title to interest in certain lands in Upshur County and Smith County.
This amendment would clear individual land titles by relinquishing and releasing all claims of state ownership interests, including mineral interests, in two local areas, namely, a roughly 4,600 acre area located roughly 14 miles southeast of Gilmer, Texas, and a separate 900 acre area located north of Tyler, Texas.
Supporters point out that the General Land Office have determined that the state has no interest in the land and that the amendment is limited to specific land and would have no impact on any other land disputes involving the state. Opponents contend that the state should have an ongoing mechanism to settle such disputes and that releasing the state's interest in the land without obtaining fair market value would provide a special benefit to a small group of landowners.
AMENDMENT NO. 9 (H.J.R. No. 79)
The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for six-year staggered terms for a board member of a regional mobility authority.
This amendment would authorize the Legislature to provide staggered six-year terms of office for board members serving on regional mobility authorities, with no more than one-third of the board positions being appointed every two years.
Supporters contend that six-year terms will allow for more consistency and stability in regional mobility authority leadership, while opponents say that longer terms will reduce accountability.
Did You Know. . . ?
If you are not registered to vote, there is still time. October 11 is the last day to register to vote if you want to vote in the November 8 election. To register, or update your voter information, you can go to the Secretary of State website and request a form be mailed to you. You can also go to the Dallas County Elections website and download a form, or contact their office at 214-637-7937 to request a form be mailed to you. Once you receive your voter registration application, and you have completed the form, your application can be mailed back to the Registrar of Voters Dallas County, Texas, 2377 N. Stemmons Frwy., Suite 820, Dallas, Texas, 75207. If you can't cast your vote on November 8, early voting starts on October 24 and ends on November 4. Click here for early voting dates, times and locations in Dallas County. During early voting, registered voters can vote in person at any convenient polling place. Mail-in ballots are also available for the sick or disabled, elderly, or others who will be away from their county on election day, such as college students. Click here to request a mail-in ballot; return the application to Early Voting Clerk, Dallas County Elections Department, 2377 N. Stemmons Frwy., Suite 820, Dallas, Texas, 75207, by the 7th day before Election Day. Remember, if you don't vote, your voice will not be heard. For more information about the November 8, 2005 ballot, visit the Dallas County Elections website.
Reminder: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sponsors an annual program, Texas Aerospace Scholars, an education program that offers high school juniors the opportunity to participate in a science-, math-, and engineering-based online learning program, and features an all-expenses paid, week long summer residential experience at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Students are recommended for the program by their state legislator. Eligible students are required to meet the following criteria:
- U.S. Citizen
- At least 16 years of age
- Texas resident
- Currently a high school junior
- Interested in science, math or engineering
- Able to commit to a relationship with the Johnson Space Center, including a one-week residential experience during the summer
- Access to the Internet and email (home, school, or public library)
As a State Senator, I can place only two qualified students in the program and one alternate. However, I will forward all complete applications for qualified students to the Texas Aerospace Scholars program for consideration. For more information, visit the Aerospace Scholars website, or you can download an application. Submit your completed application to my office no later than October 14, 2005 for consideration. Mail your application to my Austin office at P.O. Box 12068, Austin, Texas 78711.
In Closing . . .
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need assistance with a state agency or wish to voice an opinion on any matter before the Texas Legislature. I will always appreciate hearing from you.
State Senator - District 16