What's new . . .
On Friday, February 3, Lt. Governor Dewhurst announced new committee assignments for members of the Senate as well as committee interim charges. As is customary in the Senate, senators who chair a committee but are not running for re-election to the Senate were replaced. I am pleased to have been named Chair of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. This assignment will give me an opportunity to influence transportation and homeland security policy throughout the state, while ensuring that the transportation and security needs of the Metroplex are properly addressed. I was also appointed to the Criminal Justice, Health and Human Services, and Jurisprudence committees.
The Senate Select Committee on Education Reform and Public School Finance held its first hearing last week. Among those testifying before the committee was Ted Cruz, the Solicitor General in the Attorney General's Office who argued the school finance case before the Texas Supreme Court. After recapping the state's position, he then outlined five options for addressing the court's ruling. Mr. Cruz said the simplest solution would be to pass a constitutional amendment that would have to be approved by voters, which would allow a statewide property tax. The second option would be a fundamental reform of our state's tax structure that would eliminate schools' reliance on local property taxes. The third option would be to raise the current $1.50 cap to allow for more local discretion. The fourth option would be to, as Mr. Cruz said, "lower the floor" by reducing state mandates on school districts, again giving them more local discretion.
Finally, Mr. Cruz stated that the fifth option would be to "buy down" the local property tax rate by increasing state aid to school districts without lowering the cap.
Senator Florence Shapiro, who chairs the committee, said that unlike previous attempts to address school finance, in which the Legislature "tried to do too much," she foresees the Legislature "doing a few things and doing a few things well." The committee met on Monday, February 6, to discuss school district efficiency, college success and preparation, and high school reform. The next meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Education Reform and Public School Finance is scheduled for Tuesday, February 21, 2006.
The Texas Tax Reform Commission has continued to hold hearings across the state, visiting Austin, El Paso, Belton, Waco, Lubbock, Laredo, and Weslaco during the month of January. The commission continues to solicit public input as it develops recommendations for restructuring our state's tax system.
Between the Senate Select Committee on Education Reform and Public School Finance and the Texas Tax Reform Commission, I have reason for greater hope of success when we convene again in a special session to consider school finance and tax reform. I expect that the debate will be more focused than the previous special sessions, and hopefully the resolve of the Legislature will be more focused too. I believe that fundamental tax reform is a must before we can consider anything else.
Attorney General Greg Abbott has begun to investigate allegations that several websites are selling cell phone records, which are considered private information. General Abbott has contacted the websites that purport to have access to cell phone records. He also urges consumers to contact their cell phone provider to determine if anyone has requested their cell phone records. To file a complaint regarding the misuse of your cell phone records, you may contact the Attorney General's Office at 800-252-8011 or go to www.oag.state.tx.us.
Focus . . .
The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission held its first hearing of the year on January 25, 2006. Since 1977, the Sunset Act has required most state agencies to be reviewed an average of once every twelve years. The primary goal of this review is to determine whether or not an agency's functions continue to be needed. The Sunset process works by setting a date on which an agency will be abolished unless legislation is passed to continue its functions. This process allows the Legislature to examine an agency and make fundamental changes, if needed, or in some cases abolish the agency or merge it with another one.
During the interim proceeding the abolishment of the agency, the staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission works with each agency scheduled for review to evaluate the need for the agency, propose needed statutory or management changes, and develop legislation necessary to enact proposed changes. The staff gives their recommendations to the Sunset Commission, a twelve member committee comprised of five Senators, five members of the House of Representatives, and two public members, one appointed by the Speaker of the House and one appointed by the Lt. Governor. The Commission then holds public hearings in which they take public testimony, review the staff's recommendations, and give the agencies under review an opportunity to respond to the staff's report. Following the hearings, the Commission decides on recommendations to the Legislature for a particular agency and incorporates them into a sunset bill. If the Commission decides to abolish the agency, no bill is needed.
Each Sunset bill is subject to the same rules of parliamentary procedure as other pieces of legislation. And because of their broad subject matter, they are often magnets for amendments at the end of a legislative session. For instance, last session, the State Board of Medical Examiners sunset bill was amended to provide for disciplinary action against physicians who perform abortions on minors without first obtaining parental consent. Also last session, the sunset bill for the Texas Education Agency died when it became a vehicle for vouchers. (Each session, a "catch-all" sunset bill is also filed should an agency specific sunset bill fail to pass which allows the agency to continue to function. Such agencies are subject to the sunset process in the following interim. This is the case with the Texas Education Agency.)
The Sunset Commission will review 24 agencies this interim, including the Office of State-Federal Relations, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Veterans' Land Board, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and the Texas Commission on the Arts. For more information on the process and agencies, click HERE.
Did You Know . . . ?
With the increasing use of photo enforcement to catch red light and toll plaza runners, there have been reports of people receiving citations in the mail for vehicles which they no longer own. In some cases, the vehicle was sold years ago. This can happen when a vehicle is sold and the new owner does not title and register the car in his or her name as they are required to do by law. Nevertheless, your time and patience are required to resolve the situation. There are some steps that you can take as the seller of a vehicle to document the sale for your protection. When you are selling a vehicle, submit the voluntary information about the new owner on the form attached to your vehicle title along with the fee of $5. If you have already sold the vehicle, click HERE and download and complete form VTR-346. If you do not have the name and address of the purchaser, you should indicate "unknown" since the form cannot be processed with blanks.
Click HERE for more information about titling and registering vehicles.
Student Opportunities . . .
The Texas Department of Transportation is now accepting applications for its Conditional Grant Program. This is a need-based grant and is open to students who are pursuing degrees in civil engineering, computer science, management information systems, or computer information systems. Priority is given to students who are the first generation in their family to attend college. Up to $3,000 is awarded each semester to each recipient. Students must maintain a minimum GPA of 2.5 and agree to work for the department for two years following graduation. To apply for the program, go to www.dot.state.tx.us/employment/recruiting.htm. The application deadline is March 1, 2006.
In Closing . . .
Don't forget that March 7th is Primary Election Day. Early voting begins February 21st and is available through March 3rd. Early voting locations, dates and times, as well as polling locations for Primary Election Day are available from the Dallas County Elections Department.
The residents of Senate District 16 have been most helpful to me by providing regular input on the various issues. I always appreciate hearing from you.
State Senator - District 16