What's new . . .
On February 8, I was appointed Joint Chair of the Study Commission on Transportation Financing. The panel is composed of nine members, with the Lt. Governor, Speaker of the House, and Governor each appointing three members. The panel was created by SB 1713, 79th Legislature, and is charged with reviewing the state motor fuels tax, the current sources for funding rail transportation projects, and all other financing options for all modes of transportation. The study commission will hold hearings and issue a report to the Legislature prior to the next regular session.
The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee and Senate Finance Committee held a joint hearing on March 1 to discuss the committees' joint charges, which direct the committees to review the process by which the Texas Department of Transportation funds transportation projects and determine how certain transportation projects will be funded following reduced federal funding. During the hearing, the committee heard from Ric Williamson, chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, who said that Texas is facing an $86 billion shortfall in funding transportation projects through 2030 because of population growth and the diversion of gas tax revenue at the state and federal levels.
Also on March 1, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee held a hearing to discuss the implementation of HB 2292, from the 78th Legislature, which restructured the state's health and human services agencies and how those services are delivered. The committee heard testimony from the heads of the state's five health and human services agencies regarding the challenges and successes of the restructuring. During his testimony, Eduardo Sanchez, Commissioner of the Department of State Health Services, said that the consolidation of the agencies allowed the state to have a faster, more efficient response to the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The Texas Tax Reform Commission continued to hold hearings this past month, visiting Texarkana, Abilene, Nacogdoches, and Midland. The committee just held a hearing on March 6, and will hold its final scheduled hearing on March 8 in Houston. Expect details of their recommendations to be released soon after the conclusion of the committee's hearings.
The Senate Select Committee on Education Reform and Public School Finance also held hearings during February, in preparation for the upcoming special session. During the two hearings, the committee focused on education reform, taking testimony from teachers, superintendents, and professionals. The testimony focused on a wide range of topics including improving the efficiency of public schools, the effect of teacher quality, improving post-secondary success and college readiness. The committee's next hearing is scheduled for March 21.
Recent news articles have indicated that Governor Rick Perry will likely limit the call of the upcoming special session to a revision of the state's tax system in order to reduce local property taxes by increasing state funding for public education. Consideration of education reforms, however, would be postponed until the next regular session. While the Governor has not yet called the special session, it is expected to be called for early April.
Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Speaker of the House Tom Craddick have directed the Health and Human Services Commission to redirect $122 million in funds already appropriated to the agency. This money will allow the state to receive nearly $127 million in federal funds. The funds will be used to increase Medicaid's nursing home reimbursements, restore the "personal needs allowance" to $60 a month for certain nursing home residents, and reopen closed wings at state mental health hospitals. The increased funding to nursing homes and personal needs allowance are retroactive to January 1, 2006.
Focus . . .
As I reported in last month's Email Update, I was recently named chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security. This month, I would like to give you a better understanding of the work the committee will do, both before and during the next regular session.
In the coming months the committee will hold hearings to discuss and take testimony on the committee's interim charges. (Scroll down to page 30 of the link for a list of the committee's interim charges.) Among the issues the Lt. Governor has directed the committee to review are the safety of the state's transportation facilities; the effectiveness of Texas' recently enacted homeland security legislation; and the ability of the state to build, maintain, and relocate rail facilities. Upon the conclusion of these hearings, the committee is directed to issue a report on its findings by December 1, 2006. These reports are often the basis for bills filed during the regular session.
Committees are one of the key components of the legislative process. Once a bill has been filed, it is read on the Senate floor and referred to a committee. The Lt. Governor is responsible for determining the committee to which bills are assigned. Upon a bill being assigned to a committee, it is the prerogative of the chair to schedule that bill for a hearing, recognize a member to introduce and explain the purpose of a bill during a committee hearing, and request that a vote be taken on a bill in committee, once it has been heard. The chair is also responsible for hiring committee staff. In the Senate, committee staff is typically comprised of a committee clerk, committee director, and policy analysts.
Since there is a certain amount of overlap among the issues addressed in each committee, I would also like to give a brief overview of some of the most recent issues the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee has covered. Last session, the committee held hearings on legislation relating to the state's transportations system; homeland security and bio-terrorism, specifically, the interoperability of our state's health alert network; red light cameras; cell phone restrictions while operating a vehicle; driver licensing requirements; changes to the distribution and production of temporary license plates, which is becoming a law enforcement and homeland security issue; seat belts and child safety seat requirements; hurricane evacuation routes, an issue that will surely be revisited in light of the difficulties encountered when evacuating parts of the Gulf Coast for Hurricane Rita; the relocation of rail lines; and border safety inspection facilities.
Bills relating to these issues will likely make up the bulk of legislation heard by the committee during the next regular session.
Did You Know . . . ?
The North Texas Crime Commission is sponsoring "Scam Jam 2006," a fraud prevention seminar featuring local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Participants will learn how they can protect themselves from identity theft, and Internet, health care, elder, and counterfeit fraud. The seminar will be held April 1, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Dallas Convention Center, 650 S. Griffin.
Student Opportunities . . .
Texas Association of Developing Colleges is administering the Urban Scholarship Fund Program, which is for graduating high school seniors and returning college students attending any accredited nonprofit public or independent two- or four-year college or university or technical school. For eligibility requirements and to download an application, go to www.txadc.org.
In Closing . . .
Remember, today is the last day to vote in the Republican and Democratic primaries. If you have not voted be sure to cast your vote by 7 p.m. tonight. To find out where you can vote and for election results, go to www.dalcoelections.org.
State Senator - District 16