Senator Carona's Email Update
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EMAIL UPDATE

June 21, 2006

What's new . . .

Following the passage of school finance reform legislation, State District Judge John Dietz rescinded the injunction that would have prevented the state from funding public schools beyond June 1. Although the 47 school districts that originally sued the state did not oppose rescinding the injunction, they cautioned that such action should not be seen as an endorsement of the recently passed legislation, noting that the districts still have serious concerns since "the primary focus of the legislation was property tax relief, not putting the school finance system on firm financial footing."

The Texas Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, which I chair, held a public hearing in Fort Worth on June 13, 2006, to discuss comprehensive development agreements such as those proposed for SH 121 and SH 161 and possible routes for the Metroplex portion of the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC 35). An overflow crowd of more than 100 attended the hearing, which opened with welcoming remarks from Mayor Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth and included testimony from Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson and many area leaders. Closer cooperation among the Texas Department of Transportation and local leaders is expected as a result of the hearing. The Texas Department of Transportation will hold hearings later this summer on the portion of the Trans-Texas Corridor that will run along I-35. One will be held in Mesquite on July 18 at Poteet High School, with a second in Dallas on July 27 at Grauwyler Community Center. Click here for a complete list of statewide hearings.

Following the passage of HB 2257, which gave the Texas Transportation Commission the authority to raise the speed limits on portions of I-10 and I-20 in far west Texas, the Commission voted to change the daytime speed limit along portions of those highways to 80 miles per hour; the night speed limit will continue to be 65 miles per hour. The change affects 432 miles of I-10 between Kerrville and El Paso, and an 89 mile stretch of I-20 between Monahans and the I-10 interchange. The legislation was specific to these locations, and we should not expect to see such changes in our region of North Texas.

In an interview with the San Antonio Express News editorial board, Tom Craddick, Speaker of the Texas House, said he would like Governor Perry to create an appraisal cap commission to examine rising appraisals and the effects of such a cap. Supporters of appraisal caps contend that rising appraisals will quickly erode the property tax cuts recently passed by the Legislature. Opponents argue such appraisal caps will result in disproportionate tax burdens for homeowners, since newly sold homes will be appraised at full market value, and could harm local real estate markets.

The Governor's Budget Office and the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) have instructed state agencies to assume a 10% cut when submitting their 2008-2009 draft budgets. During the year prior to each regular session, state agencies submit Legislative Appropriations Requests to the Legislative Budget Board and the Governor. These documents are the first step in developing the LBB and Governor's proposed budgets for the next biennium. Requiring the reduced budgets are just a starting point and not indicative of a budget cut, but as a spokeswoman for the Governor's office said, "(it) is a valuable step for agencies to go through in re-examining what their priorities are and how they would spend tax dollars." Exceptions to the budget reductions include amounts necessary to: maintain public education funding based on legislative action, satisfy debt service requirements for existing bond authorizations, maintain caseloads for federal entitlement services, and maintain adult prison populations.

Focus . . .

In the closing days of the recent special session, the Legislature passed HB 153 which outlines certain capital projects at public universities across the state that will be financed through tuition revenue bonds (TRBs). The bill gives public universities the authority to issue bonds, secured through tuition, and provides that the Legislature reimburse the universities for the debt service on the bond through future appropriations. However, there is no guarantee that funding for the debt service will be appropriated, so most of the universities will wait until such funds are appropriated before beginning construction on the approved projects.

Prior to the special session, public universities submitted their requested projects to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. At the request of the Legislature, the Board developed a scoring system to evaluate each of the projects. The evaluation criteria included: extraordinary circumstances, such as facilities impacted by Hurricane Rita or projects in high growth regions with large numbers of first generation college students; whether the project furthered the goals outlined in the state's higher education plan Closing the Gaps; whether the project is included in each institution's Campus Master Plan; the percentage of non-TRB funding to be used for the project, greater weight was given to projects that will be funded with less than 51% TRBs; whether the project addresses critical and deferred maintenance; the project's cost per square foot; the project's total space compared to its usable space; the institution's need for space; and whether the institution has enough space for academic instruction, research, and support of its mission; and utilization of each institution's current space.

This scoring system aided the Legislature as it discussed which projects were to be included in the bill. However, a high score did not necessarily mean inclusion in the bill. Representative Morrison and Senator Zaffirini, the author and sponsor of the bill respectively, worked with legislators to identify which projects they would like to see included in the bill.

The Legislature also limited the amount of the TRB to 90% of the projects' cost. This limit was required because legislators wanted to insure that each institution was vested in the construction of each facility.

Projects in the Dallas area that were in the bill include authorization for $12 million in bonds that will help UT-Dallas build-out the current shell space in the basement of the new Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Laboratory for research space for neuroscience and neuro-engineering faculty, and $42 million in bonds for The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas to construct an eight-story 238,026 square foot research building with underground parking and a 24,780 gross square foot Thermal Energy Plant. The University of North Texas at Dallas will receive authorization to issue $25 million in bonds for systems administration facilities and classrooms, contingent upon the campus reaching the enrollment equivalent to 1,500 full-time students for one semester. The bill also appropriated $5.3 million to reimburse The University of Texas System for debt service paid on bonds that were issued to finance the construction of a natural science and engineering research building at UT-Dallas.

These tuition revenue bonds will help our public universities keep up with our growing population. However, it is important to remember that although HB 153 identified eligible projects and approved the issuance of bonds, appropriations need to be made for the debt service on these bonds.

Did You Know . . . ?

Following the theft of electronic data from the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which contained the names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers of approximately 26.5 million veterans, Attorney General Greg Abbott is advising veterans to take steps to ensure that they do not become victims of identity theft. General Abbott recommends checking all bank, credit card, and any other financial statements for any fraudulent activity. He also recommends calling one of the three credit reporting agencies, Experian, Equifax or TransUnion, and requesting a fraud alert. When a fraud alert is made with one of the agencies, that agency will notify the other two. One may also go to the Attorney General's website to get an Identity Theft Victim's Kit, which provides resources and tips for victims of ID theft.

Student Opportunities . . .

This year at the Texas State Fair, the Women's Museum will sponsor the Texas Girls' State Fair, which is intended to spotlight the accomplishments of girls and encourage their talents and aspirations. As part of the program, the Women's Museum will recognize girls between the ages of eleven and eighteen, who have been honored or won awards in academic, athletic and numerous other areas. Scholarships will be awarded for the top submissions. For more information click here.

In Closing . . .

Remember to check with your local cities to verify water restrictions during this drought season. If I can be of any assistance to you, please do not hesitate to call my office.

Sincerely,

John Carona
State Senator - District 16
http://www.carona.senate.state.tx.us/

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