Senator Carona's Email Update
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EMAIL UPDATE

December 19, 2006

What's new . . .

Tom Pauken, Chair of the Governor's Task Force on Appraisal Reform, has recently given his views on how to best address "appraisal creep," which can be described as an increase in property taxes through rising appraisals, independent of an increase in the tax rate. Among his suggestions are mandatory disclosure of real-estate sales prices and a five percent cap on local government spending increases, which could be increased with voter approval. These suggestions have not been adopted by the task force, which will meet later this month to finalize its recommendations to the Legislature. Click here for more information on the Governor's Task Force on Appraisal Reform including issues and schedules. The House Committee on Local Government Ways and Means has released its interim report, which also addresses the issue of appraisal reform from a different perspective. I expect both views to be vigorously debated during the upcoming session, which convenes January 9, 2007.

The Texas Education Agency has cleared 592 of the nearly 700 schools that were reviewed for having unusual patterns in their Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores, such as suspicious answer patterns, numerous erasures on answer sheets and scores that jumped drastically from one year to the next. The review followed an analysis of 2005 TAKS scores by a private test security firm. The review ranged from onsite examinations of schools to each school completing a questionnaire regarding the security procedures in place at each school. The agency aims to conclude its investigation of the remaining schools by January.

The Sunset Advisory Commission held a hearing in Austin on December 12. As you may know, the Sunset Commission is a 12-member body composed of legislators and public members. Each state agency is subject to review by the Sunset Commission every eight to twelve years. This review gives the Legislature a chance to evaluate the performance and effectiveness of state agencies. Among the agencies under review this interim are the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, State Office of Risk Management, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). For more about how the Sunset review will affect TDCJ, see this month's Focus.

Many committees in the Senate and House have finished their interim reports, which are now available online. Expect the remaining committees to release their reports in the coming weeks. The committees on which I serve examined a host of issues, among them: the Health and Human Services Committee examined how to better deliver mental health care services, and one of our recommendations was to make early intervention and recovery a policy priority; the Jurisprudence Committee studied electronic reporting as a means of preserving records of official court proceedings, and one of the recommendations was to enact legislation that would allow judges to choose the system of record keeping for their court. The Criminal Justice and Transportation and Homeland Security Committees will be releasing their reports by the end of the year.

Focus . . .

With the legislative session set to begin on Tuesday, January 9, 2007, I would like to give you an overview of the challenges the Legislature will face and the work leading up to the session.

The first fact to remember is that the only bill which the Legislature is required to pass each session is the budget. The preliminary factor in shaping the budget is the revenue estimate, which is the Comptroller's estimate of how much revenue will be available to the state over the course of the biennium. The revenue estimate is critical because the state is constitutionally prohibited from spending more than the Comptroller estimates will be available to the state over the course of the biennium. Preliminary estimates indicate Texas will have anywhere from a $4.5 billion to a $15 billion surplus. It is important to note that when one speaks of a surplus they are generally referring to the amount of revenue over and above what is needed to maintain current funding levels with population growth.

Another budgetary factor, which is unique to this session, is the effect of the new margins tax and property tax reduction on the constitutional spending limit. This limits the growth in state spending to the Legislative Budget Board's estimate of the biennial rate of economic growth. The passage of the new business margins tax allowed the state to reduce local property taxes and assume a greater share of public education funding. However, this could have the unintended consequence of triggering the constitutional spending limit, since this shift in taxes represents an increase in state spending greater than the estimated economic growth. In essence, the state paid for local property tax relief with the new business margins tax. The Legislative Budget Board will meet next month to address this matter.

Interim reports provide the basis for a great deal of legislation and will be another factor influencing the upcoming session. At the conclusion of each regular session, the Speaker of the House and the Lt. Governor issue interim charges to each committee. During the interim, these committees hold numerous hearings on their charges. Unlike hearings during the legislative session, in which the committee will hear testimony on a wide range of bills with testimony limited to the bills on the agenda, interim hearings allow legislators to hear a wide variety of testimony and develop a greater understanding of a topic and what legislative action would best address the issue. Each committee then issues a report before the legislative session. These reports summarize the testimony heard by the committee and give recommendations on any necessary legislative action.

Unlike recent sessions, when the Legislature faced an historic budget shortfall and court order to overhaul the school finance system, there does not appear to be any one issue that will dominate the legislative agenda, and most legislators are ready to get to work and look forward to a 'normal' session. However, there is no shortage of issues that will require our attention this session. Following is a brief overview of topics the Legislature will confront.

The recently enacted margins tax will likely be subject to revisions and technical corrections. The tax has yet to go into effect and the Legislature has had time to study its implications and receive feedback from the business community. Comprehensive water legislation will also be the subject of many discussions during the session. With the projected growth in population over the coming decades, it is imperative that we properly address our growing water needs to allow our economy to continue to grow. On the criminal justice front, Lt. Governor Dewhurst has proposed the enactment of Jessica's Law in Texas. Jessica's Law was recently passed in Florida following the abduction and murder of Jessica Lunsford and strengthens penalties for sex crimes committed against children. Rep. Debbie Riddle has pre-filed portions of Jessica's Law. Click here for a more comprehensive list of issues as published by the House Research Organization.

Another issue will be the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's request for the Legislature to fund an additional capacity of 4,500 beds, 3,500 of which would be maximum security. The cost of this project will be nearly $500 million. Senator John Whitmire, who is Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and serves on the Sunset Commission, has questioned the need for this additional capacity and is working with the Sunset Commission to review other, intermediate and more cost effective options. This is shaping up to be a bipartisan issue, with many legislators from both sides of the aisle leery of funding more capacity at the expense of diversion and rehabilitation programs, a point also raised by Sunset Commission staff.

I have pre-filed legislation, SB 102, that will require that all non-ceremonial votes taken by the Legislature be recorded and available to the public via the Internet. I have also filed several transportation and homeland security bills. I look forward to working with my fellow members of the Health and Human Services Committee to address the challenges facing the foster care system.

Did You Know . . . ?

During the 2005 session, there were 5,484 bills filed and 1,389 that passed. In 2003, 5,592 bills were filed and 1,384 of them passed. I anticipate there will be at least that many filed this session, even in the absence of any one issue that will dominate the legislative agenda.

Student Opportunities...

The Texas General Land Office is accepting submissions from children in grades K through 6 for its annual Treasures of the Texas Coast Children's Art Contest. Two winners from each of Texas' 24 planning regions will be chosen, and from these 48 winners, the grand prize winner will be selected. The winning works of art will appear on a calendar that will be distributed throughout the state. For more information, click here.

The Texas Round-Up will also be accepting submissions for its 2nd annual T-shirt design competition for its Chicken Chase Family Mile. Entries will be accepted through January 31, 2007. The race will be held April 28 in Austin and is intended to highlight the benefits of physical activity. The winning artist will have their design featured on all Family Mile T-Shirts. For more information go to www.texasroundup.org.

In Closing . . .

As my family and I celebrate Christmas, I wish for you a blessed and joyous season and a very happy new year!

Sincerely,

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

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