Senator Carona's Email Update
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EMAIL UPDATE

January 26, 2007

The 80th Session of the Texas Legislature convened on January 9, 2007. Despite a contentious Speaker's race and a prolonged ice storm, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and House and Senate members have been sworn in and legislative business is underway. The Lieutenant Governor has appointed Senate committees and the Speaker is expected to appoint House committees in the next few weeks. I was pleased to once again be appointed Chair of the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. My other assignments include the Criminal Justice, Jurisprudence, and State Affairs committees.

In this issue of the Email Update, I am providing you with a brief overview by subject area of the major challenges the Legislature will address between now and May 28, when the regular session will end. Unlike previous sessions, there is not one issue that will dominate the legislative agenda, which will allow the Legislature to concentrate on a number of other issues.

Taxes, Revenue, and the Budget

The Legislature will likely address the new business margins tax. Having had the opportunity to hear feedback from the business community, numerous modifications will be considered. Many of those modifications will be technical, while some will have a fiscal impact.

At the beginning of session, Comptroller Susan Combs announced the state has a $14.3 billion budget surplus. However, it is important to note that much of this "surplus" will be needed to address population growth in our schools and other programs, as well as the state's commitment to buy down property taxes. Some of the programs funded in the preliminary budget by the surplus include: $3.9 billion to pay for school property tax cuts in 2008-2009; $3 billion to pay for school property tax cuts in 2010-2011; and $2.5 billion to cover growth in Medicaid, CHIP, public school enrollment, and prisons. Many options are already being discussed for the remaining funds. Some of these options are to return funds to the taxpayers and address the needs in transportation, education, parks, higher education, criminal justice, and health and human services.

Speaker of the House Tom Craddick and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst released the Legislative Budget Board's preliminary budget. Highlights of the proposed budget include: $1.8 billion to fund the tuition revenue bonds passed during the most recent special session, funding for the teacher pay raises passed last year, and funding for a medical school in El Paso.

Recognizing the burden rising property taxes place on our seniors, one of the primary items the Legislature will address is making sure senior citizens benefit from property tax reduction. Governor Perry has declared this issue an emergency item for the 80th Legislative Session, which will allow lawmakers to address the matter immediately. I look forward to working with my fellow legislators to address this and feel it is important that seniors receive the same protection from rising property taxes as others.

Business and Economic Development

The newly deregulated retail electric market will likely be subject to a great deal of scrutiny by the Legislature. Texas took the first steps towards deregulation during the 1999 legislative session and achieved a fully deregulated retail market at the beginning of this year. Although many proposals will be considered, the Legislature must ensure that consumers are the ultimate beneficiary of deregulation. For more information on the retail electric market go to www.powertochoose.com.

With the line between traditional phone companies and cable providers blurring and with each group expanding and offering similar product lines, the Legislature also expects to see many proposals that address the telecommunications industry and its related services this session. As with the electric market, the Legislature must ensure that all consumers benefit from the rapid growth and innovation in the industry.

As Texas continues to grow, it is important to ensure that the state continues to have a stable supply of electricity. To that end, look for the Legislature to explore alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar power and biofuels.

Criminal Justice and Public Safety

This past fall, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst proposed strengthening the penalties for sex offenders through the passage of Jessica's Law, which includes: mandatory 25 years to life sentences for first time violent sexual offenses against a child under age 14, doubling the statute of limitations on sex crimes against children from 10 to 20 years, and lifetime GPS monitoring for child sex offenders.

Recognizing the cost of an ever growing prisoner population, the Senate Criminal Justice and House Corrections Committees spent much of the interim examining ways to reduce the prison population, while continuing to ensure public safety. The Legislature will work to increase funding for offender treatment and rehabilitation programs in an effort to reduce recidivism among released prisoners and may explore alternatives to incarceration for non-violent, low level drug offenders who could be diverted to drug courts and mandatory drug treatment centers. The Senate Criminal Justice and House Corrections Committees will hold a joint hearing on January 30 to unveil a complete package of sweeping reforms aimed at reducing recidivism and the overall jail population.

In conjunction with the above reforms, the Legislature will also look to make reforms to the parole process to alleviate prison overcrowding. For instance, in light of discrepancies in parole rates across the state, the Legislature will work to ensure that parole guidelines are consistently applied throughout the state. We will also work to make sure that offenders who pose a threat to society are not released.

I want to emphasize that I will not support any proposal that sacrifices public safety for fiscal savings. As Senator John Whitmire, Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee said, the Legislature will look for measures that "enhance public safety and save money."

Health and Human Services

One of the issues examined by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee in their interim report was how to improve the delivery of mental health services throughout the state. Look for the committee and the Legislature to consider proposals that would emphasize early intervention and recovery from mental illness and encourage collaboration between mental health providers and primary care physicians as a growing body of evidence shows a strong correlation between mental and physical health.

The Legislature will also continue to address reforms to Adult and Child Protective Service agencies. With the passage of SB 6 during the 79th Legislative Session, the Legislature enacted numerous reforms to protect vulnerable children and adults. Having had the chance to evaluate those changes, we will continue to work toward ensuring the well being and safety of our most vulnerable citizens.

Look for the Legislature to also address shortages in the health care workforce, which was an issue examined in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee's interim report. By increasing the number of Graduate Medical Education slots in Texas, it is hoped that more physicians will stay in Texas once they finish their education. There will also be numerous measures to increase the health care faculty in our nursing and medical schools since a major factor in the state's nursing shortage is the lack of qualified instructors.

Public and Higher Education

Although the Legislature enacted numerous education reforms during last spring's special session, one may still expect to see many proposals that address public education. Among them will likely be measures to reform or abolish the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills Test; one possibility is to replace the test in high school with end-of-course exams.

The Legislature will also likely consider educational reforms necessary to focus high schools and student performance on post-secondary readiness and success in an effort to connect the curriculum in public education with the skills necessary to succeed at the college level.

In order to address the capacity and flexibility at Texas universities, there may be proposals to amend the Top Ten Percent Law. Some proposals may cap the number of automatic admissions in each freshman class or place a moratorium on the admissions requirement.

Environment

Expect water to be the focus of numerous proposals this session. Just as with electricity, the state's future growth and prosperity is dependent upon an affordable and reliable supply of water. The Senate Natural Resources Committee examined numerous issues relating to our state's ground and surface water in their interim report, among them: conservation; drought preparedness; and environmental flows, which is the water necessary to allow a river, wetland, or coastal zone to maintain their ecosystems.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee also examined ways to improve air quality. The committee recommended that the Legislature continue funding two programs aimed at reducing harmful emissions. The first is the Texas Emissions Reduction Program (TERP), which provides financial incentives from a designated fund for primarily commercial projects that reduce emissions of NOx, and the Low Income Vehicle Repair and Assistance Program (LIRAP), which provides assistance to qualified low-income individuals whose vehicle fails an enhanced state inspection program due to unacceptable levels of NOx emissions.

The Legislature may also address the disposing of electronic waste. It is expected that many proposals will focus on encouraging manufacturers to take back their discarded products.

State and Local Government

Recognizing their economic and recreational benefit, look for the Legislature to increase funding to our state parks. HB 6 has been filed that would redirect the Sporting Goods Tax to state parks as it was originally intended.

Appraisal and Revenue Caps will be a topic during the session as well. During the interim, Governor Perry created the Texas Task Force on Appraisal Reform, which held hearings across the state and just released a report making recommendations on how best to combat rising property tax appraisals. The highlights of the report include: increase taxpayer representation on the Board of Directors of an Appraisal District; allow property owners to seek binding arbitration when contesting the appraised value of their property; prohibit unfunded mandates from the state on local governments, which are cited as one driver of the growth of local governments; lower the annual cap from eight percent to five percent on local government spending growth; allow cities and counties to have an election that would increase the sales tax, with the revenue dedicated to property tax reduction; and require buyers to submit sales information on the purchase of a home.

As I did last session, I have filed two pieces of legislation that would require the Legislature to record most votes. The first, SJR 7, would amend the Texas Constitution to require that all non-ceremonial votes be recorded and available on the Internet, while the second, SB 102, would amend the Government Code to enact this requirement.

Transportation and Homeland Security Committee

As the chair of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, I am providing a more detailed overview of the issues the committee will confront this session.

In the area of transportation finance, the committee will consider whether taxes, fines, fees, and penalties that come from transportation activities go toward improving our transportation network or to other uses. The committee will also examine whether the state has an appropriate mix of finance sources - motor fuels taxes, vehicle registration fees, permit fees, bonds, tolls, and other revenues - and whether we should increase some and reduce others, while also considering the private sector's role in financing transportation.

I also look forward to examining the recent emphasis on toll roads and its effect on our current road and highway network. We must also work to determine the state's role in building and operating toll roads, as well as the involvement of local agencies, such as the North Texas Tollway Authority, and private companies. The committee will also specifically examine the Trans-Texas Corridor, to ensure that the public/private partnership is still a viable model and that the land acquisition process respects the rights of private property owners.

Working toward improving highway safety is one of the committee's paramount responsibilities. The committee will address a number of proposals that aim to reduce the number of unsafe trucks and give cities and counties more authority to inspect and cite unsafe trucks and truck drivers. I also anticipate legislation being filed that will address using cell phones while driving and requiring school buses to have safety belts.

Ensuring that state and local governments can adequately respond to emergency situations and have the necessary emergency management tools and capabilities will be a major focus of the committee. The committee will also examine ways to improve communications between fire departments and other agencies throughout the state, as well as how to best apply the lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

For those interested in reading the committee's interim report, which addresses the above issues, click here.

In Closing . . .

In closing, I would like to bring to your attention the updated state agency contact information on my website. You can find contact numbers for each agency with listings for specific programs as well. As always, feel free to contact my office if you need any assistance in working with a state agency. We are here to serve you.

Sincerely,

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

Capitol OfficeDistrict Offices
P.O. Box 12068
Austin, TX 78711
512-463-0116
800-662-0334
512-463-3135 (fax)
john.carona@senate.state.tx.us
8080 N. Central Expy.
Suite 1440, LB 44
Dallas, TX 75206
214-378-5751
214-378-5739 (fax)
5401 N. Central Expy.
Suite 300
Dallas, TX 75205
214-521-3884
214-953-1886 (fax)

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