Senator Carona's Email Update
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EMAIL UPDATE

April 2, 2007

What's New . . .

On Monday, March 19, the halfway mark for the 140-day Regular Session of the Texas Legislature passed. On the bill filing deadline (the 60th day, March 9 this session), the count for bills filed was 4,154 House bills and joint resolutions and 2,025 Senate bills and joint resolutions. When the Session concludes on May 28, I expect just over 1,000 of these bills to be actually passed by both chambers and on the Governor's desk for review. Following is a list of bills/topics that are covered in the update:

  1. HB 2061, publicly available documents and social security numbers
  2. Texas Youth Commission
  3. HPV vaccine mandate
  4. Checks and balances between legislative and executive branches
  5. Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  6. Electric deregulation and TXU
  7. Air Quality
  8. State Water Plan
  9. Record Votes
  10. SB 378, "Castle Doctrine"
  11. HB 8, "Jessica's Law"
  12. SB1031, TAKS test vs. end-of-course exams
  13. HB 1, Budget
  14. Transportation and Homeland Security

(1) The first bill of the Legislature to be passed and signed into law by the Governor was HB 2061. HB 2061 addresses the common practice of County Clerks using Social Security numbers (SSN) for purposes of identification in documents publicly available on the Internet. An opinion issued on February 21, 2007, by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott required county and district clerks to redact (strike out) Social Security numbers from documents filed in their offices that are available to the public via the Internet. The opinion further provides that releasing such documents may subject the clerk to criminal liabilities under state law. Clerks across the state reacted to this opinion by limiting or denying access to their records, including Internet records, because they stated that they do not have the employees, funding, or technology to review the numerous documents in their possession in order to redact every SSN in the documents they have filed. As a result, businesses like insurance and realty were unable to conduct business. HB 2061, which went into effect on March 28, 2007, provides that a county or district clerk is not liable for the disclosure of a SSN contained in a document filed with the county or district clerk. It requires, upon written request of an individual, the redaction, from documents specified by the individual, of all but the last four numbers of a SSN unless another law requires the full SSN to be maintained on the document. While not perfect, HB 2061 provides a solution that protects citizens' identities with consideration for the limited employee resources of county and district clerk offices.

(2) The recent allegations of sexual abuse at numerous Texas Youth Commission facilities have been some of the most disturbing since I have been a member of the Legislature. Over the course of this past month, the scope of allegations widened. What was at first thought to be an isolated incident has been found to encompass numerous facilities. As the Legislature and Governor became aware of growing allegations, numerous steps have been taken to address the situation: the management at the agency has been replaced, the governing board has resigned, and numerous employees have either been fired or resigned. While this Email Update was being written, the Governor placed TYC into conservatorship and appointed Jay Kimbrough conservator of the agency. As conservator, Mr. Kimbrough will have total authority over all aspects of the agency. I commend the Governor on taking this important step. As a legislator, I must question every factor that allowed these abuses to occur and go unaddressed for two years and how to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future. To that end, the Legislature will consider making permanent changes to the governing structure of the Texas Youth Commission, giving the Attorney General the authority to prosecute allegations of abuse at TYC facilities, and making a fundamental change in the culture of TYC from a punitive system to one that focuses on rehabilitation. I am committed to taking all necessary actions to ensure that incidents such as this never happen again.

(3) On February 2, Governor Perry issued Executive Order 65, requiring school-aged girls to receive the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine prior to entering sixth grade. (See February 2007 Email Update for details.) In response, SB 438 (of which, I am a co-author) and its companion HB 1098, which would preempt this Executive Order, were filed. HB 1098 has already sailed through the House by a vote of 119-21 and is expected to be heard soon in the Senate. With such a wide margin of passage, if the bill is vetoed by the Governor, the House would be able to override that veto. Additionally, the Attorney General's office has offered an informal opinion in response to inquiries by legislators that the Executive Order does not carry the weight of law nor does it force "an agency to do something it does not already have the authority to do."

(4) Numerous other pieces of legislation have been filed that would address the system of checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches of state government. HJR 59 and its companion SJR 28 would allow the Legislature to reconvene after a regular session to reconsider legislation that a Governor has vetoed. Currently, the Governor's veto period extends 20 days after final adjournment of the Legislature. Since the Legislature is not in session during those 20 days, legislators are not able to reconsider any bills vetoed by the Governor during this time. Additionally, SJR 40 would allow the Senate to remove any gubernatorial appointee, such as the head of a state agency, with a two-thirds vote of the Senate. Since the above legislation proposes amendments to the Texas Constitution, they are not subject to a gubernatorial veto; however, they must pass each chamber of the Legislature and then be passed in a statewide election.

(5) The Legislature has continued to address changes to the Children's Health Insurance Program. HB 109, would ease eligibility requirements, extend coverage from six months to one year, eliminate the 90-day waiting period, and provide for greater community outreach to promote the program. The bill was considered on the House floor, but was sent back to committee on a point of order. A point of order is a breech of procedural rules that govern the legislative process. When a point of order is sustained, that bill is returned to the stage of the legislative process in which the point of order occurred. Once the breech is addressed, the bill continues from that stage in the process. It is anticipated that the bill will be reconsidered on the House floor within the next two weeks. It is estimated that implementing these changes would increase monthly enrollment in the program.

In related news, on April 9th, U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice will hear the pending case Frew v. Hawkins, which was first filed in 1993 by mothers claiming that the state did not provide adequate preventative medical care for their children according to federal guarantee. Depending upon how Judge Justice rules, the state could be required to spend hundreds of millions of additional dollars on CHIP or other children's health programs.

(6) The Senate has passed a package of bills aimed at addressing widespread concerns that electric deregulation has not resulted in substantially lower residential rates and the uncertainties surrounding the impending sale of TXU. When originally passed, it was thought that deregulation would spur innovation, give consumers more control over their bills, and ultimately result in lower rates. This has not been the case, and I will actively support any legislation that will lower our electric rates. Regarding the proposed sale of TXU, I have serious concerns about the long-term effect it will have on TXU's residential customers. Although the acquisition group has promised a 10% rate reduction through September 2008, when considering that TXU has among the highest residential rates in the country, that is not a significant reduction.

SB 482 aims to further competition in the retail electric market and would give the Public Utilities Commission the authority to study rates and take actions to correct the market if rates are found to be unreasonable. SB 483 aims to prevent market manipulation and abuses and would restrict the generation capacity of any one electric company. The bill would also require a refund of any profit earned through market manipulation. SB 896 would give the PUC the authority to review any sale of a public utility to ensure that such a sale will not have a negative impact on the delivery or affordability of services. These bills have now been referred to the House for consideration.

(7) In an effort to improve air quality throughout the state, with an emphasis on the Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston areas, the Senate passed SB 12. To prevent these two urban areas from becoming non-compliant with federal air quality standards in 2010, the bill increases the scope of the Texas Emissions Reduction Program (TERP) and the Low-Income Vehicle Repair Assistance, Retrofit, and Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program (LIRAP). TERP is primarily designed to affect diesel engines, while LIRAP is intended to reduce emissions from personal automobiles. The bill will also improve air quality throughout the state by updating building energy codes, adopting efficiency standards for appliances, and providing energy standards for most state buildings and school districts. As with the above bills, SB 12 is now under consideration by the House.

(8) Addressing our state's long-term water needs is one of the Legislature's main priorities this session. The Legislature will look to balance the growing needs of our population and the environment, as the state continues to grow. Numerous pieces of legislation have been filed addressing environmental flows, which is the water necessary to allow a river, wetland, or coastal zone to maintain their ecosystems (HB 3, SB 3); water conservation (HB 4, SB 3, HB 1656); designating potential reservoir sites (SB 675, HB 1681, HB 2187, SB 3); and transfers of water rights among the state's water regions (HB 911). Of the above bills, SB 3 has passed the Senate; HB 3 has passed the House; HB 4 and HB 1656 have been reported out of the House Natural Resources Committee; and SB 675 is being considered by the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

(9) My bills that would require that all substantive votes taken by the Legislature be recorded and made available on the Internet and other similar efforts by the Legislature are moving slowly this session. My SB 102, which would put the record vote requirement in the Government Code, and my SJR 7, which would allow voters to amend the Texas Constitution to enact this requirement were referred to the Senate Administration Committee on January 29, but have not been scheduled for a hearing to date. The House did amend its rules at the beginning of session to require record votes on "third reading" (usually the final vote) of bills on the floor. This approach has also been passed out of committee in the House as HB 83 and HJR 19. Although this is an improvement over recent practices, only requiring record votes on third reading fails to capture the vast majority of votes taken by the Legislature, both on the floor and in committee.

(10) Just this week, the Governor signed SB 378, the so-called "Castle Doctrine" bill. This bill would expand the circumstances in which an individual is allowed to use deadly force against another individual and remove the duty for an individual to make a reasonable effort to retreat before using deadly force. As a co-author of this bill, I feel that law-abiding citizens should be able to use any means necessary to protect themselves and their loved ones from those who are placed in danger by someone intending to harm them.

(11) In the coming days, the Senate will consider HB 8, also known as Jessica's Law. The bill is named after Jessica Lunsford, the Florida girl who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered by a registered sex-offender. Jessica's Law will strengthen the penalties for the sexual assault of a child. Among the changes the bill proposes are: making the second conviction for a violent sexual offense against a child younger than 14 years old a capitol offense punishable by death, removing the option of parole for repeat sex offenders, and increasing the statute of limitations for the prosecution of certain sex crimes. Recognizing the increased use of the Internet by child predators, the Senate has also passed SB 6, which is aimed at increasing penalties for on-line solicitation of a minor.

(12) SB 1031 would replace the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test with end-of-course exams. As the Legislature continues to reform public education, developing comprehensive exams for high school courses that allow educators to better identify the areas in which students need improvement while still providing a means to measure student performance, are imperative. As Senator Shapiro stated, the TAKS test is "a mile wide but an inch deep." Replacing it with end-of-course exams will also address criticisms that many schools spend too much time "teaching to the test," since students will be tested on what they learned in that course during that year. Debate by the full Senate on this issue is expected in the next two weeks.

(13) Early this morning, the House approved its version of the state budget, HB 1. The House-passed budget appropriates $150.1 billion. This amount does not include about $14.2 billion for property tax relief promised by legislators during the April 2006 Special Session, which will lower school district property tax rates. This issue will be addressed in a separate bill, HB 2 and its companion SB 2. Before the debate on the budget, the House passed a rule that required any amendments to the bill be revenue neutral. In other words, any increases in spending had to be offset by equal decreases from another part of the budget. In anticipation of future revenue shortfalls, and since it is not yet known exactly how much revenue the new margins tax will generate, HB 1 leaves $4.2 billion of the state's estimated available revenue untouched. The House approach is to use this $4.2 billion along with the $4.3 billion that is in the Rainy Day Fund to ensure further property tax reductions in the 2010-2011 biennium. Among the areas HB 1 addresses: funding for education initiatives (public and higher education) passed in the April 2006 Special Session, increases in Medicaid provider reimbursements as well as other Medicaid/Medicare funds for rising caseloads, increases in state contributions for retired teachers, funding of $100 million to be used for border security, increases in adult offender rehabilitation funding, and funding for prenatal and dental care in the Children's Health Insurance Program. One of the major changes made in the debate last night was the elimination of $583 million from the teacher incentive programs passed during the April 2006 Special Session. The funding will instead provide an approximately $800 across-the-board pay raise per year for public school teachers.

Now that HB 1 has been passed in the House, HB 1 will move to the Senate Finance Committee, which has been concurrently working on its version of the budget. The Senate Finance Committee will most likely substitute its version of the budget into HB 1 and send it to the Senate Floor for debate. After passage by the Senate, the bill will then be sent back to the House; the House can either accept the Senate's changes or request a conference committee. The House will almost certainly request a conference committee where appointed members from each chamber will discuss and amend only the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget. It is interesting to note that the budget is the only bill that the Legislature is required to pass during a regular session.

(14) Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst has assigned almost 200 bills to the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security for consideration so far (more arrive every week), the committee I chair. These bills range from something as simple as the darkness of auto window tint, to the very difficult and complex issue of the federal Real ID requirement. In March, we began in earnest to consider and debate the important transportation and homeland security issues of the day.

I am very proud and honored to have passed the first bill in the Senate this session, SB 112. This is a homeland security bill allowing a lawful firearm owner to keep from having that firearm confiscated during a disaster unless the owner is doing something illegal with the firearm. SB 112 is a result of learning from actual events in Louisiana during the hurricanes of 2005.

Another unfortunate episode associated with the hurricanes is the tragic bus fire that took the lives of 23 of our senior citizens during the evacuations. This bus would not even have been allowed to travel interstate under federal law, yet here it was on a Texas highway. SB 332 would prohibit a person from driving a commercial motor vehicle during a period in which the employer is subject to an out-of-service order that affects the driver or the vehicle. An employer who violates this law commits a Class B misdemeanor. This bill has passed the Senate and is moving rapidly through the House, with much credit for that going to the bill's House sponsor, Representative Joe Driver.

Another truck safety bill of mine, SB 330, would expand the number of people able to inspect dangerous trucks by allowing noncommissioned officers to perform inspections. This bill has also passed the Senate and is well on its way through the House. I have more bills addressing unsafe trucks as well, and I look forward to their favorable consideration.

The average North Texas motorist spends 60 hours per year stuck in rush hour traffic. You will remember in my last Email Update that I told you about a hearing I called for March 1 to hear the public speak about tolls, public-private partnerships, and the Trans Texas Corridor. That hearing lasted eight hours! We heard outstanding testimony from a cross-section of Texans. As a result, I am working with local and state leaders to get the maximum value out of existing resources such as the motor fuels tax, the North Texas Tollway Authority, and DART. You will very shortly see this debate become prominent, as we move toward a consensus on key transportation funding issues. You will also be able to get more information about how projects are funded. One of my bills, SB 255, requires the Texas Department of Transportation to make available to the public statistics about highways, vehicles, and funding, so you can judge for yourself the job the state is doing. This bill has passed the Senate and is under consideration in a committee of the House.

Did you know . . . ?

If you are looking to find the best spots for wildflower viewing, the Texas Department of Transportation's Wildflower Hotline (800-452-9292) and website will give you information on the best spots to find wildflowers along the Texas highway system. The wildflower hotline, available as part of the menu for the road conditions hotline is active through early May. To make it easier to find wildflowers in bloom, hotline callers may request information by seven regions of the state: Big Bend, Gulf Coast, Hill Country, Panhandle, Piney-Woods (East Texas), Prairies and Lakes (North Central Texas), and Southwest Texas.

Student Opportunities . . .

Texas Online Preparation for College Admissions Tests (TOPCAT) provides free online SAT and ACT test preparation materials in English and Spanish to Texas middle and high school students and adults preparing to enroll in college for the first time. Many scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid are awarded based on a student's scores. By utilizing TOPCAT, every student in Texas has access to test prep tutorials, practice sessions, timed sample tests, a vocabulary builder, and test-taking tips. TOPCAT can be found on the College for Texans website.

In Closing . . .

In Closing, I hope everyone is able to enjoy a spring break. I will do my best to continue to keep you updated on the legislative activities as we proceed through the last half of the session.

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.
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Dallas, TX 75205
214-521-3884
214-953-1886 (fax)

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