What's New . . .
There are just under four weeks remaining in the 80th Session of the Texas Legislature. The pace of work has picked up considerably in the past few weeks and will continue to accelerate as we approach the final days of this session. I will discuss several of the bills that are currently on track to finally pass before this session concludes on May 28th. The list of topics is as follows:
- State Budget
- Health and Human Services
- Criminal Justice
- Natural Resources
- Business/Economic Development
- Transportation/Homeland Security
(1) State Budget
The House has rejected the Senate amendments to HB 1, the 2008/2009 state budget. The differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill are being worked out in a conference committee, which is comprised of five members from each chamber of the Legislature. Among the differences in the two versions: the House version provides more funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program as well as an $800 across-the-board raise for public school teachers; in comparison, the Senate version funds a teacher incentive program, as opposed to an across-the-board raise, and provides more funding for higher education enrollment growth.
HB 3928, which would make technical corrections to the new business margins tax, has been voted out of the House Ways and Means Committee and scheduled for debate in the House. As you may recall, the Legislature passed the business margins tax during last spring's special session as part of the school finance and property tax reforms. Among numerous other changes, the bill would exempt an additional 60,000 small businesses from the tax by raising the income threshold at which a business is required to pay the tax from $300,000 to $600,000. This lost revenue will be balanced by making technical corrections to the tax and closing certain loopholes.
(3) Health and Human Services
The Senate and House have overwhelmingly passed HB 1098 that would override Governor Perry's executive order requiring girls to be vaccinated before entering sixth grade against HPV, a common sexually-transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer. The bill has now been sent to the Governor. If he vetoes the legislation, the bill will be returned to the Legislature where the veto could be overridden with a two-thirds majority in each chamber. Although the Legislature has rejected Governor Perry's mandate, the Senate did pass SB 110 and the House and Senate have passed HB 1379, both of which would address providing information about HPV in public schools.
The Senate has passed SB 758, which makes numerous reforms to our state's foster care system in reaction to the deaths of three children who were placed in foster homes last summer. The bill would require annual, unannounced inspections of foster homes, reduce the reliance on private contractors for certain management and investigative activities, while accelerating the privatization of the recruiting of foster homes and arranging adoptions.
The Senate has also passed SB 10, a comprehensive Medicaid reform bill, in an effort to control rising costs for the state and federal program. In 1997, 14 percent of the state budget was for Medicaid; it currently accounts for 25 percent of the budget. The measure includes many reforms intended to emphasize preventative care and healthy life-styles. To further reduce costs, the bill also expands fraud and abuse prevention efforts and allows hospital emergency rooms to charge co-pays to Medicaid patients for non-emergency visits.
The House has passed HB 109, which makes numerous reforms to the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that are designed to increase enrollment. As you may recall, when the state was facing a $10 billion budget deficit in 2003, numerous changes were made to CHIP. The effect of these changes was to reduce the overall enrollment. HB 109 reverses many of these changes, including basing income eligibility levels on net rather than gross family income, increasing a family's allowable asset limit to $10,000, and increasing the enrollment period from six to twelve months. The bill is now in the Senate Finance Committee.
The Senate has passed SB 105, which would allow the University of North Texas System to create a public law school in Dallas. As proposed, the school would be located in the former Dallas Municipal Building with the City of Dallas donating the building and the UNT System and the city sharing the cost of renovations. The bill has now been sent to the House, where it has been referred to the Higher Education Committee.
SB 1031, which would replace the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test with comprehensive end-of-course exams for students in grades 9 through 12, has been passed by the Senate. In recent years, the TAKS test has faced criticisms that many teachers were teaching to the test, detracting from time spent on course instruction. Proponents of end-of-course testing argue that it would provide a better assessment of what material students have learned and retained and provide more valuable measurement of student academic progress.
SB 1517, which has passed the Senate, aims to strengthen the no-pass, no-play rule. Current law provides an exemption for honors and advanced placement courses. This exemption was enacted to make sure that students would not be discouraged from taking such courses. However, some school districts have classified classes such as choir and photography as honors courses, contrary to the intent of the original exemption. SB 1517 would only allow honors classes in core-subject areas to be exempt from the no-pass, no-play rule.
The Senate Education Committee has passed SB 101, which would place certain restrictions on the top ten percent rule. Currently, the rule provides that any student who graduates in the top ten percent of their high school class is automatically eligible for admission to any state university. Students admitted under the top ten percent rule account for 71% of the University of Texas at Austin's current freshman class. As passed out of committee, SB 101 would cap the percentage of students admitted under the top ten percent rule at 60 percent of an incoming freshman class.
SB 4, which would reform our state's charter schools, has passed the Senate. The bill would provide for stronger sanctions against low-performing charter schools, while enhancing financial incentives for successful schools. One key reform would require all charter schools to apply for new licenses. Any school with unacceptable ratings two years in a row would have their charter revoked. The bill would also enact a key financial reform: a charter school's liabilities could not exceed their assets by more than 20 percent.
(5) Criminal Justice
Following revelations of sexual abuse of inmates by guards, the Legislature continues to address the overhaul of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC). Jay Kimbrough was appointed by Governor Perry as the temporary conservator to oversee immediate changes aimed at aligning top management with the new direction of the agency. The Senate passed SB 103, which would increase the number of guards and their training; provide for the separation of inmates by age and crimes; and allow the Attorney General, in addition to local prosecutors, to initiate prosecution of crimes occurring within TYC facilities. HB 914, which has been passed by the House, would establish an Office of Inspector General to investigate crimes committed at TYC facilities.
The Senate has passed HB 8, also known as Jessica's Law, which would strengthen the penalties for sexual assault of a minor. The bill would require mandatory 25 years to life sentences for first time aggravated sexual assault of a child under certain circumstances and GPS monitoring for civilly-committed sex offenders. The bill would also allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty, or life without parole, for a second or repeat aggravated sexual assault of a child, under certain circumstances. This bill is also in conference committee.
(6) Natural Resources
Legislation has been filed in the House and Senate (HB 2714 and SB 1324) to address the growing problem of electronic waste, which is the largest source of heavy metals such as lead and mercury in U.S. landfills. The legislation would make computer manufacturers responsible for the recycling of their computers. Senator Kirk Watson, author of SB1324 has indicated he may expand the bill to include televisions, citing the shift from analog to digital signals in 2009.
Both the House and Senate versions of the budget increase funding for state parks by over $15 million. Among other things, the increased funding would be used for much-needed repairs to many of our parks. SB252/HB6, relating to the allocation and use of the sporting goods sales tax revenue to fund state and local parks, have not been considered in either the full House or Senate. However, the budget bill conferees are looking for more money for our state parks.
(7) Business/Economic Development
Last month, the Senate passed three bills that would make numerous reforms to the recently-deregulated retail electric market. SB 482 focuses on the structure of electric utilities and retail electric competition; SB 483 focuses on limiting electric utilities generation capacity; and SB 896 would require the Public Utility Commission to approve any sale of more than 50 percent of a public utility, such as the proposed sale of TXU. The House has now passed SB 482 and SB 483, although the House made significant changes to both bills. These differences will be addressed in a conference committee, which will be made up of five members from the House and five members from the Senate.
SB 896 has been heard in the House Regulated Industries Committee, but has not been considered on the House floor. Although the House has not passed SB 896, the House incorporated some of its provisions into SB 482.
(8) Transportation/Homeland Security
In recent weeks, the House and Senate have voted on measures that would place a two-year moratorium on public-private partnerships, sometimes called comprehensive development agreements (CDA's), to build toll roads. The bills allow for certain exceptions, including SH121. The Senate passed SB 1267, which was written to enact this moratorium. The House passed HB 1892, which started out affecting only Harris County toll roads, but was subjected to numerous amendments on the House floor, one of which would establish the two-year moratorium. The Senate subsequently passed HB1892 with numerous amendments after a day of passionate debate about transportation policy.
The bill will ultimately go to Governor Perry, who has expressed serious concerns with the bill and has said he would carefully review it before deciding whether to sign or veto the bill.
SB 369, which would address an unintended consequence created by SB 439 from the 78th Session, has been passed by the House and Senate and sent to the Governor. SB 439 was intended to prevent individuals from obscuring their license plates in an attempt to prevent toll enforcement cameras from reading the license plate. The Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that SB 439 prevented any part of a license plate from being obscured, even if the state and number on the license plate were readable. Since most license plate frames obscure part of a license plate, many drivers were unknowingly in violation of the law. SB 369 clarifies that a vehicle is not in violation of the law provided the state in which the vehicle is registered and the license plate number are not obscured or altered.
The Senate has passed a comprehensive homeland security bill, SB 11, which I authored. The bill focuses on preventing attacks by terrorists and other criminals as well as disaster response and preparedness. The bill would change our state's wiretap laws, allowing the wiretap to follow a person rather than a specific phone instrument. The bill also would require sellers of prepaid, disposable cell phones, which are commonly used by criminals, to record the identity of the buyers. The bill would also establish a statewide mutual aid system to strengthen the response of local governments and state agencies to hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters. In response to the recent killings at Virginia Tech University, the bill would make the state's experts in school safety and security available to colleges and universities.
HB 13, which has passed the House State Affairs Committee, is another homeland security bill. HB 13 focuses on enhancing security along the Texas-Mexico border. The bill would create the Texas Border Security Council, which would coordinate efforts among various state and local law enforcement agencies and direct the allocation of funds from the State Office of Homeland Security to border law enforcement agencies. The bill also addresses oversight of the Texas Data Exchange (TDEx), which is a state database of potential terrorists and those with criminal convictions. TDEx has come under fire in recent weeks for the breadth of individuals in the database and the fact that it is under the oversight of the Governor's Office. HB 13 would now place TDEx under the control of the Texas Rangers. The House is debating the bill this week.
Governor Perry has signed SB 330 into law, a bill I carried to increase enforcement of unsafe trucks. The bill allows noncommissioned Department of Public Safety employees to inspect trucks at mobile sites, which should free some of our commissioned officers for other duties.
SB 125 and SB 1119, which I authored to address the use of red-light cameras, have passed the Senate and will be considered on the House floor in the coming weeks. Red-light cameras have never been directly authorized by the Legislature, and therefore, the state has not given municipalities any direction on how they should be used or how the revenue they generate should be allocated. The two bills would provide numerous restrictions on their use aimed at ensuring that red-light cameras are used to enhance public safety and not to generate revenue. SB 125 would set a maximum fine of $75; ensure that cities can pay for the purchase, installation, operation, and maintenance of cameras; and require that any surplus revenue be divided evenly between the cities and area trauma services, while SB 1119 would require that cities conduct a traffic engineering study before placing a red-light camera at an intersection.
After a contentious debate, the House passed HB 218, which would require individuals to show a photo ID when voting. Although the measure is intended to combat voter fraud, opponents criticized it as a de facto poll tax and said it would decrease voting among minorities, the poor, and the elderly. The bill has now passed the Senate State Affairs Committee and is expected to be heard in the full Senate in the next few weeks.
The House passed HB 2017, which would move up primary elections in even-numbered years from March to February. This proposed legislation is designed to provide Texas a greater say in the presidential primary elections. Although the bill overwhelmingly passed the House, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate because many Senators are concerned about the impact that moving up the primary election date will have on the thousands of other primary races and candidates in the state.
The House passed HJR 19, which would require record votes on third reading, also known as final passage, of all bills and substantive resolutions. I am sponsoring HJR 19 in the Senate. It has now been voted out of the Senate Administration Committee, and I expect to bring it up in the full Senate later this week. The version that will be debated requires a record vote on all votes in the House and Senate on bills, substantive resolutions, and amendments.
Numerous pieces of legislation were filed to address rising property tax appraisals, also known as appraisal creep, since tax bills all too often rise even though the property tax rate has remained flat or may have even decreased. Last year, Governor Perry created the Texas Task Force on Appraisal Reform, with the intention that they would be able to craft a package of recommendations for the Legislature to consider, much like the work the Texas Tax Reform Commission did in advance of the passage of the new business margins tax. Unfortunately, the task force recommendations have not received much attention and it appears that the complete package of reforms will not pass this session.
Did you know . . . ?
In an effort to improve transparency and accountability in state government, Comptroller Susan Combs has begun working with state agencies to post their expenditures online. Currently, one may view the expenditures of the Texas Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Safety, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Department of Insurance, and many others. To view the expenditures click here.
In Closing . . .
REMEMBER TO VOTE IN THE SATURDAY, MAY 12TH STATEWIDE ELECTION, DURING WHICH AN IMPORTANT AMENDMENT TO THE TEXAS CONSTITUTION WILL BE CONSIDERED BY VOTERS. As you may know, property tax rates for seniors and disabled Texans are constitutionally frozen. A consequence of this tax freeze is that seniors and disabled Texans did not receive the property tax relief passed by the Legislature last year. The Legislature passed SJR 13 to extend this relief to these groups. As with all amendments to the Texas Constitution, this measure must be passed by Texas voters to go into effect. I encourage you to vote on May 12th.
State Senator - District 16
|Capitol Office||District Offices|
|P.O. Box 12068|
Austin, TX 78711
|8080 N. Central Expy.|
Suite 1440, LB 44
Dallas, TX 75206
|5401 N. Central Expy.|
Dallas, TX 75205