What's New . . .
Earlier this month we were all saddened by the tragic events in Minneapolis involving the collapse of a portion of the Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River. As a result of inquiries by me and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has released data on deficient bridges within our own state. The data, while alarming at first due to the number of deficient bridges, shows that Texas is aware of the condition of its bridges and is working hard to make certain that a tragedy of the magnitude experienced in Minnesota will never happen within our borders.
Statewide, there are over 2,000 bridges that are in need of some form of maintenance or repair. Dallas County is home to over 30 of these bridges. You may have seen the recent coverage by the Dallas Morning News of deficient bridges in our region. The Dallas Morning News was utilizing the most recent data available to them at the time of publication, which was from February of 2007. In the short span of time between February and today, I am pleased to report that TxDOT has been working diligently and has replaced or repaired nearly a dozen of the bridges listed in the Dallas Morning News database.
I and my colleagues in the Legislature plan to continue working with TxDOT to ensure that they have adequate funding to keep our Texas bridges and roads maintained and Texans safe. For more information on Texas bridges, click here.
As noted in last month's Email Update, there was some concern that SB 8, a bill the Legislature passed this session to require random steroid testing of high school athletes, would not be implemented in time for the upcoming high school football season. Since then, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) has confirmed that the rollout of the program will be delayed. However, the UIL does expect that the program will be implemented during the season. In announcing the delay, the UIL noted that it took many years for an effective steroid testing program to be implemented at the college level.
After the session and to the Legislature's surprise, Governor Perry vetoed $154 million in funding for Texas' community colleges. The veto has had a significant impact on the state's 50 community colleges, which enrolled 574,000 students in the Fall of 2006, nearly half of all college students in the state, and resulted in a $15.7 million loss to the Dallas County Community College District. Community colleges are examining a number of options to allow them to continue operations without the funding, including raising tuition rates, raising taxes and discontinuing certain class and program offerings.
Governor Perry has explained that he vetoed the funding because the community colleges did not use the correct formula in calculating the portion of state funding for community college budgets. The community colleges disagree with this position explaining that the formula used was the one that has been in place for many years. They also point out that the formula was used by the Legislature during the legislative process.
To assist community colleges with the funding shortfall, the Legislature is considering various proposals to restore the funding before the next session in 2009. Both Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst and Speaker Craddick have committed to this effort. To this end, on August 14th, the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education convened to hear testimony from the Governor's office, the community colleges, and the Comptroller's office. The House will be holding a similar hearing on September 6th. I am hopeful that we can work together to resolve this serious problem for our community colleges.
The Texas Education Agency has released the state's accountability ratings for Texas public schools. There are four ratings: Exemplary, Recognized, Academically Acceptable, and Academically Unacceptable. The ratings are based on results of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test. Of the five school districts in Senate District 16, all were rated Academically Acceptable or higher. Also this month, the federal government released its public school ratings; there are two ratings: Meets Adequate Yearly Progress and Failed to Meet Adequate Yearly Progress. The federal ratings are also based on results of the TAKS test, but since there are different passing standards the state and federal ratings are not always concurrent. For a complete list of the federal ratings click here and look at the AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) column.
The Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) is establishing an Insurance Fraud Information Exchange Network to assist the TDI Fraud Unit and other law enforcement agencies in more effectively investigating and prosecuting entities and individuals who are suspected of engaging in widespread and/or multiple cases of insurance fraud. The network will enhance investigations of insurance fraud by allowing the TDI Fraud Unit and law enforcement to canvas multiple insurers across all lines of coverage on cases of suspected fraud.
The Comptroller's Office has recently launched Texas EDGE, an online research service designed to help local governments and economic development organizations analyze facts and figures. This expanded research service will provide governments, developers, and businesses across the state with data and analysis useful in revenue planning, financial analysis, economic forecasting, site location decisions, and other issues affecting trade and industry growth.
Focus . . .
This month, I would like to highlight some of the new laws that may have a direct impact on our daily lives, some of which are already in effect and others that will become effective on September 1, 2007.
Protections for our children
SB 9, effective on June 15, 2007, requires a national criminal history background check for all certified public school employees, prevents individuals from employment with a school district if they have been convicted of certain felony offenses or a sex offense when the victim of the crime was a child, and creates a clearinghouse at the Department of Public Safety for criminal history background information on public school employees so this information can be shared among school districts.
Other measures passed to ensure safety for our children included bills addressing bus safety issues. For example, HB 323 requires all new buses purchased by a school district after September 1, 2010, to be equipped with lap and shoulder seatbelts. The bill also requires that all buses contracted for use by a school district after September 1, 2014, must be equipped with seatbelts. Since the bill's provisions will not take effect unless the Legislature appropriates the necessary funds to school districts to cover the expenses of the changes, I will be working toward ensuring that this funding is provided.
HB 3190 prohibits a person who has committed offenses such as vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence, and leaving the scene of an accident from operating a school bus for 10 years after the offense. HB 3190 also requires school bus operators to wear seat belts if the operator's seat is equipped with restraints, prohibits the operation of a school bus if the number of persons inside the bus exceeds the manufacturer's design capacity for the vehicle or if the bus' door is open, authorizes a school bus operator to prohibit a passenger from standing or sitting on the floor of a bus or anywhere that is not a seat, requires a school bus evacuation training program, and requires a school district to train all of its students and teaching staff in the process of emergency school bus evacuation at least twice a year.
HB 8, known as Jessica's Law, was one of the more significant pieces of legislation passed during the session. The bill is named after Jessica Lunsford, a child who was kidnapped and killed by a sexual predator. HB 8 strengthens protections for children by imposing a 25-year minimum sentence for sexually violent offenses against children under 14 years of age. HB 8 also eliminates eligibility for parole for certain sex offenders, makes a second conviction of a sexually violent offense against a child under 14 years of age a capital felony, mandates global positioning system (GPS) monitoring for offenders committed under the sexually violent predator statutes, extends the statute of limitations for sexually violent offenses against children under the age of 14 to 20 years past the victims' 18th birthday, and clarifies that harboring a sex offender in violation of registration is an offense punishable by up to a third degree felony.
As a complement to HB 8, SB 6 was also passed. SB 6 increases the penalty for sexually explicit online communication with a minor who is 14 to 16 years old from a state jail felony to a third degree felony and increases the penalty for online sexual solicitation of a minor who is 14 to 16 years old from a third degree felony to a second degree felony.
Protections for our senior citizens
Because some of our senior citizens can also be at risk, SB 1315 was passed to require the Texas Department of Public Safety to develop an alert system for missing senior citizens similar to the current Amber Alert Program for abducted children.
Gun ownership and self protection rights
SB 378, known as the "Castle Doctrine," removes the requirement that persons attempt to retreat before using deadly force to defend themselves, effective September 1, 2007. HB 1815 was passed to allow a person to carry a handgun, otherwise illegal knife, or club on the person's own premises, or inside of or en route to a motor vehicle that is owned by the person. However, the bill makes it an offense to carry a handgun in a motor vehicle that is owned by the person or under the person's control, if the handgun is in plain view, or the person is engaged in certain criminal activity, or is prohibited from possessing a firearm, or is a member of a criminal street gang.
SB 112, which went into effect on April 27, 2007, protects a person's right to bear arms during a declared disaster or emergency by prohibiting law enforcement officers from confiscating firearms during such emergency periods.
HB 991, which was effective as of May 23, 2007, makes Department of Public Safety records about who holds a concealed handgun in Texas confidential. Criminal justice agency officials still have access to this information.
HB 1355, a bill known as "Lillian's Law," requires all dog owners to properly secure their dogs on their property. This bill provides that a dog owner can be held criminally responsible if the dog causes serious bodily injury or death at a location other than the owner's property in an unprovoked attack during which the owner negligently failed to secure the dog. Exempted from the bill are many dog professionals, including peace officers, who work with dogs on a regular basis. Please pass information about this change in the law on to your neighbors as it may impact their activities with pets.
Legislation to curb copper thefts
Prompted by constituents who have experienced significant dollar losses from the destruction of equipment due to thefts of copper, and by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who encouraged state and local governments to deter copper theft in order to maintain the integrity of the electric power grid due to thefts of copper from electrical transmission and distribution lines and substation grounding wire, three bills were passed to address the growing problem in Texas with thefts of copper metals.
SB 1154, HB 1766, and HB 1767 provide, among other things, increased penalties for thefts of copper and other metals, created a statewide reporting system for sales and purchases of the metals, and created offenses for knowingly buying or selling stolen copper materials.
New traffic laws
Following the death of Katie Bolka, a 17 year old killed by a speeding elderly driver who ran a red light, the Legislature passed HB 84, also known as Katie's Law. The bill requires drivers 85 years of age and above to pass a vision test in order to have their driver's license renewed.
Recognizing the increased dangers of driving at very high speeds, the Legislature passed HB 586, which eliminates the option of having a speeding ticket dismissed by taking a driving safety course for those who are found guilty of driving faster than 95 miles per hour. It is anticipated that removing this option for offenses involving high speeds will deter driving at such high speeds.
Before being fully licensed, most young drivers receive a learner's permit. To drive with a learner's permit, the young driver is required to be accompanied by a licensed driver who is 21 years or older and has at least one year's driving experience. This supervision is intended to further the training of young drivers and ensure public safety. To that end, the Legislature passed SB 153, which makes it an offense for the accompanying licensed passenger of a driver with a learner's permit to sleep, be intoxicated, or to engage in any activity that prevents the passenger from observing and responding to the actions of the driver of the vehicle.
Currently, temporary cardboard license tags (plates) cannot be traced to an individual. In addition, there is no way to track the temporary tags, know how many are printed, how many are used, who issues them, and how many are issued to one buyer. In recent years, this lack of information on temporary tags has created problems for law enforcement since these tags are often used by individuals engaging in criminal activities. To address this situation, the Legislature passed SB 1786, which requires the Texas Department of Transportation to create a real-time database in which automobile dealers are required to maintain information about temporary license plates for newly sold automobiles, including data on the vehicle and its owner.
Did You Know . . . ?
The Texas Department of Agriculture, which is charged with monitoring the accuracy of gas station pumps, has increased fines for pumps that do not dispense the correct amount of fuel. The maximum allowable tolerance is six cubic inches per five gallons, which is about six tablespoons. Statewide, the average compliance rate is 96%. With the recent increases in the price of gas, the Texas Agriculture Department now posts on its website a list of gas stations that have shortchanged consumers at the pump. Also, if you believe that you have not gotten the correct amount of gas at a pump, you can report the station by calling 1-800-TELL-TDA.
Student Opportunity . . .
The Texas Commission on the Arts is now accepting applications for its Young Masters Scholarship Program. The program provides art students in grades 8-12 financial assistance to pursue advanced study in visual art, literature, music, theatre, and dance; however, the program is not a college scholarship. Those selected will receive the title Young Master and a scholarship in the amount of $2,500, renewable up to three years. You may apply at the Texas Commission on the Arts website or call 512-936-6564. Applications must be postmarked by November 15, 2007.
In Closing . . .
Please watch your mail box at home for my annual Capitol Report which will be mailed soon to registered voters of Senate District 16.
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