Senator Carona's Email Update
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EMAIL UPDATE

January 30, 2009

When the 81st Texas Legislature was gaveled into Session on January 13, 2009, all eyes were on the House chamber. The Session was preceded by a high-profile Speaker race that resulted in Joe Straus of San Antonio replacing Tom Craddick of Midland as Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. The Speaker of the House is elected every two years by a majority vote of members of the House, rather than by voters. The Speaker is responsible for setting the daily agenda, appointing committee chairmanships and presiding over the House during session.

David Dewhurst continues to preside over the Texas Senate for his fourth session as Lieutenant Governor. The Lieutenant Governor is elected by a statewide vote every four years and, along with his service presiding over the Senate during Session, he is responsible for assuming the duties and responsibilities of the governor if he or she is unable to serve.

On the second day of Session, a contentious battle developed in the Senate over Senate Resolution 14, the proposed Senate Rules. SR 14 included an exception to the long-standing Senate Rules, which are adopted at the beginning of each session and control governance procedures in the Senate. The Senate's rules have long required 2/3 of the members of the Senate to vote to allow a bill to be debated and voted on. SR 14 changed this rule to make an exception solely for legislation relating to voter identification requirements. I voted against this change, as I voted against other similar changes, on principle based upon the belief that once we start making exceptions to our rules, exceptions will become the rule. To be clear, I strongly support "voter ID" legislation. My vote against SR 14 was not a vote against "voter ID"; it was against changing our Senate rules and traditions to address a single issue ahead of all others. These rules have long made the Texas Senate a civil and productive chamber, and it is my hope that we will continue to remain so with the many tough issues we will face this session.

On January 27, 2009, Governor Rick Perry addressed the members of the Legislature and citizens of Texas in his State of the State address. At the commencement of each session of the Texas Legislature, the state Constitution compels the governor to "give to the Legislature information, by message, of the condition of the State" as well as to "recommend to the Legislature such measures as he may deem expedient." [Article 4, Section 9] The Governor addressed the national economic crisis and stressed the importance of continuing to craft conservative fiscal policies this session. He noted that from November 2007 - November 2008, 70% of new jobs in the U.S. were created in Texas. The Governor also touched on energy issues such as power and water infrastructure, electrical rates and transportation. I was pleased that the Governor announced his support of my anti-gang efforts and look forward to working with him to make Texas a safer place.

In this issue of the Email Update, I am including a preview of several of the issues that will confront the Legislature in its 81st session.

Budget and Spending

No two legislative sessions are alike, and this session is already colored by the state of our economy. While Texas has remained relatively sheltered from the recession, the downturn is hitting our state at a time when we must confront unusual, yet substantial, economic needs. Our task, along with developing a budget that maintains the state's current services, is to face the destruction left by Hurricane Ike and finance our recovery from it, as well as fund the rising costs of Medicaid and public education. While each of these issues in their own right is challenging, I am committed to seeing Texans through these and other equally important issues in the most fiscally responsible manner.

According to the Senate budget, introduced as SB 1 on Tuesday, January 20, it will cost Texas approximately $84 billion to maintain basic state services. This number is $3.7 billion more than the state is expected to raise during the biennium. The Legislature will have to determine if it wants to cut costs, raise revenue, or draw on the "rainy day" fund to meet this shortfall. The Rainy Day Fund, or the Economic Stabilization Fund, was a resource created by the Legislature in 1988 for special emergencies. These are reserves that have been funded by a share of revenue from the oil and gas industry and have been plumped by the spike in oil prices over the last year. Around $3 billion of the Rainy Day Fund are constitutionally reserved to reimburse property tax cuts approved in 2007. If approved, some of the remaining reserves could be used to replenish the state's disaster fund, needed for Hurricane Ike recovery.

On Monday, January 12, Comptroller Susan Combs released the state's Biennial Revenue Estimate for 2010-2011, which predicts that the state’s revenue will decrease by about $9 billion compared to the 2008-09 budget. Comptroller Combs also estimated the state would have around $77 billion available for general purpose spending, which is a decrease of about 10.5% compared to the corresponding estimate for 2008-09.

These reports expose the harsh reality of our current economic situation, when we have been hearing for some time about a surplus, and offer motivation for lawmakers to seek opportunities to bring jobs and business into Texas, such as replenishing the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Texas Emerging Technology Fund.

Taxes and Revenue

During the 80th session of the Legislature, lawmakers revised the business franchise tax by expanding its base and lowering its rate. The purpose of this initiative was to raise additional revenue for local schools, reduce local school property taxes and relieve certain businesses and industries of an undue burden placed on them by the franchise tax. The changes were intended to be revenue neutral for those businesses already paying the franchise tax. However, as I have learned from many of you, it has had a disproportionate impact on small businesses, which we hope to resolve this session.

The method by which property taxes are allocated and levied will continue to be a subject of debate and deliberation. Proposals have emerged that would limit how much municipalities can annually increase property taxes without voter approval, as well as legislation that would allow cities and counties to increase the local sales tax to help reduce property taxes. Under the Texas Constitution, the annual percentage increase on the appraised value of a residence homestead may not exceed 10 percent, and lawmakers may consider constitutional amendments to reduce the cap to 3 or 5 percent.

Transportation Issues

I have been privileged to be the Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security since February of 2006. My top priority is stable, long-term funding for transportation infrastructure and I have filed a series of bills toward that end. SB 216 proposes to index the motor fuels tax to the producer price index. SB 217 proposes to stop diversions from the State Highway Fund for non-transportation purposes; a measure that I am pleased has gained the support of the Governor. SB 263 would enable the issuance of up to $5 billion in bonds already approved by the voters of Texas.

This interim, I had the privilege of chairing the Legislative Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Projects. With assistance from experts at the Center for Finance Strategy Innovation at the University of Texas at Dallas, the committee report examines important issues that will be before us this session such as financing mechanisms for transportation and the future of transportation infrastructure in Texas.

I am a strong supporter of passenger and freight rail and have filed SB 383 to capitalize the Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund along with SJR 16 to encourage high speed rail in Texas. Together with my colleagues from the DFW area, I am doing research to determine the best way to fund regional rail to help alleviate congestion on our crowded highways and improve air quality. I am also working on legislation to create a Rail Division at TxDOT as well as other proposals that will address structural issues within the agency. Other issues of concern to me are improving traffic safety through such efforts as addressing the shortcomings in HOV lanes and expediting appropriations for trauma care and emergency medical services. Further, Texas leads the nation in alcohol-related traffic fatalities; in fact 45% of driving fatalities were alcohol-related in 2005. Texas must pursue efforts like sobriety checkpoints and blood testing to determine blood alcohol level to protect its citizens driving on the roads. More specifically, I support efforts to establish sobriety checkpoints with safeguards for the protection of individual liberty.

Although this past hurricane and disaster season was turbulent, the State of Texas responded admirably. Our response to Hurricane Ike was improved over the response to Hurricane Rita. However, in the process, the needs for further improvement surfaced that I expect to be addressed this session: the State's procedures for evacuation, emergency shelters, critical infrastructure, sufficient communications systems and continuity of judicial procedures. Measures such as reentry, credentialing and mandatory evacuation may be broached under evacuation procedures. Shelter registration and medical capabilities, such as special needs equipment, are important issues for revised disaster management procedures. Hardening power sources and infrastructure to withstand disasters or prevent long evacuation distances are also important.

One of my most important efforts will be my anti-gang initiative to address the problems caused by transnational gangs. I am filing a range of legislation combating graffiti, improving the Texas Gang Database, discouraging people from joining or staying in gangs, enhancing penalties for gang involvement, creating "gang-free zones" similar to drug-free zones and improving gang treatment programs and workshops. I will also propose a number of items directed to border security that I expect to help make Texas and Texans safer.

Government Organization

The elections have spurred a number of proposals regarding voting processes and campaign ethics reform. Unlike federal campaigns, candidates running for office on the state level are not subject to limits on contributions, and I expect legislators will consider putting a cap on campaign contributions annually or per election cycle. As I noted before, an issue that will receive attention will be requiring a government-issued photo ID card to vote, as well as establishing same-day voter registration and criminalizing deceptive election practices.

After the 2010 census, Texas will undergo redistricting for congressional and legislative voting districts. In an effort to make this process less partisan, one idea that has surfaced is to appoint a bi-partisan committee that would draw up a redistricting plan. Legislators will discuss this idea as well as other rules and requirements that direct the redistricting process.

As a member of the Senate Committee on Jurisprudence, I am considering options with my fellow legislators that would improve Texas court systems. There have been several proposals that have surfaced that would reorganize the court system. In an effort to improve efficiency, one suggested change would be to make the subject matter jurisdiction of county courts and district courts more similar.

Eminent Domain

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to broaden the authority of entities to exercise the power of eminent domain. This decision allowed the government to seize land for the purpose of economic development when intended for public use. Following this decision, the Texas Legislature passed legislation that restricted the government from condemning land for private development. In 2007, the Legislature passed legislation that was intended to address the perceived abuses of eminent domain power, but the legislation was vetoed after passage. Governor Perry has indicated property rights are a priority for him this session and that he hopes to work with the Legislature to strengthen the rights of landowners. I will file a bill this session limiting the eminent domain powers of private entities (such as private utility companies) in order to further protect private property rights.

Insurance

The Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) was also reviewed by the Sunset Advisory Commission and the Legislature will vote on the recommendations pertaining to TDI and the Office of Public Insurance Council (OPIC). Among the issues that will be discussed, the Sunset Committee recommended making the insurance commissioner an elected position, eliminating OPIC and creating an office with a consumer representation function within TDI. The Legislature might also consider revising the "file and use" system established last session to achieve more certainty about when rates are implemented, as well as having TDI approve rates before they are implemented.

Illegal Immigration

Over a dozen bills have been filed relating to illegal immigration, which continues to be a matter of controversy in our state. The function of peace officers will be subject to debate, and legislation will possibly expand their role to allow them the authority to verify the citizenship of those they arrest or detain. Proposed legislation will vary considerably from permitting and encouraging law enforcement officers to obtain authorization to enforce federal immigration laws, to issues relating to access to public benefits and education. Under current law, undocumented students that have established residency are eligible for in-state tuition at public universities.

Criminal Justice

As a member of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, I am looking forward to working with my fellow legislators to help provide safety and security to Texans. In the 112 detention centers in Texas, the population is just under 160,000. The Legislative Budget Board (LBB) estimates that by 2010 Texas' prison population will exceed capacity. The Legislature will address the need for more beds in tandem with plans to rehabilitate offenders. In a continuing effort to secure prisons, The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has requested $66 million annually in 2010-2011 to expand the use of surveillance and detection systems.

Other concerns have surfaced that relate to those who have already been convicted of an offense, such as an initiative that would limit the online activities of convicted sex offenders and could require them to register any public networking sites they visit or use. The Legislature will also determine if the creation of an innocence commission is appropriate for Texas. An innocence commission would examine claims of innocence, study wrongful convictions and recommend changes in criminal justice law.

The Texas Youth Commission (TYC) and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission (TJPC) have undergone Sunset review this biennium. Although there have been attempts in the past to force better collaboration between the two agencies, historically, they have worked independent of one another. The Sunset Advisory Commission recommended that the independent functions of these two agencies be abolished and that they be consolidated into one newly-created state agency. The Legislature will consider this recommendation as well as others submitted by the Sunset Advisory Committee.

Texas Department of Public Safety

Another agency subject to Sunset recommendations is the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). The Sunset Commission has suggested organizational changes to DPS, such as using a civilian business management model to increase its efficiency and effectiveness for the Driver's License and Vehicle Inspection programs.

Health and Human Services

The issues in the health and human services field are vast and range from continued improvement of state schools to coordinating and providing the best possible care during emergencies. Last session, legislators debated whether to implement a statewide ban on smoking in workplaces and some public places. Following the initiative of many municipalities in Texas, this will likely be debated again in the 81st Session, along with other bills dealing with general well-being, such as addressing obesity and the nutrition and physical activity of school children.

Following reform and increased funding to the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) at the federal level, the Texas Legislature will also look at revisions to CHIP on the state level. Suggestions have been made to expand outreach funding for the program to enroll children who are eligible but not yet enrolled, as well as allowing parents with incomes of more than 200% over the poverty level the ability to "buy in" to CHIP.

Access to health care is an issue not only for children, but for adults as well. According to the Department of State Health Services (DSHS), there are 5.96 million Texans without health insurance, the highest percentage in the nation. Of these individuals, three-fourths of them have incomes above the poverty limit. Legislators are bringing forth proposals and considering options that will allow individuals and small businesses greater access to affordable health care.

In the last several years, Child Protective Services (CPS) has undergone significant changes, and the Legislature will continue to explore ways to improve the system. In the 80th Session, the Legislature voted to create a pilot program for the privatization of five percent of case management cases for foster children; however, the program has yet to be funded. The Legislature may consider ways to fund this program, as well as possibly expand it to a larger percentage of cases. Also discussed has been a push to have more family involvement in the foster care system. This includes input from the family when determining child placement, as well as offering relative care providers the same payment as non-relative care providers.

Gambling

In light of the economic climate, we expect many bills to surface that draw on gambling as a means of reviving the economy, such as legalizing limited casinos on the land of Native American tribes. This year, the Texas Racing Commission (TRC) has also been under Sunset review and as a result many changes may be proposed such as providing TRC more tools to regulate the racing industry. I expect we will revisit legislation to legalize video lottery machines, or "eight-liners" at racetracks.

Public Education

During the 2006 special session, the Legislature passed a school finance bill. This bill provided that, in future years, school districts would receive at least the amount of funding appropriated to them in either the 2005-2006 or the 2007-2008 biennium; this guarantee "holds-harmless" a school district from negative effects if they experience decreased funding. Revising this system is a priority for the Legislature this session as the funding of the "hold-harmless" provision does not take into account a few realities: inflation and growth in enrollment. School districts have also cited factors such as the rising cost of transportation, and the increased cost of educating certain populations as contributors to the need for revising the school finance system.

It is imperative that we hire and retain the highest quality teachers for our schools and legislation to this end will be discussed and debated. In an effort to recruit and train more teachers, legislators may consider allowing additional alternative certification programs. Other proposals encourage programs for professional training and development for educators. Several changes have been suggested concerning the Teachers Retirement System (TRS), one of which is to enact a cost-of-living increase in retired teacher pensions. While the TRS system is adequately funded, retired teacher pensions have not been raised in about eight years.

Legislators will discuss evaluation of student performance, including implementing a uniform GPA and reform of standardized tests. In 2007, the Legislature passed a law that requires high schools students to take a dozen end-of-course exams scoring at least a 70% to earn a diploma. By the spring of 2013, these exams will have replaced the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) in high schools across Texas. This session, leaders of the House and Senate committees on education have shown interest in phasing out the TAKS test on the elementary level. Many believe that tests given upon completion of a course take pressure off of educators and present a more accurate portrayal of the knowledge of students and the performance of schools. Under current law, primary school students must pass the TAKS test to move on to the next grade level and it is also considered a factor when evaluating school accountability.

Higher Education

In 2003, tuition for higher education institutions was deregulated. In an effort to maintain a balanced budget, the Legislature made a decision to reduce funding to universities, and as a compromise allowed higher education institutions to set their own rates to make up for the decreased funding. Since that legislation was passed, tuition has substantially increased and many believe it has put a significant burden on tuition rate-payers. Different ideas, such as freezing tuition, or re-regulating the method by which tuition rates are set, have been discussed and I hope to find an appropriate solution.

Another issue that continues to be under scrutiny is the Top Ten Percent rule. The Legislature enacted HB 588 in 1997 which gave any student who placed in the top ten percent of their graduating class automatic admission to Texas universities. This law has been both praised and criticized; proponents of the law believe it gives students from disadvantaged schools a chance to go to college, while its opponents argue that students at competitive schools are more qualified and less likely to be admitted. Another unintended consequence of the Top Ten Percent rule is that the universities are struggling to satisfy the enrollment growth this rule has allowed. The Legislature will likely re-examine this rule and seek a solution that balances the quality of and accessibility to education in Texas.

Energy and Environment

One of the major challenges the Legislature will face is balancing the mounting need for energy with the growing interest in conservation. I have co-authored SB 483 this session with Senators Kel Seliger of Amarillo and Dr. Robert Deuell of Greenville that is an initiative to promote the construction of clean coal plants. If approved, this legislation would offer incentives to power plants that capture at least 60% of their carbon dioxide output. This would make Texas the first state with significant incentives for companies to use clean coal technology. If approved, the construction of these facilities has the potential to create around 2,000 new jobs as early as next year.

Water, like energy, is an area in which there will be a dual focus on expanding technology and conservation. Proposals are looking to explore the possibilities of expanding infrastructure and developing new reservoir technology, along with an effort to conserve resources and promote water conservation. Also parallel to possible energy legislation may be proposals for incentive-based promotion and growth of efficient water technology.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently tightened federal air quality standards, which regulate the amount of pollutants released in the air. Texas was close to compliance with the old EPA standards, but the newly-tightened standards will make it difficult for urban areas to meet these requirements. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will likely request more funding and staff to ensure compliance with new standards. In addition, other proposals may seek a streamlined process for business by which they can meet environmental standards, but incur as little expense as possible due to procedural delays. Included in my transportation initiatives will be reducing congestion, developing alternative means of transportation (such as public transit), and promoting alternative fuels as important components of a strategy to improve our air quality. I plan to address air quality from a variety of perspectives, including cracking down on fraud in motor vehicle inspections.

In 2007, electric rates were fully deregulated. After this change, prices spiked and many have called for some sort of re-regulation, including reviewing the process in which rates are established and putting a cap on these rates. Legislators may also consider issues related to advanced metering systems, which can automatically read, monitor, and control meters from a remote location. This would help reduce costs and provide more information on the distribution and use of energy within the state.

In Closing . . .

This update has highlighted some of the major issues to be considered during this session although there are many other issues that will be considered, and I expect to hear from you about the issues of importance to you. I am honored to once again be your representative in the Texas Senate and I look forward to the opportunity to work for you during the 81st Session. As always, if you have any questions or concerns, please contact my office. Your input is always valued and appreciated.


Sincerely,

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

Capitol Office District 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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