WHAT'S NEW . . .
On Wednesday, April 29, 2009, I participated in a press conference with Governor Rick Perry, who proclaimed that a public health threat exists and has already asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide additional courses of antiviral medications. At the press conference, Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Commissioner Dr. David Lakey noted that the number of confirmed cases of Swine Influenza A (H1N1) in Texas is currently 16 and sadly includes the death of a 22-month old boy. He provided these toll-free phone numbers: for questions from the public or those who believe they have symptoms, call 1-888-777-5320, and for questions from Health Care Providers, call 1-877-623-6274. Schools have been closed in nine Texas school districts and two charter schools have suspended classes. For updated information about school closures, please visit the Texas Education Agency website. Additional suspected cases in Texas are pending confirmation. I believe that the entirety of the preparedness efforts put in place by our state agencies with the support of the Governor's Division of Emergency Management and the Governor's Division of Homeland Security will go a long way in protecting Texans and preparing us with accurate and complete information.
Revised Franchise Tax
The Legislature is considering a number of proposals this session that are intended to offer tax relief to businesses. I am co-sponsoring one of these proposals, SB 19, authored by Senator Dan Patrick. This bill would eliminate the margins tax on businesses with revenue less than $1 million, the current threshold being $300,000. This bill would also reduce the tax rate from .575% to .40% on businesses whose revenue is between $1 million and $10 million dollars. There are also several House bills that are similar and/or related that are expected to be debated in the next few weeks.
The House has given preliminary approval to an appraisal reform package introduced by Representative John Otto. This package includes a number of proposals that would change the current appraisal system, including:
- Allowing adjoining central appraisal districts, through inter-local contract, to consolidate their appraisal review boards. (HB 3611)
- Creating a three-year pilot project in Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, and Travis central appraisal districts to allow certain appeals of decisions by an appraisal review board to be made to an administrative law judge with the State Office of Administrative Hearings. (HB 3612)
- Prohibiting a residence homestead from being valued on its highest and best use, and instead requiring the market value of a residence homestead be determined solely on the basis of the propertyís value as a residence homestead. (HB 3613)
- Changing the Comptrollerís annual property value study to every other year, with the Comptroller conducting an audit of appraisal district methods and procedures in the off years. (HB 8)
These measures have now been referred to the Senate for consideration.
The state is nearing the 10-year anniversary of the Legislature's vote to deregulate the retail electric power industry. The original legislation, SB 7 (1999 Session), introduced deregulation with the intention of increasing competition and reducing customer costs. However, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Texas has some of the highest electric rates in the country. One bill that addresses this issue is HB 3245, authored by Representative Burt Solomons. The focus of this proposal is to provide more safeguards to consumers. This bill would require the Public Utility Commission to post the prices of fuel on their website daily. It would also give the Office of Public Insurance Counsel and the Public Utility Commission the ability to investigate consumer complaints and prevent market abuse. HB 3245 has been voted out of the House Committee on State Affairs and is expected to be debated in the full House next week.
Transportation - SB 855 and SJR 9
On April 14th, the Senate passed SB 855, also known as the Texas Local Option Transportation Act (LOTA), to provide local funding options for mobility improvement projects in certain counties and municipalities. The bill has now been sent to the House. Its companion bill in the House, HB 9, had an initial public hearing last week. This measure is a taxpayer-driven bill. Under this proposal, not one penny is raised until local elected officials, a project selection committee, and the local voters themselves give approval. It is transparent and allows for maximum return locally on each taxpayer dollar invested. Because it involves the potential to raise revenue through fee and tax options, it is not without controversy and will face challenges in the House. If you agree that more free highways and/or transit options are needed to avoid complete gridlock in our North Texas region - and if you concede that nothing comes for free - there is simply no more conservative and thoughtful approach to this issue than what is offered in this legislation.
As a demonstration of good faith between the Legislature and taxpayers, language in SB 855 (as passed by the Senate) requires passage of a separate constitutional amendment by November 2009, to end the Legislature's diversion of your transportation dollars from the current gas tax for other purposes. SJR 9, the stop diversions constitutional amendment passed the Senate on April 20, 2009, and has also been sent to the House for consideration. If this long overdue amendment fails to pass, then SB 855 would not become law.
Omnibus Anti-Gang Bill
SB 11, my omnibus anti-gang bill, passed the Senate on April 24th. This bill addresses the issue of increasing gang crime in Texas through a number of different means. SB 11 includes provisions which would increase penalties for serious gang crime, particularly involving youth. It would create Gang-Free Zones, similar to Drug-Free Zones, in areas frequented by youth and increase penalties for gang activity in these areas. The bill would require youth convicted of gang activity to complete a gang intervention course and that certain gang grant money issued by the governor go to gang intervention and prevention. SB 11 also would provide extra tools to law enforcement to deal with the threat of organized crime, including the use of specialized wiretaps and the creation of an offense for the trafficking of firearms. I have worked with law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, the ACLU, and a range of other interested groups to produce this comprehensive approach to a very serious problem faced by our state.
FOCUS . . .
When the Legislature convenes every two years, as outlined by the Texas Constitution, it is our sole task to create and pass a budget, referred to as the appropriations bill, for the upcoming biennium. Texas is one of 20 states that operates a budget on a two-year cycle, rather than a one-year cycle, so the current budget under consideration is for 2010 and 2011. Before each regular session begins, the comptroller is required to give a revenue estimate for available spending for the upcoming biennium. Once the Legislature has passed the budget, the comptroller must certify that estimated revenue will be enough to pay for the budget before it can become effective.
At the beginning of each session, the House and the Senate both develop their own respective appropriations bills, based on recommendations made by the governor and the Legislative Budget Board. These two bills will eventually be reconciled as the General Appropriations Act of the 81st Legislature. On April 1st, the Senate passed out its version of the budget, SB 1. Under SB 1, the estimated budget for the 2010-11 biennium is $182 billion, an estimated 6-7% increase. However, the majority of this increase is attributable to federal stimulus funding, and the state will only increase its spending about 2%.
After spending the night debating and addressing close to 400 amendments, the House passed their version of SB 1 very early on the morning of April 18th. The House version of the budget is $178.4 billion for the biennium, a difference of about $4 billion. In both proposals, the biggest percentage of the budget is spent on public education and health care. The proposed budget also includes a single $1,000 bonus for active state employees and a one-time thirteenth check of $1,000 for retired state employees and retired public school employees. Here are a few of the differences in the two versions of the budget:
- The Senate version of the budget has $2 billion in bonds slated for building new roads.
- The House version authorizes $300 million for cancer research and prevention, whereas the Senate budgeted $600 million.
- The House version uses lower caseload projections for Medicaid that amounted to about $1 billion less in spending.
- The House version dedicates more than $200 million for TEXAS Grants, which is the state's biggest college financial aid program.
Now that both the House and the Senate have voted out their versions of SB 1, a conference committee has been appointed to resolve the differences. The conference committee is comprised of five members of the House (Representatives Pitts, McClendon, Otto, Raymond, and Zerwas) and five members of the Senate (Senators Ogden, Hinojosa, Shapiro, West, and Williams). Under both House and Senate Rules, conferees are only allowed to reconcile points on which the House and Senate versions of the bill differ. However, there are two exceptions, one of which allows conferees to include money for purposes or programs authorized by bills already sent to the governor. The other exception allows the conference committee to seek permission to make changes otherwise prohibited by seeking approval through a majority vote in each house. I will summarize the final version of SB 1 for you after the Legislature concludes on June 1, 2009.
DID YOU KNOW . . . ?
Glenda Dawson Donate Life - Texas Registry
Did you know April is National Donate Life Month? With nearly 9,000 people in Texas waiting for life-saving organs, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has launched a new campaign to boost organ, tissue, and eye donor registration. DSHS is urging people to register online or at their local driver's license office. You can register or find more information on the registration program at the stateís official website for organ donor registration, www.DonateLifeTexas.org.
Healthy Dinners by Texas AgriLife
Texas AgriLife Extension Service can help you plan dinner tonight! If you're looking for a quick, nutritious, and cost effective recipe, visit their website to see a quick video demonstration, download a printable recipe, or read this week's blog entry.
Second-Annual Energy Star Sales Tax Holiday
The Comptroller's Office has announced the second-annual Energy Star Sales Tax Holiday. During Memorial Day weekend, Texas shoppers get a break from state and local sales and use taxes on purchases of certain energy efficient products. The 2009 Energy Star sales tax holiday begins at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, May 23rd, and ends at 11:59 p.m. on Monday, May 25th (Memorial Day).
STUDENT OPPORTUNITIES . . .
Each summer, the Texas Department of Transportation hires students as part of their Summer Employment Program. Positions are available from May 1st through August 15th. Positions for students at least 17 years of age are available statewide and at Austin headquarters. The goal of the program is to provide students with on-the-job experience, while cultivating a qualified, diverse work force. Interested persons should visit the TxDOT web site for more information.
IN CLOSING . . .
I hope that you are all enjoying this beautiful Texas spring. Take some time to visit the website for the Texas Department of Transportation's Wildflower Program. On this website, you can find facts and photos about a few of the 5,000 wildflower varieties found in Texas, as well as learn more information about the Wildflower Program. And, don't forget to vote in your local elections! Early voting began April 27th and runs through May 5th with Election Day on Saturday, May 9th. Visit the Dallas County Elections Department for sample ballots, early voting locations and hours, and polling places for Election Day.
State Senator - District 16
|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