WHAT'S NEW . . .
• Education Commissioner Robert Scott recently announced that the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) will be replaced by the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. The STAAR tests will be used for the 12 end-of-course assessments mandated by SB 1031 in 2007 and the new grade 3-8 assessments mandated by HB 3 in the 2009 legislative session.
• Starting March 1, 2010, driver license applicants between the ages of 18 and 24 must complete an approved driver education course and a driving skills test to become a licensed driver in Texas. Passed by the Legislature in 2009, SB 1317 created this requirement and authorized the development of a six-hour adult driver education course, to be approved by the Texas Education Agency, to meet these requirements. Applicants who present proof of successful completion of an approved course will not be required to submit to the written highway signs and traffic laws test, but must still pass the driving skills examination.
• Speaker Straus announced the creation of several House Select Committees. These committees are:
- House Select Committee on Federal Legislation - to monitor pending federal legislation with specific emphasis on health care reform efforts, and to exchange information between Texas and Washington D.C. regarding the impact of such pending legislation to the state economy and citizens.
- House Select Committee on Fiscal Stability - to assess Texas' ability to meet its current and future budget obligations and analyze whether the shortfall is due to the current recession alone or more systemic problems.
- House Select Committee on Government Efficiency and Accountability - to review and make recommendations for eliminating inefficiencies in state government, to review best practices for state purchases of goods and services, and to review the advantages and disadvantages of privatization.
- House Select Committee on Emergency Preparedness - to review Texas' response to natural and man-made disasters in preparation for future incidents, and to review progress made based on previous studies regarding emergency responses and disaster preparedness.
- House Select Committee on Transportation Funding - to highlight the need for increased transparency and accountability in Texas transportation, and to analyze current and future transportation funding requirements.
• The Speaker joined with Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst to appoint the Select Committee on Public School Finance Weights, Allotments, and Adjustments. This panel will review the 20 year old funding formulas to ensure alignment with the state's goals of post-secondary readiness, accountability, and closing the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups. In addition to the legislators appointed, five education and industry leaders have been appointed to this select committee including Dr. Curtis Culwell, Superintendent of the Garland Independent School District.
• Garland Road Vision will hold two public meetings to share study results for the Garland Road Corridor. The first meeting will be held on Thursday, March 25, at 6:30pm at the Bryan Adams High School Auditorium, and the second meeting will be held on Thursday, April 8, at 6:30pm at the Dallas Arboretum.
FOCUS . . .
On February 1, the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, which I chair, and the House Committee on Transportation met in a joint hearing to listen to quarterly updates from the agencies we work with, as well as to discuss transportation finance.
Securing the Texas Capitol has been in the headlines lately and has long been a concern of mine. Steve McCraw, the Executive Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety testified about ways to make the building safer, such as adding more uniformed and plain clothes officers and using metal detectors. We will consider these recommendations as we keep in mind our duty to make the Texas Capitol an open and safe environment for visitors.
Ed Serna, who was recently named executive director of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), introduced himself to the committee. A panel consisting of DMV staff as well as tax assessor collectors from both rural and urban counties addressed vehicle registration fees. In fiscal year 2009, state and county vehicle registration revenue totaled approximately $1.5 billion. They also elaborated on HB 2553 as passed by the 2009 Texas Legislature, which will go into effect September 1, 2011, and will simplify the complex structure currently used to determine a vehicle's registration fee.
We then heard testimony from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), as well as the 2030 Committee. The 2030 Committee is a 12-member committee comprised of experts in business and transportation that is charged with presenting an estimate of the state's transportation needs in the context of today's economic reality. The testimony once again stressed the need for additional revenue for transportation. Without an increase in projected revenue, TxDOT will be forced to decide between struggling to maintain our roads at the level we are accustomed to or simply not building any additional roads or capacity for our ever-growing population.
After both TxDOT and the 2030 Committee laid out our transportation funding needs, locally-elected officials, including mayors and county commissioners from around the state, discussed the needs in their particular regions. These elected officials as well as business community leaders from throughout the state strongly supported an increase in the motor fuels tax as a means to help increase revenue to relieve congestion. We also heard testimony from some of our state's finest conservative-based think tanks, taxpayer watchdog and grassroots organizations. The message from these groups was clear: before we can increase taxes, we must first end the act of diverting funds from the State Highway Fund to non-transportation purposes and make TxDOT more efficient. Last session, I passed legislation improving the agency and called for an audit that is now underway. I also carried a constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 9, which would have phased out diversions over several budget cycles. This legislation passed the Senate, but died in the House of Representatives without a full debate. I am committed to stopping or reducing diversion of transportation revenues and will continue my efforts next session.
In November 2007, Texas voters approved $5 billion of general obligation bonds to fund transportation projects. During the special session called in July 2009, the Legislature finally authorized the use of those bonds. Therefore, the committee also heard testimony regarding the state's bonding capacity and debt service requirements. Testimony from the Texas Bond Review Board (BRB) explained that out of all of the debt incurred by the state, approximately 35% is related to transportation funds. The BRB also testified that over the next few years, Texas will pay nearly $24 billion in debt service for these funds. I am concerned about this level of debt and feel that the Legislature should avoid authorizing any additional debt for the foreseeable future.
One of the committee's interim charges addresses "Transportation Reinvestment Zones (TRZ)." A TRZ allows a city or county to designate an area around a project and to capture the increase in ad valorem tax revenues resulting from the increase in property values for use in connection with the financing of the project. In this manner, the economic growth attributable to the project is used to support the funding of the project. The committee is charged with studying how capturing funds from sales and use taxes (also called "Transportation Finance Zones") would impact transportation funding. At this hearing, panelists from throughout the state discussed how these zones are an important tool that must continue to be explored as options for funding highway construction projects. The committee and I look forward to learning more about these zones throughout the interim.
The meeting concluded with public testimony, most of which focused on opposition to privatized toll projects and support of an increase in transportation-related taxes and fees in order to fund new non-tolled projects.
The Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security will continue to explore improvements in transportation finance, congestion relief and quicker, more efficient methods of constructing highways. In addition, we are scheduling hearings around the state to address topics including overweight trucks, disaster preparation and response, the Driver Responsibility Program, homeland security and other topics. Our next hearing will be in Houston on May 3, focusing on alternative transportation modes, air quality, overweight trucks and hurricane preparation.
You can see some pictures and video clips from the hearing online at http://johncarona.posterous.com/. To watch the video recording or download written testimony, please click here. For information on future hearings, follow me on Twitter, http://twitter.com/JohnCarona.
DID YOU KNOW . . . ?
• Last month I highlighted the 2010 Census in the Focus section. The U.S. Census Bureau is currently hiring employees to help with the upcoming census. Prospective job-seekers can find more information at http://2010.census.gov/2010censusjobs/. Opportunities are also available for students and can be found at http://www.census.gov/hrd/www/jobs/student.html.
• The Texas Back-To-Work Initiative (TBTW) is offering employers up to $2,000 in wage subsidies for hiring and retaining qualified job seekers (UI claimants and/or individuals who have exhausted UI benefits) in full-time employment for 120 days. Job openings must be listed with Workforce Solutions Dallas and new employees must be hired from the current unemployment role (currently 48,000 people).
• All taxpayers making less than $57,000 can visit www.IRS.gov and use the IRS Free File program. This program has been available since 2003, made possible through a partnership of the IRS and the Free File Alliance.
• The City of Dallas' Sustainable Development & Construction Department has launched a new website featuring an interactive zoning map with access to zoning within the Dallas city limits. You can find this tool at http://gis.dallascityhall.com/zoningweb/.
• February 21-27 has been designated Severe Weather Awareness Week. To learn ways to be prepared in case severe weather hits your area, please visit http://www.txdps.state.tx.us/dem/pages/weather_aware_severe.htm.
IN CLOSING . . .
Remember to vote in the March 2nd primary election! Registered voters in Dallas County can vote at any early voting location in the party primary of their choice through Friday, February 26th. For information on early voting locations/times, sample ballots, or precinct polling locations for election day, visit the Dallas County Elections Department.
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