From the Office of State Senator John Carona

TO: District 16 Residents
FROM: State Senator John Carona
DATE: June 1997
RE: Final Legislative Update of the 75th Session

The 75th session of the Texas Legislature ended on June 2. Of the 5,727 bills that were proposed, 1,466 finally passed and another 36 measures passed the Legislature but were vetoed by the Governor. Following is a summary of the legislation that passed and failed. Please feel free to reproduce or use this document however it is most beneficial to you.

MEASURES THAT PASSED

*Property Tax Relief - The 1997 session was dominated by discussions about how to grant relief from rising school property taxes. The Governor, members of the Texas House, and members of the Texas Senate each developed substantially different proposals to accomplish property tax relief. All of these proposals included new or increased state taxes in order to fund a greater share of public education with state dollars and thereby reduce local school property taxes. The measures proposed ranged from enacting a new business activity tax to removing numerous sales tax exemptions to expanding the corporate franchise tax to include partnerships. The legislation that was finally approved does not include any new or expanded taxes; rather, it uses the $1 billion state budget surplus to increase the homestead exemption for school property taxes from the current $5,000 to $15,000, effective for the 1997 tax year, subject to voter approval of the constitutional amendment on August 9. The measure also allows the $10,000 additional homestead exemption to be used to lower the tax rate of individuals currently receiving the 65-and-over tax freeze and provides that Texas homeowners who are 65-and-over may transfer all or a portion of their school tax freeze should they purchase a new home. Another provision of the law provides limited property tax relief for "Robin Hood" school districts--those wealthy districts subject to recapture of a portion of their school funds to share with less wealthy districts--by eliminating recapture of tax revenue generated to pay off bonds for facilities construction.

*Property Taxpayer's Rights - Subject to voter approval of a constitutional amendment on November 4, increases in homeowners' property values will be capped at 10% per year. Other features of this legislation include provisions that allow homeowners to defer payment of any taxes owed on an appraisal increase of more than 5% per year (at a cost of 8% interest per year), include the elected county tax assessor/collector on the boards of appraisal districts, require taxing entities to hold public hearings any time they raise property taxes (current law requires a public hearing only when tax rates increase 3% or more), require appraisal valuation notices to include a protest form and a one-page outline of the appeals process, and allow taxpayers to request an immediate hearing and night or weekend appeals hearings.

*The State Budget - Legislators adopted a $86.2 billion budget without any new taxes to fund state government operations for the 1998-99 biennium. This budget is a $5.5 billion (or 6.8%) increase in state funding from the $80.8 billion 1996-97 biennial budget and does not include the $1 billion provided for property tax relief. The majority of new money in the state budget is allocated to address the growth in the number of people using state services. *Public Education received the largest increase with $1.5 billion going to fund the enrollment growth of 156,000 new students, pay for increases in the state's minimum teacher salary schedule, enhance funding for instructional facilities, increase funding for retired teachers, and fund the Governor's Reading Initiative. *Higher Education received an overall increase of $580 million to fund new incentives to increase graduation rates, finance debt for new facilities, fund enrollment growth, and increase funding for graduate medical education programs. *Health and Human Services funding increased by $283.5 million to fund 14,815 additional clients for community care services, provide for growing nursing home caseloads, fund 3,800 new foster care and adoption placements, continue services for legal immigrants who are children or elderly and disabled, and add 246 child protective services caseworkers. *Public Safety and Criminal Justice funds were increased by $321.4 million to pay for 22,500 existing state jail beds and open 2,500 more, supervise 10,800 more parolees and 4,600 more probationers, add 2,144 Texas Youth Commission beds, and fund bonds to repair prison facilities. Other major items funded in the state budget include a $100 per month salary increase for state employees, salary increases for statewide elected officials and state judges and prosecutors, funding for the statewide water plan, and incentive funding for business and economic development programs.

*Abortion - Increased oversight of abortion facilities legislation was enacted to require that facilities where abortions are performed meet state health and safety standards.

*Adoption - Several measures passed that will significantly reduce the average waiting time for thousands of children in foster care to be adopted. Bills were enacted that will expedite termination of parental rights in cases of severe child abuse, neglect, or abandonment; streamline the process for identifying children's fathers; accelerate the court process for adoptions; and speed up children's permanent placement in loving homes.

*Auto Insurance - Legislation passed that will require a person involved in an auto accident who is convicted of driving without insurance to pay for a six-month insurance policy in advance. Driver's licenses will be suspended by the Texas Department of Public Safety for persons who fail to pay for and maintain the required insurance.

*Child Care - Legislation was enacted to increase access to child care, streamline and coordinate inspection of child care facilities, provide new penalties for violation of health and safety rules, and require background checks on child care providers who care for three or fewer children.

*Child Support - A central directory was established to track child support cases; new administrative procedures were enacted to streamline the child support collection process; couples getting married will have to indicate on their marriage license application if they are delinquent in their child support payments; and a comprehensive review of the Child Support Enforcement Division of the Office of the Attorney General will be conducted by an independent firm to determine whether this function should stay in the Office of the Attorney general, be privatized, or be transferred to an independent agency.

*Concealed-Carry Gun Law Cleanup - Legislation was enacted to clarify eligibility for a concealed handgun permit and to allow licensees from other states to carry their concealed weapons in Texas.

*Consumers - Measures enacted include restrictions on phone solicitation for law enforcement organizations, prohibition on long-distance companies from transferring a customer's account to another carrier without customer permission--so-called "slamming", and allowing contact lens wearers to obtain their prescriptions so that they can shop around for their contact lenses.

*Credit Union Commission - The Commission was continued for 12 years rather than four years as originally recommended by the Sunset Commission. The Credit Union Commission must publish notices of meetings and significant business issues in the Texas Register and maintain a majority of public members on the Commission.

*Criminal Justice - *Super Intensive Supervision legislation through such means as non-stop electronic monitoring and housing in locked facilities was enacted for violent inmates and sex offenders who are required to be paroled under the state's mandatory release law. The mandatory release law is a mathematical release formula under which inmates are automatically released when their time served plus credit for good behavior adds up to their full sentence. This law was repealed for criminals convicted after September 1996, but because of court decisions, the law still applies to criminals convicted prior to this date. *Stalking legislation passed that will reinstate the tough 1995 anti-stalking law that was struck down by a Texas court for "vagueness." *Sex Offender measures passed that will require that repeat sex offenders be sentenced to a mandatory 35 years in prison without parole after their second offense, prohibit offenders from contacting their victims and establish penalties should they do so, require notification of the public and police when a sex offender is granted deferred adjudication--a process in which charges are dropped after a probationary period, require lifetime registration for those convicted of sexually violent offenses, allow state judges to add extra probation terms of up to 10 years for sex offenders who fail to show signs of rehabilitation, establish a screening and treatment program for young sex offenders, and allow voluntary surgical castration for repeat sex offenders 21 or over who volunteer for the operation and qualify after psychological screening. *Private Prisons operating in Texas are subjected to new rules and regulations, inspections, and qualifications for private vendors. *Out-of-State Criminals are required to be released in their state of origin.

*Driver's Licenses - Legislation passed that will provide for six-year driver's licenses at a cost of $24, rather than the current four-year license for $16. Another measure provides that information from motor vehicle records cannot be disclosed except for specified purposes and cannot be disseminated or published on the Internet without a person's consent.

*Education: Public Schools - *Teacher Salaries were increased by increasing the teacher minimum salary schedule by approximately 6% over the biennium. The starting salary for a teacher will go from $19,950 per year to approximately $21,000 for the 1997-98 school year and $21,230 for the 1998-99 school year. At the same time, teacher-required work days were increased from the current 185 to 186 days for the 1997-98 school year and 187 days for the 1998-99 school year. *Facilities Funding was provided by establishing a state program for assisting school districts in paying for new debt for instructional facilities. State assistance for facilities will be awarded on a priority basis beginning with the districts having the lowest property tax wealth per student. *Public Education Grant Program was enhanced by encouraging increased utilization of this program which allows students in low-performing public schools to transfer to higher-performing public schools. Enhancements would require schools to notify parents about the availability of the program and establishment of financial incentives for school districts to accept transfers under the program. *Open-Enrollment Charter Schools were expanded by increasing the number of charter schools that can be authorized by the State Board of Education from 20 to 100. Open-enrollment charter schools must adopt policies admitting students eligible to receive Public Education Grants, but the schools are exempt from most state regulations and may enroll students regardless of where they live. Unlimited additional charters are allowed for schools whose prospective student bodies will include 75% dropouts and/or those students at risk of dropping out. *Governor's Reading Initiative was established to require school districts to administer reading diagnosis programs and offer innovative reading programs in Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade with the goal of ensuring that every child is reading at grade level by the third grade. The reading initiatives were funded by the "Read to Succeed" license plate program and a $32 million appropriation. *Safe Schools legislation passed which strengthens the "zero tolerance" safe schools discipline laws enacted in 1995 to allow students to be expelled for all misdemeanor drug and alcohol offenses and to add conduct punishable as a felony to the list of offenses for which a student may be assigned to an alternative education program. *Teacher Retirement programs were enhanced by establishment of the "rule of 80" for determining eligibility to retire and receive the standard service retirement annuity, i.e., a teacher with a combination of age and experience totaling 80 can retire without penalty. Significant benefit increases for currently retired teachers were also provided and a deferred retirement option plan, or DROP, was established to allow career educators with at least 25 years of service credit and who are eligible for full retirement benefits to continue working while earning deferred benefits to enhance their long-term retirement income.

*Education: Colleges and Universities - *College Admissions policies were established to require a uniform policy for state-funded public colleges and universities to automatically admit all students who finish in the top 10% of their high school graduating class. Once these spots are filled, colleges and universities must use other race-neutral factors such as academic records, test scores, socioeconomic status, extracurricular activities, and family background to determine other student admissions. Another measure requires state-funded public colleges and universities that use Grade Point Average (GPA) as their admissions criteria to adopt the same academic standards for admitting scholarship athletes as other students. *Standardized Admissions Application Forms were required for four-year public colleges and universities. *Core Curriculum requirements were standardized for all public colleges and universities to make it easier for students to transfer between institutions. *Tenure Review requirements were established for professors at public colleges and universities. A comprehensive performance review of all tenured faculty must be conducted at least every 6 years beginning in January 1998. The colleges and universities will determine the criteria for the reviews and have the authority to demote or fire tenured faculty based on the reviews.

*Election Laws - Modifications were enacted in an effort to reduce fraud and streamline the elections process. Voters will be required to show identification in order to vote, penalties were increased for mail ballot fraud, ballots that are suspected of being fraudulent will be allowed to be kept separate for later review, and the early voting period was shortened.

*Faith-Based Legislation - Laws passed that will allow private sector accreditation for child care and child placement agencies in lieu of state licensing and regulation, exempt from state regulation those faith-based alcohol and drug treatment programs which rely exclusively on faith to change lives, and urge corrections and law enforcement entities to use more faith-based rehabilitation programs for criminal offenders.

*Health Care - Several measures passed that are designed to ensure access to quality health care coverage in Texas. These new laws regulate maternity lengths of stay, give women the right to direct access to their obstetricians and gynecologists, require coverage for mental illness cases, allow managed care organizations such as health maintenance organizations (HMOs) to be sued and held liable for medical malpractice if a patient suffers injury due to denial or delay of treatment by the HMO, and require the Office of the Public Insurance Counsel to produce a consumer report card on HMOs. Bills also passed to expand health coverage for childhood immunizations, establish a public-private partnership called the Texas Healthy Kids Corporation to provide benefits for children who are not covered by insurance or another type of health plan, and create a high risk pool health insurance program for consumers who have difficulty obtaining insurance because of an existing illness or health condition.

*Home Equity Lending - If approved by the voters in the constitutional amendment election on November 4, homeowners will be able to use their houses as collateral for loans. The measure includes numerous consumer protections for both home equity and home improvement loans. Examples of these protections are that lenders cannot foreclose on a borrower's home without first obtaining a court order, lenders cannot seize other assets to satisfy an unpaid home equity debt, and the total amount of a homeowner's first mortgage and any subsequent home equity loan cannot total more than 80% of the home's value.

*Judiciary - Legislation passed that will grant judges a pay hike, improve computer technology in the courts including a statewide computer network, and improve legal staff recruitment.

*Motorcycle Helmets - The law requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets will now allow riders who are at least 21 years of age to ride without a helmet if they complete a motorcycle safety course OR are covered by a health insurance plan with at least $10,000 in medical benefits coverage for motorcycle-related injuries.

*Nursing Homes - Legislation was enacted that will toughen nursing home standards and increase the penalties for violations. Other legislation abolished the Texas Board of Nursing Facility Administrators and transferred its functions to the Department of Human Services to ensure that complaints against nursing home administrators are enforced.

*Redistricting - Bills to establish state Senate and House districts in compliance with federal court orders passed. Congressional lines will be determined by the federal court since the Legislature did not enact a congressional redistricting plan during the session.

*Sports and Community Facilities Funding - Legislation passed that establishes funding options for cities to finance sports arenas, museums, cultural centers, and other facilities. Municipalities may charge professional athletes a facility usage fee; create development corporations; and with voter approval, may tax rental car services, hotel room services, event tickets, and event parking. The measure also includes an "anti-portability" provision to discourage Texas cities from attempting to entice each other's sports teams until November 1, 1998.

*Teen Targeted Laws - Juvenile drivers involved in hit-and-run accidents will face criminal charges and punishment of up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. The "zero-tolerance" law for minors who drink and drive sets the permissible blood alcohol content at .00 percent (current law is .07 percent) and establishes tough penalties including fines, jail time, community service, and loss of driver's license for violations. Minors' access to tobacco was regulated by increasing penalties for retailers who sell tobacco products to minors, requiring tobacco buyers age 26 and younger to show proper identification, establishing penalties for minor possession or consumption of tobacco products with fines of $125 to $250 and attendance requirements for tobacco awareness programs and loss of a driver's license if the program is not completed. Other measures establish tougher penalties for defacing property with graffiti and require certain juveniles to complete boating safety courses before operating a boat or jet ski.

*Tort Reform - Legislation passed to increase the authority of judges to dismiss lawsuits filed by out-of-state parties in order to stop the dumping of out-of-state lawsuits in Texas courts.

*Water Management and Regulation - Texas' water laws were completely rewritten to require for the first time in Texas history that regional water plans be established for the orderly development, management, and conservation of water resources, as well as preparation for and response to drought conditions. In addition, the new law provides for groundwater management areas with regulations for transferring water out of the district and establishes a financial assistance program for water needs, conservation, and small community assistance.

*Welfare Reform - Welfare programs enacted in 1995 to encourage welfare recipients to become self-sufficient were modified to comply with federal welfare reform legislation. Measures passed to allow welfare recipients to access child care while completing education and training programs and to help Texas businesses take advantage of state and federal tax incentives to employ welfare recipients. A special legislative committee will assist state agencies planning to combine health and human service eligibility determination and service delivery.

MEASURES THAT DID NOT PASS

*Abortion Law change that would have required parental notification before an abortion could be performed on a minor.

*Bicycle Helmet legislation that would have required children to wear helmets when riding a bicycle.

*Campaign Finance revisions that would have tightened restrictions on when and how elected officials could raise funds.

*Concealed-Carry Gun Law revision that would have expanded the places that concealed guns could be taken.

*Driving While Intoxicated measures that would have lowered the legal blood-alcohol level from .10 to .08, established sobriety checkpoints, banned open containers of alcohol in vehicles, and increased the penalties for adult DWI offenses .

*Election Law revision that would have moved the Texas political primaries from Super Tuesday in March to the first Saturday in May.

*Electric Utility Deregulation legislation that would have allowed consumers to choose their electricity supplier.

*Initiative and Referendum constitutional amendment that would have allowed voters to place initiatives on the ballot and the Legislature to submit changes in law to the voters for their approval through a referendum.

*Judicial Selection legislation that would have changed the method for selecting judges in Texas from an elected, partisan process to an appointed and elected, non-partisan process. *No-Fault Auto Insurance legislation that would have required all drivers to pay for their own damages in an accident.

*Robin Hood School Finance Law revisions that would have entirely or partially abolished the requirement that the wealthiest school districts send a portion of their property taxes to the less wealthy school districts.

*Same-Sex Marriage legislation that would have prohibited the state from recognizing same-sex marriages if they become legal in other states. (Same-sex marriages are illegal in Texas.) *Tax Law revisions that would have expanded the corporate franchise tax to partnerships and removed many of the current sales tax exemptions.

*Term Limit constitutional amendment that would have restricted the number of terms or years elected officials in Texas could serve.

*Tort Reform legislation that would have further restricted frivolous lawsuits and outrageous damage awards.

*Voucher legislation that would have allowed students at low-performing schools to attend the private school of their choice.

If you need additional or more detailed information on any of these measures or other issues relative to state government, please do not hesitate to contact us at the office of your choice. The District 16 staff and I stand ready to be of assistance to you.

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