NOVEMBER CAPITOL UPDATE
Dear Fellow Texan--
Election Day has come and gone and now we must focus on the upcoming session and working together for our great state. In the Texas Senate there were no great surprises on election night. We will have 5 new members joining our body, but the breakdown along party lines will be 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats. I look forward to working with all of the new members--former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, Representative Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio), Representative Glen Hegar (R-Katy), former Transportation Commission Chairman Robert Nichols, and radio personality Dan Patrick.
In the House, several veteran members were defeated in their reelection bids. At the end of the night, the Democrats had picked up 5 seats with the breakdown being 80 Republicans and 69 Democrats. Representative Glenda Dawson's seat will be filled in a special election.
Now that the elections are behind us, the Legislature begins to focus on the upcoming legislative session. Monday, November 13th was the first day for members to pre-file bills. As of today, 98 bills have been pre-filed in the Senate and 302 bills have been pre-filed in the House.
To read the bills that have been pre-filed and to follow the status of a bill during session, check out the Texas Legislature Online.
On a personal note, I want to wish you all the very best Thanksgiving. This is certainly a time of year when I hope we are all able to stop and remember the things in our lives for which we are thankful. It is our special time to give thanks...not just for the obvious, like food, but for the fortunate moments that we receive each year.
Linda and I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving…
• The Senate Education Committee, chaired by Senator Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) heard testimony on October 18th regarding the state's public education system's progress on sweeping reform legislation passed last session in the form of House Bill 1. The committee also heard from members of the State Board of Education about the state of Texas' Permanent School Fund (PSF), which funds instructional resource costs and other expenses.
Dr. Shirley Neely, Commissioner of Education, reported that the state is making good progress with respect to curriculum alignment requirements set forth in HB 1. The bill mandated that the Texas Education Agency create "vertical teams" intended to evaluate alignment and make recommendations to the State Board of Education to improve college readiness. Neely said that the TEA will file legislation to create guidelines and standards for four vertical teams, one for each core subject: English, math, science and social studies.
Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) Commissioner Dr. Raymond Paredes said that the standards set forth in HB 1 create a new paradigm for educating Texas children. "What I like best about HB 1 is the great confidence it expresses in all of our children", he said. "The message it sends to us as educators is that you've got to work with these children to help them fulfill their potential."
THECB, said Paredes, will not set curriculum requirements for schools because that duty is the purview of the State Board of Education. What the Coordinating Board will focus on, he said, is improving the rigor with which the state-approved curriculum is taught. THECB will also look at a redesign of entry-level university courses, which Paredes calls the top indicator of future college success.
The committee also looked at the status of the state's Permanent School Fund (PSF), a fund created in 1852 to ensure adequate resources to purchase text books and other instructional materials. State Board of Education Chair Geraldine "Tincy" Miller testified that the fund is performing very well, with $22.9 billion currently in its coffers. The fund is also used to secure bonds passed by local elections, at a triple-A rating, which keeps interest rates low for school districts and removes the need for additional bond insurance.
• The Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Technologies and Economic Development, chaired by Senator Kyle Janek (R-Houston) heard testimony on October 24th regarding two state funds for bringing new companies to Texas and for nurturing the high-tech companies that are already here.
The Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF) was established by legislation in the 78th Legislature, with an initial appropriation of $295 million, and a further appropriation of $180 million in during the 79th Legislature. Money from this fund can be used for infrastructure development, worker training, business incentives, and other incentives to make Texas more attractive to out-of-state companies.
Aaron Demerson, Director of Economic Development and Tourism for the Governor's office, testified that the TEF has used $316 million since its inception, which will translate to 43,000 new jobs and $9.4 billion in capital investment over the next ten years. In order to use funds from the TEF, the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker of the House must unanimously agree to make any appropriations.
Another key economic development fund, the Texas Emerging Technologies Fund (TETF) was created with a $200 million dollar appropriation in the 79th Legislature. Its goal, characterized by TETF Advisory Board Chairman David Spencer, is to grow high-tech businesses already in Texas, contrasting with the mandate of the TEF to 'hunt' for new industries to bring to the state.
TETF brings together private industry, state universities, and state government to help develop Texas' high-tech industry. TETF has spent $17 million in its first year, with $13 million going to emerging technology businesses, and almost $4.5 million to state research universities.
• The Senate Business and Commerce Committee held a joint meeting on November 9th with the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Senator John Carona (R-Dallas) to hear testimony on the procedure and cost of relocating utilities that lie within the state right-of -way. When a road or highway is improved, utility connections that lie within the right-of-way must be moved to make way for new construction.
Amadeo Saenz, Assistant Director of Engineering Operations for the Texas Department of Transportation, testified that the type of road or highway affects who will bear the cost. For state funded roads and highways, utility companies must pay for the relocation of any connections. For highways that are part of the federal interstate highway system, the cost of relocation to utility companies is reimbursed by the state of Texas.
Saenz said that the administrative costs for relocation management tops $30 million per year and requires 430 full time employees. He added that utility relocation can delay road construction if the utility lacks the funds to complete relocation. Saenz recommended a new fee structure that would create a fund to subsidize relocation under those circumstances.
Transportation and Homeland Security Committee questioned the wisdom of transferring additional costs for relocation to utility companies. He said while this may save taxpayers money in lower taxes due to lower transportation costs, they will pay the difference to utility companies in higher rates.
Bryan Gonterman, Vice-President for Legislative Affairs for AT&T Texas, testified that his company is happy to work with the Texas Department of Transportation in order to make utility relocation smoother and faster. He did advocate two positions before the joint committee. First, he said, Texas should preserve its current practice of full reimbursement of expenses for relocation due to federal highway expansion or improvement. Second, he advocated a cost sharing program between industry and the state, where each party pays for half of the relocation costs for utilities along toll roads. Outside funding sources for these roads, from the federal government in the case of the first, and toll fees in the case of the second, make it feasible for the state to pay for all or part of the cost in order to maintain lower utility rates. Gonterman added that utility companies consider state relocation policies when determining the level of investment they will put into a state.
A full report on the cost and procedures of utility relocation commissioned last session by House Bill 2702, will be delivered to the Legislature by a special study committee by the end of the year.
Always check the Senate and House websites for a complete listing of Committee hearings.
• The top contenders for the worlds first near-zero emissions coal plant have been announced. Among the finalists are two Texas cities, Jewett and Odessa, and two Illinois cities, Mattoon and Tuscola. The $1 billion project is headed by the U.S. Department of Energy and a consortium of 10 energy companies from the United States, China and Australia.
The technology involved in the new plant, called FutureGen, would convert coal into a highly enriched hydrogen gas that burns cleaner than coal. Most of the carbon dioxide emissions from the plant would then be captured and permanently injected into underground reservoirs through a process called sequestration. Depleted oil and gas fields could be used as reservoirs for the pressurized carbon dioxide.
The 275-megawatt FutureGen facility has been touted as the power plant of the future. A winning city will be announced in September 2007, but construction is not expected to begin for another five years.
• Texans looking to pick their own peaches or buy them at local grocery stores this past summer found slim pickings. A combination of drought, a mild winter, spring freezes and hailstorms wiped out 90 percent of the Texas Hill Country's peach crop in 2006, said Bill Botard, Gillespie County's agriculture extension agent.
The Hill Country grows about 40 percent of the state's peaches. In July, the National Agricultural Statistics Service forecast Texas' 2006 peach production at 6.4 million pounds, down 63 percent from 2005 production of 17.5 million pounds and down 74 percent from 2004 production.
Ideal conditions for peaches are a cool winter, followed by a warm spring with high soil moisture, according to the Texas Cooperative Extension. In 2006, many peach orchards were stressed by a drought that began the previous summer, said Jim Kamas, extension fruit specialist for the Texas Cooperative Extension. Peach orchards also require "winter chilling" hours, and the 2005-06 winter was mild, Kamas said. Two frosts in late March hurt blooms, and spring hailstorms in the Hill Country stripped trees of fruit and foliage.
Dan Rohrer, president of the Hill Country Fruit Council, grows 1,200 peach trees at his Rocky Hill Orchards near Fredericksburg. "My own orchard got hit with five different hailstorms this year," Rohrer said. "The most devastating one was April 20. The hailstorm not only damaged the fruit, but also knocked most of the remaining fruit that was on the trees to the ground."
Not all Texas peaches suffered. Peaches in east and northeast Texas had more rainfall and winter chilling and did not suffer the same extent of damage from spring frost. Orchards in southeast and south central Texas escaped the frost damage and had reasonable crops.
Some orchards boosted prices due to the lack of fruit on the trees, but others have said they would not raise their prices.
Limited supply pushed peach prices up a bit in the Hill Country. The usual retail price of $25 to $27 per half-bushel--or 25 pounds--was running around $35 in July. Smaller containers that might normally run $1.50 a pound were about $2 in July.
Things are looking better for 2007 for the state's peach growers. In many parts of the state, timely summer rains should help trees recover and return to a fruitful status for the next growing season, Kamas said. Some peach-growing areas received reasonable rainfall in mid-April, but their subsoil regions were still dry in summer. As a result, trees in those orchards have had poor growth, which will affect 2007 productivity, Kamas said.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need assistance with a state agency or wish to voice an opinion on any matter before the Texas Legislature. I always appreciate hearing from you.
I hope to see you soon.
HOW TO CONTACT SENATOR TROY FRASER
Austin Capitol Office
P.O. Box 12068
Austin, Texas 78711
FAX: (512) 475-3732
Marble Falls District Office
607 B Highway 281 North
Marble Falls, Texas 78654
FAX: (830) 693-9603
Abilene District Office
500 Chestnut Street, Suite 810
Abilene, Texas 79602
FAX: (325) 676-8060
Belton District Office
1920 North Main Street
Belton, Texas 76513
FAX: (254) 939-7611