News Release from Senator Robert Nichols

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 21, 2011
Contact: Alicia Pierce
(512) 463-0103

My five cents...

a few important things that happened this week at your Texas Capitol.

I am writing this column on the 175th Anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto, the deciding battle in Texas' War for Independence. In a sneak attack on Santa Anna's army, Gen. Sam Houston lead the Texas forces to victory in a battle that lasted less than 20 minutes. While not as heroic, passing bills can work the same way. It takes months or even years of preparation to craft good legislation, but the actual process of passing it usually just takes a few minutes. As we near the end of session, more bills are facing decisive battles to become law.

Five things that happened this week at your Texas Capitol are:

1. Senate Committee Approves Budget

The Senate Finance Committee approved their version of the budget. It spends billions more on education and essential services than the House version, but it still cuts overall spending by almost $9 billion from current spending levels. To make up the difference with the House budget, the Senate identified non-tax cost savings and new sources of funding. We are, however, about $3 billion short.

Many senators, including the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, are considering using $3 billion more from the state's rainy day fund. Lawmakers already agreed to use $3.1 billion of the fund to make up a funding shortfall in the current budget. Estimates of the Rainy Day Fund's usable value started at $9 billion but may climb as high as $12 billion by the end of the upcoming budget cycle. The budget will now head to the full Senate where I will have my first opportunity to vote on it.

2. Public Utility Commission reauthorized

The Senate passed Senate Bill 661 to continue the Public Utility Commission. It is a bill that might not affect you, unless you happen to use water, telephones or electricity. As the Senate author of the legislation, I wanted to make sure we keep a consumer focus in the bill. It quadruples the possible penalties for abusive or unreliable electric providers, it moves regulation of water rates and services to the PUC, and gives the commission more authority to improve the reliability of electric services.

3. Bill to prevent converting existing roads to toll roads passes committee

The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee approved my bill, Senate Bill 730, which prevents converting a non-tolled highway into a tolled highway. Current law authorizes the Texas Department of Transportation to convert an existing state highway or segment of a highway into a toll road if the county commissioners court and local voters consent. This bill closes the last loophole to convert a non-tolled road into a tollway. This bill would guarantee that a road free to drive on today will be free to drive on tomorrow.

4. Senate passes bills to protect consumers from high water rates

On Wednesday, the Senate passed two of my bills to help protect consumers from excessive water bills. In current law an investor-owned utility may raise its rate and start charging the proposed amount before it is finally approved by the state. Because the approval and appeal process can take years, rate payers can be stuck paying an unjustifiably high rate month after month. Senate Bill 635 allows the state to set a reasonable interim rate while the proposed rate is considered.

Additionally, under current law an investor-owned water utility may charge a single rate across various systems, regardless if the quality of each system is the same. This means consumers may get stuck with a higher water bill even if the utility's system is sub-par. Senate Bill 636 clarifies the Legislature's intent that water users can only be charged the same rate across systems if the quality is the same.

5. Certified Retirement Communities honored in the Legislature

Wednesday was the GO Texan Certified Retirement Community Day at the Capitol. The certified retirement community program helps promote communities with demonstrated advantages for retirees and seniors. Senate District 3 has 10 certified retirement communities, each offering beautiful scenery, recreation opportunities, good weather and excellent medical care. Of course, I am not surprised that our area of the state is considered a great place to retire. I know, having spent my life in East Texas, that it is also a great place in which to live, work and grow up.

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