My five cents...
by Sen. Robert Nichols, Senate District 3
April Fools' day is usually a time for practical jokes and kidding around, but there were very few laughs at the Capitol this week as the House considered the serious subject of the state budget. However, it is not the only story going on.
Five important things that happened this week at your Texas Capitol are:
On Thursday, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) held a special meeting in which they addressed the impending closure of 14 Texas air traffic control towers due to federal sequestration. As you may be aware, the federal government has been unable to agree on a budget, and there have been widespread spending cuts, referred to as sequestration, as a result. If nothing is done, 149 airport towers across the nation, including 14 in Texas, will close on April 7 and thus create a public safety emergency for fliers.
Fortunately, TxDOT voted to step in and pay for the cost of operating Texas' towers for 90 days at which point they will reevaluate the situation. I am thankful the state has stepped up to protect our citizens when the federal government will not.
Cell phone tracking/ Drone surveillance
Several legislators have filed bills this session regarding Texans' technology privacy rights. State Representative Brian Hughes' much-talked-about HB 1608 would require law enforcement officers to obtain search warrants in order to access cell phone records. There would be exceptions when a phone is reported stolen or in the case of life threatening situations.
Another technology privacy bill deals with drones. Representative Lance Gooden's HB 912 would ban the possession and use of any photos obtained by drones or any unmanned vehicles. Both civil and criminal penalties would apply for violators.
We now live in an age when technology is evolving at a faster rate than the laws regarding it. I applaud these members' efforts to strengthen privacy rights.
Water rate bill
This week the Senate passed SB 567, a bill I authored with Senator Kirk Watson to overhaul the state's oversight of investor-owned water and sewer utilities (IOUs), and to ensure that customers have an advocate in cases over excessive rates.
The legislation reflects the work of Senate subcommittees led by myself and Senator Watson in 2012. These subcommittees held hearings on steep increases in water and sewer rates that were imposed by IOUs. The many stakeholders working with the subcommittees have helped us to determine that the current regulatory system is broken. The one-size-fits-all treatment of large-, mid- and small-sized utilities does not work.
SB 567 is a bill which will bring needed reform on ratemaking to Texans living in rural and unincorporated areas of the state. I will make sure to keep you updated as it is considered in the House soon.
A bill introducing new regulations for the practice of payday loans advanced this week. Senator John Carona's SB 1247 aims to help end the cycle of debt many disadvantaged individuals face when they take out these short-term loans at incredibly high interest rates. The bill would limit the types of loans that payday lenders can offer, and would restrict the number of times a loan could be rolled over. The Senate Business and Commerce Committee passed SB 1247 Tuesday night by a 6-1 vote, sending it to the Senate floor soon.
Texas Medical Association 'First Tuesdays'
The 'First Tuesday' of each month is always a day I enjoy. On these days doctors and medical students from around the state converge on the Capitol to lobby on behalf of their profession and their patients. Referred to as the "White Coat Invasion," this practice has been going on since 2003 and is a chance for legislators to discuss bills regarding the practice of medicine with those who know it best.
This Tuesday I was pleased to be visited by many doctors from Senate District 3 who were in town for the event. These individuals provide an invaluable service to our state and I look forward to working with them for many years to come.