WEEK IN REVIEW
AUSTIN - Texas consumers would be able to choose their own electric providers in the new millennium under legislation passed in the Senate Wednesday, March 17. The electric utility market would be open to competition under the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 7. Supporters of the bill believe Texas consumers will benefit from lower prices in a competitive market. The bill's sponsor, Waco Senator David Sibley, says that despite almost fifty floor amendments there were no major changes in the full Senate. Sibley praised an amendment by Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos that assists low-income electric consumers. Carthage Senator Drew Nixon spoke against the bill, citing deregulation failures in other industries such as airlines and banking. Nixon argued that there is too much at risk, speculating that there will be some unintended consequences of this bill.
The Texas Senate is getting tougher on drunk drivers. Legislation passed Thursday, March 18, will lower the legal blood alcohol content, raise the penalties for refusal to take breath/blood tests, and increase penalties for underage drinkers. Senate Bill (SB) 114, sponsored by Galena Park Senator Mario Gallegos, Jr. would lower the legal blood alcohol content from .10 to .08 percent. One incentive to pass the measure--Texas could get $26 million in federal transportation funds for making the change. Efforts to lower the blood alcohol content have failed in past sessions, but senators say that support from the current governor and the lt. governor made the difference this time. Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. sponsored SB 388 which increases the penalty for refusing to take a breath/blood test to five days in jail and an automatic one-year license suspension. Dallas Senator Royce West sponsored SB 528 which increases the consequences for minors possessing or using alcohol.
Minors who want an abortion would have to have a parent or guardian involved in their decision under CSSB30. The parental notification legislation passed its final hurdle in the Senate Thursday, March 18, and is on its way to the Texas House. Plano Senator Florence Shapiro sponsored the bill and argues that the issue is not abortion, it is parental rights. Opponents of the bill argue that parental rights are not as important as is the safety of minors. The bill has a judicial bypass clause allowing a judge to decide whether a minor is mature enough to make the decision on her own. The Senate added an amendment to help protect doctors from prosecution if a minor uses a fake I.D. to prove they are old enough to avoid telling their parents.
Domestic abusers were under attack in the Texas Senate on Tuesday, March 16. Senators passed legislation increasing the penalty for a second assault offense against a family member to a third degree felony. Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson sponsored SB 24, and said, "Despite all of our efforts to curtail family violence this epidemic is only getting worse. The status quo is not working and it's obvious we're only going to get a handle on this through stronger punishment."
Gang violence is a growing problem in Texas. Lt. Governor Rick Perry, Attorney General John Cornyn, and Senators Royce West, Robert L. Duncan, Carlos F. Truan, and Jon Lindsay have announced legislation to stop it. The legislation increases penalties for recruiting new gang members and would provide law enforcement officials with more tools to fight those crimes. SB 8 is one of six bills in the gang fighting package. It allows law enforcement officials to share information in a statewide database to make it easier to track gang members.
Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos says the dropout problem in Texas may be worse than expected. Barrientos questions Texas Education Agency (TEA) statistics, saying the numbers may not be accurate and that reported decreases in drop out rates might be false. He thinks TEA statistics may neglect a large number of students, possibly more than 33%, that disappear from the system. Barrientos says he does not know whether schools are under reporting or if the TEA is trying to cover up, "I'm trying to stay as positive as possible in looking at such negative information."
Property tax relief and a teacher pay raise could be on the way under Amarillo Senator Teel Bivins' school finance plan. Perry and Senators Bill Ratliff, Jane Nelson, and Steve Ogden joined Bivins at a press conference announcing the legislation. The proposed $2000 dollar rise in benefits for teachers is far from the $6000 dollar pay increase many want, but Ratliff, who serves as the Finance Committee chair, says it is the best they can do for now.
Other legislation passed this week includes:
CSSB 138, by Sibley, prohibits a government agency from substantially burdening the exercise of religion unless there is a "compelling interest", such as protection of citizens' health or safety. A federal law with similar provisions has been ruled unconstitutional. The legislation was inspired by a disagreement between the city of Boerne and a local church. The city stopped the historic chapel from building a new addition because of city ordinances that protect a historical district;
SB 427, by Sibley, increases the penalty for the direct shipment of alcohol into Texas. He says direct shipment gives minors easier access to alcohol and cheats the state out of tax money;
CSSB 44, by Shapiro, requires that parents who check their children into drug treatment must give consent for their release; and CSSB 42, by Shapiro, allows public schools to set up a drug testing program to test students at a parent's request.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 22 at 1:30 p.m.