WEEK IN REVIEW
Ratliff Addresses Medicaid Contractor Probe
AUSTIN - Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff spoke with reporters Thursday about the Travis County district attorney's investigation of a contractor for the state Medicaid program.
Investigators on Wednesday seized records from the Austin and Plano offices of National Heritage Insurance Co., a subsidiary of Dallas-based Electronic Data Systems that has processed Medicaid claims under a state contract.
Ratliff said he did not think the inquiry would hinder efforts this session to simplify the Medicaid enrollment process.
"I can't imagine anybody that would resist doing something to help particularly the children on Medicaid because of problems in the administration of it," Ratliff said. "Surely those are two separate questions. I can't imagine anybody that would oppose any changes like that simply because we've got problems with the contractor."
Senators Approve TNRCC Nominee After Much Debate
Most of the action in Wednesday's session centered on nominee confirmations.
Senate Nominations Committee Chair Jane Nelson of Flower Mound presented a report recommending approval of several of Gov. Rick Perry's appointees to state agencies and boards. Among the appointees was R.B. "Ralph" Marquez, reappointed for a second term as a commissioner of the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC). Former Gov. George W. Bush appointed Marquez in 1995 to fill an unexpired term.
Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, a member of the committee, responded to the report by citing a list of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistics that show Texas is the No. 1 producer in the nation of hazardous waste, among other dubious distinctions.
"Numero uno (number one) is not good enough here," Barrientos said.
But Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown of Lake Jackson pointed out that Texas, the nation's top petrochemical producer, has improved its water and air during the past ten years.
"I'm not arguing with you, but ... when you cite those facts, those are unacceptable and we're doing what we can to try to bring that down," Brown said.
"Is that good enough for Texas?" Barrientos asked in response.
The Senate did vote to confirm Perry's appointees, including Marquez, but not before a warning from Houston Sen. Mario Gallegos, who grew up near the Houston Ship Channel and now represents the area in the Senate.
"I just want to make sure that Mr. Marquez knows that we're serious -- that the Texas Senate is serious -- about this issue and obviously our constituency," Gallegos said. "Especially, Senator Nelson, those of us that live around those petrochemical plants (and) have to smell and breathe those emissions."
Senate Votes to Approve DNA Testing Bill
Acting on legislation that has been declared an emergency by Perry, the Senate on Monday voted to approve a bill that would establish procedures for the preservation and use of DNA evidence and post-conviction testing.
The Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 3, sponsored by Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan and co-sponsored by 28 other members of the Senate, was overwhelmingly passed after a short debate on the floor.
The most pointed questions during the debate came from Bryan Sen. Steve Ogden. Ogden said he supports the concept of the bill, but has concerns about the impact the bill could have on the appeals process. Duncan characterized CSSB 3 as a "check and balance" in the criminal justice system.
Ogden and Ratliff are the only members of the Senate who have not signed on as co-sponsors of CSSB 3. Although he still represents the First District as a senator, as lieutenant governor Ratliff does not sponsor legislation and generally does not vote on bills when they come up in the Senate.
A similar bill has been filed in the House of Representatives. If the House passes its own version of the DNA testing bill, the two chambers will work together to craft legislation to submit to Perry.
Ratliff said he is optimistic that the Senate will be able to come up with a bill that will pass in both chambers.
Happy Birthday, 'Mr. Congeniality'
On Thursday, the Senate "narrowly" adopted Senate Resolution (SR) 336.
SR 336 was offered by the four female members of the Senate to honor the birthday of Arlington Sen. Chris Harris, sometimes jokingly referred to as "Mr. Congeniality" by his colleagues.
While introducing the resolution, the sponsors noted that Harris sits on the south side of the chamber while the four of them are on the north side. Plano Sen. Florence Shapiro offered to "trade" Houston Sen. John Whitmire for the day so Harris could join the women on the north side of the chamber.
"Mr. Congeniality" learned that his fellow senators have a few other nicknames for him.
"Dollface ... sweetness and light," said Laredo Sen. Judith Zaffirini.
"... honey, teddy bear, mister charm, lovey," Shapiro added.
The other SR 336 sponsors were Senators Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio and Nelson.
"The only response I have is that the traits that I have learned are due to Lady Z (Zaffirini)," Harris said. "When she was giving all the other members English-Spanish dictionaries, she gave me one on the battle tactics of Attila the Hun. And I read it, Lady Z, I've taken it to heart, and I hope I've performed admirably under the direction of the book that you gave me."
With tongue firmly in cheek, the Senate passed the resolution by a 16-15 margin.
Van de Putte, Parents, Educators Voice Voucher Opposition
On Wednesday, Van de Putte joined a group of parents and educators from the Edgewood Independent School District (ISD) in San Antonio to voice opposition to any legislation that would create a state-funded school voucher plan.
"These folks are in a unique position, because we do have a voucher program in San Antonio, Texas. It's a private program," Van de Putte said. "And so if you want to find out firsthand what happens to a school district when dollars -- needed dollars -- are taken away, then listen to these folks."
The Edgewood ISD group told reporters that the voucher program did not help the children in the district and that money should not be taken from the state education budget to fund vouchers.
Senate Floor Debate Becoming More Lively
Early in a legislative session, the Senate usually focuses on non-controversial bills. But Senate Bill (SB) 269, sponsored by Ogden, brought some pointed questions Tuesday during floor debate. Ogden's bill would create a felony offense for injuring a pregnant woman, with increased penalties if the woman suffers a miscarriage or stillbirth as a result of the injury.
Dallas Sen. Royce West immediately asked what would prevent an "overzealous prosecutor" from using the statute to prosecute a doctor who performs an abortion. Van de Putte also had questions about how the bill legally defined the term "miscarriage." Ogden assured both West and Van de Putte that he did not intend SB 269 as an anti-abortion vehicle, pointing to two sections of the bill that expressly exempt abortions and that the bill does nothing to redefine the legal definition of miscarriage.
SB 269 was finally approved by a voice vote, but not without the dissenting votes of six senators, who voted against the common parliamentary practice of suspending the regular order of business and suspending the constitutional requirement that a bill be read on three several (legislative) days before it can be considered. The six were Barrientos, David Bernsen of Beaumont, Gallegos, Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso and Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio.
Bill Would Strengthen Protective Orders
The Senate passed a measure Thursday that would make it against state law for someone under a protective order to possess a firearm. West sponsored the bill, CSSB 199.
A floor amendment by Brown was added to CSSB 199 before it was passed. Brown's amendment would exempt local and state law enforcement officers. Federal law already prohibits an individual under a protective order to have a firearm in their possession.
On Monday, the Senate passed SB 479, also sponsored by West, that would require that protective orders be entered into the Department of Public Safety statewide law enforcement information system within 10 days after the order is received.
The Pecan Joins the Bluebonnet and Mockingbird as Official State Icon
On Monday, the Senate approved the Committee Substitute for Senate Concurrent Resolution (CSSCR) 2, which would designate the pecan "The Official Health Nut of Texas." The floor debate on CSSCR 2 was lengthy but light. After several humorous questions and observations from members of the Senate, Ratliff recognized Brown cautiously: "Sen. Brown, for what purpose, I'm afraid to ask."
"I thought Sen. Moncrief was the official health nut of the Senate," Brown replied.
Horseshoe Bay Sen. Troy Fraser, the sponsor of CSSCR 2, summed up the debate on the resolution: "It's a rather nutty bill."
Amended Bill Seeks Longer Statute of Limitations in Some Felony Cases
SB 214, sponsored by Bernsen, focuses on kidnaping, injury to a child, an elderly or disabled person, or child abandonment or endangerment. Current state law provides a statute of limitations of three years in which to prosecute these offenses. Bernsen's bill would increase that time to five years. The Senate also adopted Shapiro's floor amendment to SB 214 that would increase the statute of limitations in sexual assault cases from five to ten years.
Other Senate News
The Business and Commerce Committee held a special joint hearing with its Border Affairs Subcommittee on Tuesday. The reason for the joint hearing was to hear testimony on SB 517 from the bill's sponsor, Brownsville Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., the chair of the subcommittee. SB 517 would provide border counties with the statutory authority to prevent the proliferation of unincorporated subdivisions that lack sanitation and infrastructure development, commonly known as colonias.
As of Thursday, 880 bills had been filed in the Senate. For information on Senate and House bills, please go to http://www.capitol.state.tx.us. There are 95 days remaining in the 77th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature.
The Senate is adjourned until 1 p.m. Monday, February 26.