Committees Focus on Education Issues
AUSTIN - Education issues dominated much of Monday's business in Senate committees.
Representatives from the Texas Education Agency and higher education agencies came before the Finance Committee to discuss proposed education-related amendments to Senate Bill (SB) 1. SB 1 is the general appropriations bill that will set the state budget and guide Texas' basic spending policies for the 2002-2003 biennium. The proposed budget the committee is working with totals $108.2 billion.
The Education Committee heard public testimony on a number of bills proposing a statewide insurance plan for public school teachers and school district employees and retirees.
A reading teacher in the Austin Independent School District with 11 years of experience told the committee that he is having serious trouble making ends meet. He blamed the high cost providing insurance to his family as one of the main reasons and said his salary and benefits are not keeping up with the cost of living.
"I promise you the numbers just do not add up," he said.
Shelly Potter, with the San Antonio Federation of Teachers, said the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) has had to cut benefits to teachers while at the same time increasing the premiums paid by teachers as well as the district's portion.
Potter advocated a teacher insurance program equivalent to state employee coverage, but Sen. Teel Bivins, the chair of the Education Committee, reminded Potter that SAISD teacher pay is generally higher than state employee pay.
"We're going to work on both this session," Bivins said.
In the afternoon, the Jurisprudence Committee was scheduled to hear testimony on SB 129, authored by Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, that is intended to reduce partisanship in judicial elections by creating a law to regulate retention elections for nonpartisan candidates. The bill would also prohibit straight-party voting for nonpartisan judicial candidates.
In session, the Senate passed seven bills, but it was one that was left pending that triggered the most debate.
Senate Bill SB 399, authored by Duncan, would prohibit children 17 years of age and younger from riding in the open bed of a truck, pickup or on a trailer at any speed on a public road.
Current state law prohibits children younger than 12 from riding in the bed of a truck, pickup or on a trailer at speeds greater than 35 miles per hour.
Senator Todd Staples of Palestine said he felt the bill was too broad and would prohibit activities such as hay rides and would not allow people to ride in the back of a pickup on a rural road, even if just traveling a few miles from one hunting area to another.
Houston Sen. Mario Gallegos questioned the bill's impact on Hispanics. He said many Hispanics in his district have only a truck or pickup for transportation, and the bill would create an "open season" for police to pull over Hispanics.
"I concerns me, that under your law (SB 399), Latinos going to work -- not bothering anybody, looking like they're 16 but really are 36 -- are going to be stopped," Gallegos told Duncan. "We're trying to stop racial profiling and a lot of other things. This would be open season on those folks that I represent in Harris County."
Duncan responded that the bill is not intended to promote harassment of Hispanics but to protect children, regardless of ethnicity.
"This bill is designed as a public safety measure to prevent injuries to the 12-year-old Latino who is required to ride in the back of a pickup by an adult who hasn't thought this through," Duncan said, "to the 12-year-old Anglo who is required to ride in the back of a pickup by an adult who hasn't thought this through."
Staples offered an amendment that would have changed the bill so it would only apply to vehicles traveling faster than 35 miles per hour, but the amendment was tabled on a vote of 20 against, eight in favor and one present but not voting.
Duncan left the bill pending by not making a motion for a vote on final passage.
The Senate stands adjourned until 11 a.m. Tuesday.