WEEK IN REVIEW
Senate Votes Passage of Texas Fair Defense Act
AUSTIN - The Texas Fair Defense Act, a bipartisan effort to overhaul the method by which indigent criminal defendants are provided legal defense, won approval by the Senate on Tuesday.
The Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 7 was authored by Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis. Another 16 members of the Senate, including the chairs of the Criminal Justice and Jurisprudence committees, co-authored the bill.
"The Texas Senate has taken an historic stand for fairness," Ellis said. "Over the past few years, the glare of the spotlight on our justice system has been harsh. The Texas Fair Defense Act balances the scales of justice to ensure that poor Texans are not sentenced to a poor defense."
CSSB 7 focuses on four key areas: timely appointment of counsel, method of counsel appointment by courts, reporting of information about indigent representation services and minimum standards for counsel.
The bill would also create a task force within the Judicial Council to recommend further improvements and direct funding to counties.
Texas counties spend approximately $90 million each year on criminal defense for the indigent, but Texas is one of four states that provide no state funding for indigent criminal defense. CSSB 7 would dedicate $19.7 million for a statewide fund to be used at the county level to provide defense for indigent criminal defendants.
Ellis said the bill does not do everything he would like, but added that it is an important start.
"I think it's a movement in the right direction," Ellis said. "I hope the glare of the spotlight stays on us because there are still things that we ought to do. But it's a big step."
The Texas Legislature passed similar legislation in 1999, but the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. George W. Bush.
Education Committee Chair Announces Draft Insurance Bill
Senate Education Committee Chair Teel Bivins on Monday discussed a draft bill that would set up an insurance plan for public school employees and teachers.
"My hope is that we can work through this, address the major issues and get to a position where our committee can sign off on a bill that we would then file," Bivins said.
Because the bill has not been filed, it has not been assigned a number.
The draft bill would establish coverage consisting of at least five tiers with differing levels of coverage. Each tier would include health benefits. Additional coverages might include accidental death and dismemberment and loss of salary. School districts would be able to choose whether to participate in the program beginning August 1, 2002.
The State of Texas and school districts would share the cost.
"If the basic coverage, for example, costs $125 and we're only able under this plan to distribute $100," Bivins said, "the school district would not be able to access that $100 unless they came up with $25 per month so they can cover these teachers with at least the basic coverage."
Under the draft bill, school districts that are already providing adequate teacher and employee health insurance may be able to use the state money to fund pay increases.
Bivins said the as-yet unfiled bill is a working document, a starting point for final legislation to be worked out in the coming days. Bivins' remarks came in an Education Committee hearing devoted to the topic, the fifth such hearing this session.
Senate Passes Bill Prohibiting Profiting From Crime Memorabilia
The Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would prevent criminals from making a profit from memorabilia associated with their crimes.
Current state law requires that criminals forfeit any profit derived from the sale of their life story, but profits from the sale of items associated with the crime are not covered by existing law.
Ellis, the author of CSSB 795, said the bill would close that loophole.
"Allowing criminals to profit from their crime adds insult to injustice," Ellis said. "Under this bill, if you do the crime, you do the time -- and you don't see a dime."
CSSB 795 would create an involuntary trust of the profits derived from the sale of crime memorabilia.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted to send the bill to the full Senate on March 7, after hearing emotional testimony from family members of crime victims. Among the witnesses who testified in support of the bill during the hearing was a woman whose 15-month-old daughter was killed by a nurse. The woman testified she later found letters the nurse had written from prison offered for sale on an Internet site.
Ellis said the sale of crime memorabilia has become more frequent on the Internet, creating a larger market and higher profits for the items.
"I want to see the killers of James Byrd, Jr., in Huntsville, not on eBay," Ellis said. "It is a pretty sad commentary on our society that we even need to pass this law, but we do. This legislation will ensure criminals do not profit from their crimes and victims are not forgotten."
Byrd was an African-American who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck in a 1998 racially motivated killing in East Texas.
House Approves Amended Budget Bill
The House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to approve CSSB 1 with several amendments. CSSB 1 is the General Appropriations Bill for the 2002-2003 biennium.
The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate on March 28. The version approved by the Senate contained a $111.7 billion budget, while the House approved a budget of $109.7 billion. The bill will go to a conference committee to work out the differences.
Redistricting Chair Distributes Working Maps
The Senate Redistricting Committee held a hearing Wednesday to consider two bills and hear invited testimony on state demographics and, although the redistricting process is still under way, the status of lawsuits that have been filed challenging new district lines. Senate Redistricting Committee Chair Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio distributed working Senate district maps based on recommendations made by members of the Senate.
The Legislature is responsible for redrawing the boundaries for Congressional, Texas House, Texas Senate and State Board of Education Districts. It is done every 10 years, following the U.S. Census.
Other Senate News
On Monday, the Senate approved Senate Bill 908. The bill, authored by El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, would require the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to develop and implement the Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) statewide.
PACE is a nationwide program that provides the elderly and their families with an alternative to nursing home care. It is an optional benefit under both Medicare and Medicaid that offers comprehensive medical and social services that can be provided at an adult day health center, in the home, and or at inpatient facilities.
The Senate passed CSSB 1210 on Tuesday. The bill, authored by Dallas Sen. Royce West, would impose stricter regulations on state court clerks and attorneys who receive bonuses and future employment consideration from private law firms.
A measure that would establish a prescription drug assistance program for senior citizens was also approved by the Senate on Tuesday. CSSB 556, authored by Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, would authorize pharmacies to allow Medicare recipients to buy pharmaceutical drugs at the lower Medicaid price.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted today to approve CSSB 1238, a measure authored by Fort Worth Sen. Mike Moncrief that would create a voluntary registry of child-care providers.
The registry would include information such as criminal and educational history and would be available to the public through the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services.
The Senate also voted Wednesday to approve House Bill (HB) 831. The bill would allow the cancellation of an election to fill a vacancy in the Legislature when only one candidate runs and has no opposition.
HB 831was authored by Plano Rep. Jerry Madden and sponsored in the Senate by Florence Shapiro of Plano.
There are 47 days left in the 77th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature. For more information about legislation and the Texas Legislature, please visit www.capitol.state.tx.us.
The Senate stands adjourned until 10 a.m. Tuesday.