Senate Approves Final 2002-2003 Budget Bill
WEEK IN REVIEW
AUSTIN - The Senate unanimously voted Thursday to approve a $113.8 billion state budget for the 2002-2003 biennium, an 11.6 percent increase over the 2000-2001 figure.
Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis said the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 1, the General Appropriations Bill that contains the budget, takes into account essential appropriations needs.
"Four priorities were laid out by the members of the Senate, not necessarily in this order, but four key priorities were given to the Finance Committee and the conference committee members," said Ellis, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, "health and human services, state employee pay, public education and school employee health insurance, and higher education, particularly our commitment to the TEXAS Grant program."
Health and human services programs receive an appropriation of more than $34.9 billion, or 30.8 percent of the budget. The money will go to funding services such as Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and maintaining current services.
The budget includes a 4 percent or $100 minimum raise for all state employees and non-faculty higher education employees who have at least one year of service. The budget also makes an appropriation of $78.4 million for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to continue pay increases.
Public education accounts for $23.2 billion of the budget, including dedicated funding for a public school teacher and employee health insurance plan. The allotment also provides for increases in public school facilities funding.
The budget dedicates $13.4 billion to higher education, including $71.7 million to fund enrollment increases, $33.7 million for research and $110.6 million earmarked for health-related institutions. The TEXAS Grant program will be expanded from 11,000 grants to almost 100,000.
Funding for the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Workforce Commission is also increased.
"This budget meets the basic needs of a growing Texas while making significant investments in our families," Ellis said. "We have made a strong down payment for Texas' future."
Senate Votes Passage of Indoor Air Quality Improvement Bill
A measure was passed by the Senate on Wednesday aimed at improving air quality inside government buildings, but an amendment that would have required schools to more closely monitor classroom air quality was narrowly defeated.
House Bill (HB) 2008 would direct the Texas Board of Health to establish voluntary air-quality guidelines in all buildings owned or leased by a government agency.
"Currently, we have a problem with indoor pollutants," said Fort Worth Sen. Mike Moncrief, the sponsor of HB 2008. "They include toxic forms of mold."
Moncrief is the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh offered an amendment that would have put more stringent air-quality monitoring requirements on school districts. Shapleigh said the amendment would require schools that have had a "major event," such as a fire or a flood, to perform an assessment of air quality and make the report available to the public. Shapleigh put the cost to the school for each assessment at $1,000 to $2,000.
Amarillo Sen. Teel Bivins, the chair of the Education Committee, spoke against the amendment, saying it was contrary to local control by school districts.
"Under this amendment, they would be subject to the mandates of bureaucrats in Austin, and I frankly think that this is help these school districts do not need," Bivins said.
Houston Sen. Mario Gallegos also voiced opposition to the amendment, saying that although it was a good idea, the cost would be a heavy burden for large school districts.
The bill was easily approved, although the Shapleigh amendment was defeated by a 14-14 vote. Adoption of an amendment requires a majority vote.
Senate Votes to Improve Contraceptive Insurance Coverage
The Senate on Tuesday voted to approve a measure that would make more types of prescription contraceptives available under health benefit plans.
HB 2382, sponsored by San Antonio Sen. Jeff Wentworth, would require insurance providers to offer coverage for contraceptive drugs and devices equivalent to what is available for other prescription drugs.
"This bill is about contraceptive equity." Wentworth said.
Current regulations prohibit an insurer that covers all other prescriptions from denying coverage for oral contraceptives. HB 2382 would expand that to include all types of prescription contraceptives.
Insurers have not opposed the bill because better access to contraception would save them higher costs of paying for pregnancies later, Wentworth said.
HB 2382 would exempt religious-based plans that have a moral opposition to providing birth control. The bill would not provide for coverage of any drugs that terminate a pregnancy.
Bryan Sen. Steve Ogden voiced his opposition to HB 2382, arguing that the bill would create an unfunded mandate that insurance companies expand their coverage.
"There's no question in my mind that by continuing to tell health insurance plans that you have to cover this, and you have to cover that, you're going to drive up the cost of insurance," Ogden said.
Ogden also said he was against the bill because it is so broadly written. He added that HB 2382 should allow consumers who have a moral opposition to contraception to opt into a lower-priced plan that doesn't provide for contraceptive coverage.
Senate Approves Tougher Animal-Cruelty Laws
The Senate passed a measure Monday that would create stiffer penalties for animal cruelty.
Dallas Sen. David Cain, the sponsor of HB 653 and the author of a companion bill in the Senate, said the legislation was prompted in part by an incident in Dallas in which a puppy's eyes were intentionally gouged out.
"This bill is designed to deter the crime of cruelty against animals," Cain said. "It attempts to accomplish this by changing the penal code to increase the penalties for crimes such as torturing or injuring an animal."
HB 653 would make animal cruelty a felony offense and minors who are convicted would have to undergo psychological counseling. Under current law, animal cruelty is a misdemeanor. The bill applies only to domestic, non-livestock animals, so activities such as hunting, fishing and rodeos would not be affected.
Senate OKs Portable Healthcare Study
The Senate gave approval Wednesday to the idea of exploring the idea of a portable migrant healthcare network.
HB 1537 "directs the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) to conduct a study and, if feasible, implement a pilot program that will address the provision of healthcare services to migrant children when they are out of Texas," said Moncrief, the sponsor of the bill.
The study would look at contracting with existing healthcare provider networks in Texas and other states to provide portable Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage. The funding for the study and pilot program, approximately $450,000, would come out of the HHSC budget. Moncrief said the idea makes financial sense, because the children often return to Texas with health problems that could have been prevented with better access to care.
Bill Would Create Larger DNA Database
On Monday, the Senate passed a measure sponsored by La Porte Sen. Mike Jackson that would help create a larger database of DNA information for use in law enforcement.
HB 588 would allow police to obtain a DNA sample from people convicted of a wide range of offenses. Current law allows for the collection of a DNA specimen from those convicted of several types of felonies, including rape and indecency with a child. Under the bill, any adult convicted of a felony and any minor guilty of a felony-grade juvenile offense to submit a blood sample for DNA purposes.
Senate Focuses on University Funding Formula
The Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would create a funding formula for state universities receiving Texas Excellence Fund money.
The Committee Substitute for House Bill (CSHB) 1839, sponsored by Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis, is intended to raise the academic quality of state universities. Under the bill, the universities would use much of the money to fund research and post-graduate course work. CSHB 1839 allocates approximately $68 million each biennium to be divided among the participating universities. The funding figure is subject to review each biennium.
Other Senate News
The Senate adopted a resolution Thursday sponsored by Moncrief honoring the contributions of Dr. Patricia R. Cole, a longtime advocate for women's and family health issues. Cole was former Gov. Ann Richards' health and human services policy director and has represented the Communities in Schools program and the Texas Council on Family Violence.
The Senate took a step Wednesday to address a teacher shortage in Texas by approving HB 1721. The bill would allow the State Board for Educator Certification to issue a teacher's certificate to teachers who hold certification from another state.
HB 1721 was sponsored by San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van de Putte.
On Monday, the Senate approved HB 2522, a measure sponsored by Victoria Sen. Ken Armbrister that would direct the Texas Department of Transportation to establish a state airport in Central Texas that would also be available for non-commercial public use.
The former Robert Mueller Airport in Austin was excluded as a possible site under HB 588.
Drivers would have to comply with stricter emissions requirements under HB 2134, which was passed by the Senate on Tuesday.
Lake Jackson Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, the sponsor of HB 2134 and the chair of the Natural Resources Committee, said the measure was necessary to meet new Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission regulations. The new regulations require auto emissions to be reduced by more than 90 percent to comply with federal law.
In Wednesday's session, the Senate approved HB 2914, a bill based on recommendations from the Comptroller of Public Accounts' office intended to streamline the agency's handling of the state's fiscal business. The bill, sponsored by Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, addresses a variety of the agency's tasks, ranging from collection of delinquent taxes to financial reporting by other state agencies.
The Senate will work through the weekend before adjourning sine die (Latin for "without another day") on Monday. An overview of Senate news for the entire session will follow after adjournment sine die.
For more information about legislation and the Texas Legislature, please visit www.capitol.state.tx.us.