Week in Review
An initial report presented to the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce on Friday shows that individual insurance company rates could be reduced up to 25%. The Texas Department of Insurance found that the average industry rate increase since January 2000 was 38%, with some consumers seeing increases as high as 200%. According to the report, one reason for the excessive rates is the standard practice of offsetting discounts by charging other policyholders higher rates. The chair of the committee, Horseshoe Bay Senator Troy Fraser, told the press that he is drafting a bill to give the commissioner of insurance the authority to make companies bring rates back down to a level that is commensurate with their losses. The report was required by Senate Bill (SB) 310, which was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry on February 25, 2003, and is based on information from the top twelve non-rate regulated companies that make up almost eighty-three percent of the homeowner's market. A final report is expected by March 28, 2003.
On the topic of credit scoring, Fraser and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst agree on regulating the practice instead of banning it altogether. "If we put sunshine on the issue, then not only do we know what they're doing, but we can assure the public that the practices they are doing are non-discriminatory and are fair in the way that they're used," said Fraser after Thursday's session. He wants to ensure that people with little or no credit, those who have had their credit affected by medical emergencies, and those with disputed credit are not discriminated against. Fraser hopes to have a bill out by Monday, March 17, 2003.
Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst reported on the progress the Senate has made in balancing the budget following Monday's session. Dewhurst announced that the seven percent reduction he had asked agencies to make has resulted in $1.25 billion in savings to go towards the $9.9 billion deficit. He recommended several sources of non-tax revenues as options to fill the gap and said that he will be meeting with Senators from the Finance Committee to discuss these.
After presiding over Wednesday's session, the Lieutenant Governor reported that the state currently has $700 million more than was originally projected by the comptroller and that the monies would go into the fiscal year 2004-05 budget. Dewhurst also presented another recommendation that would save an additional $65 million. He proposed changing the Medicaid eligibility requirement for nursing homes from an income of 225% of the poverty level to 200%, while allowing continued coverage to those people currently eligible. Additionally, Dewhurst announced that the Senate Finance Committee will start the budget mark-up process next week and they hope to have a bill ready by the first week in April.
Corporate Integrity Legislation
Houston Senator Rodney Ellis and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced the filing of a corporate integrity legislative package on Monday. Abbott said that the proposed bills would help to protect the pocketbooks of Texas, ensure corporate responsibility, and hold corporate wrongdoers accountable. The three bills included in Ellis' proposed legislation would:
- create a Corporate Integrity office within the Attorney General's office to assist district and county attorneys in investigating and prosecuting corporate fraud and require a company contracting with the state to report any financial irregularities relating to the contract or the company's financial positions,
- punish unlicensed investment advisors and provide monetary relief for persons who are victimized by prohibited conduct by security firms, and
- allow information sharing among certain agencies related to corporate fraud investigations.
Fighting Identity Theft
Ellis held a press conference at the Capitol Tuesday to present legislation aimed at protecting consumers from identity theft. His proposed legislation includes bills which would allow victims of identity theft to freeze their credit records for a small fee to prevent more credit from being issued, truncate credit card numbers on cash register receipts to four digits, restrict the use of social security numbers as a form of identification, and prohibit business from selling personal information without permission.
Medical Malpractice Regulation
Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, who also held a Capitol press conference on Tuesday, promised to drive down medical malpractice rates, citing what he called the troubling results of a recent poll conducted by the Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (TAOG). According to Dewhurst, the survey reinforces what the legislature has been concerned about for some time--that medical malpractice rates have gone through the ceiling. Frivolous malpractice lawsuits, which end up with a verdict of no merit, are creating a health care access crisis by driving up professional liability insurance premiums so high that doctors can no longer afford to practice in Texas, said the Lieutenant Governor. The TAOG report suggested some possible solutions to the crisis, such as limiting how much a personal injury trial lawyer can receive from a professional liability lawsuit and creating a law to limit awards for pain and suffering.
Bills Passed This Week by the Senate
- SB 40, sponsored by Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini as an effort to fully immunize Texas children, would direct the Texas Department of Health to implement a continuous statewide immunization education campaign.
- SB 94, sponsored by Dallas Senator Royce West, would delay the issuance of a temporary driving permit to a driver cited for DWI by 24 hours to allow the driver time to sober up before legally driving again.
- SB 104, sponsored by Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson, would grant more authority to the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners by providing the financial resources and the statutory authority to quickly and strictly discipline physicians who should not be practicing medicine. The bill passed with eighteen amendments.
- SB 153, sponsored by Zaffirini, would expand the membership, change the name, and extend the expiration date of the Voucher Payment Program Work Group.
- SB 161, sponsored by Nelson, would grant the Texas Department of Health greater enforcement power over certain licensing programs.
- SB 209, sponsored by Dallas Senator John Carona, would expand the law regulating video receiving equipment in cars to include new equipment, such as videocassette players and digital video disc players.
- SB 258, sponsored by West, would allow four-year colleges and universities to waive tuition and fees for the students they enroll that are concurrently in high school.
- SB 346, sponsored by College Station Senator Steve Ogden, would authorize a school district to provide an optional flexible school year program for students who wouls otherwise not be promoted to the next grade level. The bill would also allow a district to reduce the regular school year and teacher service days to create time for specialized programs for at-risk students.
- SB 360, Greenville Senator Bob Deuell's first bill, would include chambers of commerce in the definition of charitable organizations.
- SB 375, the first bill for freshman Senator Tommy Williams of The Woodlands, would allow the Ninth Court of Appeals to meet in the county seat of any county in the district as the court deems necessary.
- SB 439, by Houston Senator Jon Lindsay, would prohibit the use of devices designed to obscure license plates.
- SB 519, sponsored by Senator Robert Duncan of Lubbock , would change language in the Health and Safety Code to facilitate the sharing of health information among agencies.
- SB 520, also by Duncan, would remove Upton County from the 83rd Judicial District.
- SB 578, by Addison Senator Florence Shapiro, would require the principals of schools that participate in the Advanced Placement program to assemble a team of teachers to determine the use of funds awarded by the program.
Nominations Confirmed by the Senate on March 13, 2003
Jerry Kane, Nueces County
Larry Robert Leibrock, Travis County
Mourice Adam Mahmood, El Paso County
Cliff Mountain, Travis County
William L. Transier, Harris County
Catherine Bernell Estrada, Dallas County
Arthur E. Hernandez, Bexar County
Michael D. Nogueira, Gillespie County
Jess Ann Thomason, Midland County
Stephen Kurt Fryar, Brown County
Patsy Lou Reed Guest, Dallas County
Woodrow Michael Brimberry, Williamson County
Doyle High, Haskell County
Paul V. Loeffler, Brewster County
Maxie L. Patterson, Harris County
Jimmie Lee Mason, Lubbock County
Patricia L. Starck, Fort Bend County
David A. Valdez, Bexar County
Donald Matthew Lynch, Bell County
Bruce A. Scudday, El Paso County
Willie McGee, Hale County
Julia Ann Stokes, Tarrant County
Gilberto Aguirre, Bexar County
Richard Robert Gibbs, Dallas County
Thomas Franklin Kennedy, Nolan County
Malinda Miller, Tarrant County
Frank D. Sandoval, Bexar County
Susan K. Tripplehorn, Gray County
Roger J. Benavides, Bexar County
Frank G. Elder, Bexar County
Ross Fischer, Kendall County
Victor M. Gonzalez, Travis County
Alex John Gonzalez, Pecos County
Charles J. Henry, Harris County
Aurora F. LeBrun, Hays County
John Ryan Miri, Travis County
Pamela K. Quinn, Dallas County
Thomas J. Ruiz, El Paso County
Gary Lee Thompson, Travis County
Lee H. Zieben, Harris County
Burnis Brazil, Fort Bend County
William B. Brod, Hood County
Kathy C. Flanagan, Harris County
Jeffrey R. LaBroski, Fort Bend County