Senate Unanimously Approves Government Reorganization and Savings Bill
Austin - Legislation that would contribute more than $320 million toward the $9.9 billion shortfall in next biennium's budget was approved by the unanimous vote of the Senate today. The Committee Substitute to Senate Bill (CSSB) 1952, by Houston Senator Rodney Ellis, is an omnibus Government Reorganization bill that includes a diversity of cost-saving items.
The most significant revenue contribution included in the bill comes from ensuring that used car sales taxes are based on the value of the car. This provision would bring an additional $172 million to the General Revenue fund (GR) for the next 2 years.
The state would save $90.9 million in GR for 2004-05 by the provision in CSSB 1952 that changes the membership period for new employees entering the Early Retirement System and Teachers' Retirement System. The bill would require that employees not receive benefits of ERS and TRS until the 91st. day of employment.
Additionally, reducing manager-to-staff ratios and office space per employee in state agencies would net $20.1 million in GR for the upcoming biennium.
Another provision in the bill calls for increasing licensing fees for Landscape Architects, Interior Designers, Land Surveyors, and Property Tax Consultants. Such increases would generate $3.6 million for the state's GR.
CSSB 1952 also contains several bills that have passed in the Senate, but Ellis said may face difficulty in the House.
The Senate debated the sixty-five proposed amendments for approximately five hours. The approved amendments covered a motley range of topics, from sex offenders to cactus and identity theft to landfills.
Ellis introduced an amendment that would reorganize and transfer the functions of several state agencies. The Texas Legislative Council would be abolished and it's functions transferred to the Legislative Information Services Board under the amendment. The board would consist of the Lieutenant Governor, the Speaker of the House, as well as six Senators and six Representatives.
The amendment also calls for the transfer of financial audit functions from the State Auditor to the Legislative Budget Board.
Ellis said the amendment would also create a Performance Review Commission, which would consist of the Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House, three Senators, and three Representatives. The commission would conduct performance and efficiency audits of all departments, including higher education. It takes over the function of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is abolished under the amendment.
Another amendment presented by the author more strictly defines political advertising to mean communication that advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate by containing specific words. The amendment also requires political advertisements to disclose that it is a political ad and include the full name of the person, committee, or candidate who paid for, authorized and supported the ad.
Another amendment would generate approximately $3 million in additional savings by moving up the effective date for changing the manager-to-employee ratio in certain state agencies.
Non-profit and charitable organizations could apply to use certain parking garages in downtown Austin under an amendment by Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos.
Also passed by the Senate today by a voice vote was a measure that would allow a person who harms or kills an unborn child to be prosecuted under the Penal Code and sued by the unborn child's parents. Senate Bill (SB) 319, authored by Victoria Senator Ken Armbrister, makes exemptions for the following cases: if the death is a result of a legal medical procedure carried out by a health provider, the result of a legal drug dispensation or administration, or the result of an action by the mother.
Under the bill, the definition of an individual would be extended to include an unborn child at every stage of gestation from fertilization until birth. Death would be redefined as the failure to be born alive in the case of an individual who is an unborn child.
In budget news, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst said that the House has agreed to the Senate's proposal to keep eligibility for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program at 200 percent of the poverty level. The House also agreed to appropriate $500 million more for higher education, according to Dewhurst.
He is optimistic that the Conference Committee on the appropriations bill, HB 1, will have the state's 2004-05 budget ready by the weekend.
The Senate will reconvene Friday, May 23, 2003, at 11:00 a.m.