Tort Reform Dominates End of Session Action at Texas Senate
Austin - Mount Pleasant Senator Bill Ratliff declared today that the legislature is one step closer to solving the medical malpractice insurance crisis in the state. At a Capitol press conference today, Ratliff announced that the Senate and House are reaching agreement concerning the liability limits set in the two versions of House Bill (HB) 4.
Ratliff said that he had met with different groups on all sides of the medical malpractice lawsuit issue. The groups that he presented his proposal to have agreed to support it, he said.
Under Ratliff's proposal, there would be a hard $250,000 cap per claimant on doctors. A claimant is defined as the injured person and all related parties. The bill would also allow for a $500,000 liability cap for health care institutions, with an overall cap of $750,000 per cause of action on non-economic damages.
Raliff said that he will attempt to sell his proposal to the Senate and that he is prepared to hold a conference committee to work out the remaining details of the bill if the arrangement is endorsed.
Yesterday, the Senate ignored the clock and continued the session an hour past the midnight deadline after which no bills can be passed. Most of the measures during the last hour were uncontested bills of local interest.
Around midnight, Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos asked Victoria Senator Ken Armbrister, who was presiding over the Senate, what time it was. Armbrister looked at his watch and said that it was about twenty 'till 12 a.m.
When asked again a half hour later, Armbrister replied that his watch said it was ten 'till and joked that it was a Timex watch from Wal-Mart that didn't quite work right.
Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst made the comment that the clock in the front of the chamber had the wrong time and finally, a half hour later, announced that the president's desk was clear, allowing the legislators to go home for the night.
Several important pieces of legislation were passed during yesterday's session.
One was the highly publicized ethics reform bill by Houston Senator Rodney Ellis. Ellis said that he had met with many of the Senators to reach a consensus with the Committee Substitute to House Bill (CSHB) 1606.
The bill deals with the review and authority of the Texas Ethics Commission. CSHB 1606 would require the commission to post on the Internet the name and address of candidates who have not paid civil penalties for failure to file required reports. It also removes the informal hearing stage to streamline the complaint process. The commission would be allowed to subpoena documents and witnesses related to a sworn complaint at the preliminary review stage under the bill.
Among the campaign finance provisions of CSHB 1606 is the extension of the ban on political contributions through the governor's veto period, which ends twenty days after adjournment of the legislature. The bill also increases the civil penalty for late filing of financial disclosure reports from $100 to $1,000 and requires more disclosure of contributor information in the reports.
The bill would also require a legislator to file a notice with the House or Senate before introducing or sponsoring a measure if the member's close relative is a lobbyist for the subject matter of the measure. Additionally, members of the legislature would be prohibited under most circumstances from representing another person for compensation before a state agency.
The first amendment to the bill brings the political advertising statute into compliance with the Court of Criminal Appeals' recent decision that ruled it unconstitutional.
Many expected Senator Barrientos to filibuster a piece of legislation by Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson that calls for a massive reorganization of the state's health and human service agencies.
Barrientos announced that he would not continuously debate the bill until the midnight deadline because he did not want to kill some of the other legislation that needed to be heard. Instead, he said that he would vote his conscience on CSHB 2292. Barrientos said that this bill (CSHB 2922) is not the way to balance the budget because it does so on the backs of the employees of the State of Texas and those that most need help.
CSHB 2292 is expected to save the state approximately $1 billion dollars by reducing the fourteen health and human service agencies down to four, which Nelson said will eliminate unnecessary duplication and allow the agencies to focus on core responsibilities.
More than fifty amendments were proposed to CSHB 2292, including a failed attempt by Houston Senator Mario Gallegos to increase the cigarette tax by a dollar.
Finally, last night saw final approval of the omnibus transportation bill by Bryan Senator Steve Ogden. HB 3588 adds money for highway construction and other transportation issues, while creating a system where Texans who get multiple traffic tickets would be paying increased fines into a fund that would help fund emergency trauma care at Texas hospitals.
In today's floor action, the Senate spent the day receiving messages from the House and accepting or rejecting Senate bills that had come back from the House with amendments.
The Senate will reconvene Friday, May 30, 2003.