The Senate Finance Committee began work this week on the process of creating a state budget for the 2006-2007 biennium. Testimony on Monday started with the Legislative Budget Board's analysis of the economic growth in Texas since the 78th Legislative Session. The state has seen an increase in sales tax revenue of 7.9% and job growth of 1.8%. These increases, coupled with high oil and gas prices, have created an surplus of approximately $400 million dollars. Tuesday, State Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn testified that if the Legislature appropriates an additional $15 million to her office to aid in additional revenue collection, she can certify an additional $460 million for the upcoming budget.
The committee also heard testimony from Department of Public Safety officials asking for a pay raise for DPS officers. According to DPS Association President Brian Hawthorne, a DPS officer's starting salary is $1500 less than the state average for city police, and a 20-year DPS veteran makes $14,000 less than a city colleague with the same experience. Both Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick came out in support of the pay raise. "We have a problem recruiting today good men and women to serve as officers in the DPS and what we want to do is make sure we not only recruit the best people possible but that we keep them," said Craddick, "The only way to make sure we do keep those people is to offer them a standard of living so they will stay in those jobs and continue to serve the state in the way that they have." Dewhurst said the Senate Finance Committee will work with the DPS to find the funds needed for this pay raise. "In my judgment, the DPS must be our premier law enforcement agency in the state of Texas and an example to the nation," added Dewhurst.
The Senate filed more than 200 pieces of legislation this week, including Senate Bill 6, by Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson, which seeks to reform Adult and Child Protective Services in the state. This issue was proclaimed an emergency issue by the Governor earlier in the session, meaning legislation reforming APS and CPS is eligible to become law within the first sixty days of session. APS and CPS have been beleaguered by high numbers of case loads and high turnover for case workers. "If there was ever an issue that deserves emergency status, this is it," said Nelson, "Lives are in danger and we need a rapid response."
The Health and Human Services Committee, which is chaired by Nelson, heard testimony on SB 6 Thursday. In laying out the bill, Nelson went over many of the reforms proposed by the legislation. Among its provisions, SB 6 would require a closer working relationship between state and local police and APS and CPS case workers. The bill will seek to reduce the number of cases by implementing a rigorous screening process to insure only necessary cases are handled by the state. It also proposes making false abuse reports a state jail felony. The proposed legislation would also take pre-emptive action against abuse cases by creating a Preventative Services Task Force to find the best programs and strategies to prevent abuse. Foster care would also be reformed under SB 6, by placing more children with relatives rather than foster parents, and requiring background checks and drug screenings of foster parents.
Thursday, Houston Senator John Whitmire joined with a number of House and Senate members in calling for an end to the city of Houston's SafeClear plan. The plan was intended to keep the highways around the Houston area free of stalled or broken-down cars by permitting licensed tow truck operators who happen upon disabled vehicles to tow these cars from the sides of roads. This plan came under fire because many motorists were angry that their cars were being towed while they were trying to fix a flat tire or other minor problem. "Maybe the goal was meritorious, but the application, the practical day to day life stories; this just won't work," said Whitmire, "So we urge the city to end it, or we're going to end it for them." Whitmire advocated a motorist assistance program, like the one used by Harris county, where a tow-truck operator or other mechanic will aid a driver in trying to get his or her car working before they tow it away.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, February 7th, at 1:30 P.M.