Legislative action picked up considerably this week, with a number of important bills passing through committee and several substantive bills filed. Senate Bill 6, the Adult/Child Protective Services (APS/CPS) reform bill, passed the Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday. The bill changes the state's APS/CPS system in a number of ways. It would create a special investigations office at CPS, and require closer co-operation between Protective Services investigators and law enforcement officials. It places emphasis on placing children with relatives rather than foster homes in the event a child must be taken out of an abusive home. SB 6 would also allow some privatization of services related to children in foster care homes, but not when the child is under the protection of the state. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst said he plans to bring the bill to the Senate floor next Tuesday.
Senate Bill 5, by Palestine Senator Todd Staples, came before the State Affairs Committee on Monday. This bill would make a number of changes to the state's workers compensation system. Staples said that injured workers in Texas are not being well served by the state's current workers comp system. "We spend much more on medical care but our workers miss more time from work and are less likely to return to work," said Staples, "Employers pay high premiums but also suffer under poor outcomes." SB 5 would eliminate the current 6-member workers comp commission and replace it with a single commissioner. Staples believes that one commissioner would be more accountable to employers and workers, and also more flexible in dealing with market changes. The bill would create a Texas Department of Workers Compensation that would be charged with working closely with the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services in order to make sure more Texans get back to work more quickly. It would also create compensation networks, similar to health care networks used by businesses today, and decrease the time before an injured worker can begin to receive benefits. The committee took several hours of public testimony on Monday and is expected to consider amendments to the bill in their next meeting.
Tuesday, Greenville Senator Bob Deuell joined with the American Heart Association in calling for improvements to rural health care facilities. Deuell, a licensed physician, filed Senate Bill 310, also called the Texas Stroke Act, which would use state funds to reimburse some of the cost of upgrades to hospital infrastructure and equipment intended to treat strokes. "Many times even health care providers don't realize how important it is to treat early," said Deuell, "When I went to medical school 20-some years ago, it was said there is not much you can do about it. We know now that hospitals with a stroke program can make a big difference."
Also Tuesday, Dallas Senator Royce West and several other Senators joined in requesting more time before the state follows a Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) recommendation to move 2.6 million Medicare cases to managed-HMO style health care. The HHSC says that this change could save about $70 million dollars over the next biennium. West believes, however, that this transfer will cause a greater loss of revenue from federal grants and programs. "We have met with health care and county officials from all over Texas and they are in agreement that the proposed changes could have a drastic negative impact that reaches far beyond the next biennium." Hospitals that use managed care, said West, are not eligible for a number of federal grants, and the state could lose about $150 million over the next two years by implementing the HHSC recommendations. West did not reject the agency's ideas, but said he wants to have more time to analyze the problem and come up with the best solution.
Wednesday, Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson delivered the State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives. He identified certain challenges the state must face in order to improve the states judicial system. First among these is a pay raise for the state's judges. Jefferson said the low compensation the state's jurists receive makes it hard to recruit and keep qualified, knowledgeable judges on the bench. In response, Senator Robert Duncan of Lubbock has filed a bill that would increase financial compensation to state judges. Senate Bill 368 would raise the salary of a Texas district judge from $101,000 to $125,000, and would raise the compensation of Appeals Court and High Court judges by $28,000 and $37,000 respectively. Some sort of pay raise must be passed, says Duncan, or the state could lose its best judges. "If this legislation isn't passed, I think what we'll see is a brain drain from the bench," said Duncan.
Thursday, Senator Royce West held a press conference to reveal the findings of a study intended to determine the extent of racial profiling in the state. The study, conducted by Dr. Dwight Steward, showed that African-Americans and Latinos are up to 50% more likely to be asked for consent of a search of their vehicle during a routine traffic stop. This disparity existed in two-thirds of Texas cities. The study drew data from responses to open records requests from 1,060 law enforcement agencies and jurisdictions from around the state. Senator West said the state needs to determine whether this data demonstrates racial profiling or represents legitimate law enforcement practices. "We must develop legislation that is meaningful as relates to taking the results of the reports to tell us exactly what these results mean, and determine whether we need to enact additional policies in order to remediate the impact of racial profiling," said West.
Also Thursday, Senator Rodney Ellis unveiled legislation that would allow the voters of Texas to decide whether or not the state should legalize limited casino gambling. Senate Joint Resolution 18, also called the Texas Economic Development and Job Creation Act, if approved by voters, would allow up to twelve casinos to be built in Texas. It would also create the Texas Gaming Commission in order to license and regulate casinos. According to Ellis, casino gaming in Texas could create more than 250,000 new jobs and provide nearly a billion dollars in state and local revenue during the three-year construction phase, and nearly three billion a year once the casinos are operational. "The Texas Economic Development and Job Creation Act will create jobs and provide billions each year for state and local governments," said Ellis, "This bill just makes sense. Why should we subsidize Louisiana and Nevada when we can create jobs and boost economic development here at home?" If SJR 18 passed, a local election must be held in each planned casino location so the voters in that area can decide whether or not to allow gambling in their community.
The Senate will reconvene, Monday, February 28th, at 1:30 P.M.