Thursday, the Senate passed sweeping Adult and Child Protective Services (APS/CPS) reform in the form of Senate Bill 6. This issue was identified by Governor Rick Perry as an emergency issue for the 79th Legislature following a number of reports of children and seniors dying due to neglect or abuse. Senator Jane Nelson, chair of the Health and Human Services committee, led the effort to identify and correct the problems present in the state's APS/CPS system. "I can't think of any issue facing us this session that is more vital to protecting the lives of our most vulnerable Texans, our children and our elderly" said Nelson, "If we as a state can't do that job properly, then shame on us."
Testimony to the Health and Human Services committee revealed that the major problem facing APS/CPS system is crushing caseloads for the agency's case workers. For CPS, the average worker's caseload is about 74 cases, far above the recommended level. Senate Bill 6 seeks to reduce caseloads by making it illegal to maliciously file a child abuse report to CPS. Nelson said that the agency gets hundreds of such filings a year, which only adds to the already overwhelming burden faced by caseworkers. Since agency budgets and therefore the number of employees are determined by the Senate Finance Committee's appropriations bill, SB 6 cannot directly increase the number of caseworkers, but the bill does strongly advocate additional hirings. The legislation would also create a community-based intervention program to deal with moderate abuse cases and prevent these cases from increasing in severity.
SB 6 would create a special investigations department to work closely with state and local law enforcement agencies in cases involving criminal child abuse. It would also encourage placement of children with relatives rather than foster parents, and would privatize the foster care system. The bill would also create a pilot program to analyze the cost and effectiveness of privatizing case work.
For APS, the bill would put authority to determine guardianship in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court, and would make the State the guardian of last resort should no other suitable guardian exist. It emphasizes more training for caseworkers, and teach workers to better identify the signs of dementia and mental incapacity.
The Senate State Affairs committee continued its work on Senate Bill 5, which seeks to reform the state's workers compensation system. According to the bill's author, Palestine Senator Todd Staples, the state pays far too much for its workers comp system without seeing satisfactory results. SB 5 would dissolve the current 6-member workers comp commission and form the Texas Department of Workers Compensation (TDWC) headed by a single commissioner. The bill would also create a network workers comp system similar to group health care used by private businesses to reduce the cost of workers comp while increasing accessibility. Changes made to the bill in committee better define what criteria determine the qualifications of the TDWC commissioner. Further changes require that a doctor advising TDWC on issues related to an injured worker, such as the degree of an injury, not be employed by a workers comp network.
Tuesday, Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston held a press conference to applaud the decision of the US Supreme Court declaring executions of individuals under the age of 18 convicted of a capital crime unconstitutional. Texas currently has 29 such individuals on death row. "I support the death penalty, but I think we should implement it a little more fairly," said Ellis, "I've always felt that if someone isn't considered mature enough to vote, they shouldn't be considered mature enough to be put to death." Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1972, Texas has executed 13 inmates convicted before they turned 18.
Thursday, Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio announced the filing of a bill that would put a student on the board of regents of all public universities in Texas. Senate Bill 934 would allow a currently enrolled student to serve a 2-year term as regent following appointment by the Governor and approval by the Senate. For the first year of the term, the student regent would serve as a non-voting member of the board, but would have full voting privileges in the second year. "Regents usually haven't been in college for several decades prior to being named by the Governor," said Wentworth, "A student on a board of regents will provide a valuable perspective from the students' point of view about current issues of concern to students." Among these concerns, said Wentworth, is the rising cost of tuition. Last session, legislation granted authority to raise tuition to boards of regents rather than the Legislature. Allowing regents to raise tuition for students without some sort of input from the student body amounts to "a form of taxation without representation," according to Wentworth.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 7, at 1:30 P.M.