On Tuesday, the Senate passed workers comp reform with Senate Bill 5. "High workers comp costs, some 20 to 25 percent higher than the rest of the nation, is unacceptable, because higher workers comp costs mean fewer jobs," said Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who has highlighted workers comp reform as one of his top priorities this session. An interim committee study of the workers compensation system in Texas revealed a number of shortcomings. One of the major problems with the system is that the state pays more for workers comp claims than do most states, while injured workers stay off the job longer, and report less satisfaction with treatment. Also identified was a large decrease in the number of doctors willing to participate in workers comp, making it harder for injured workers to find treatment. Senate Bill 5, authored by Palestine Senator Todd Staples, makes several changes to the state's beleaguered workers comp system. Probably the most significant change is the creation of a network treatment system, administered by the Texas Department of Insurance, similar to the group health care system used by many businesses. One difference is that injured workers who participate in the new network system, would not have to pay deductibles or premiums for treatment. The bill seeks to bring more doctors back into the system by promising prompt payment for services rendered, even if an injury is later determined to be non-compensable. SB 5 aims to increase patient satisfaction with the system by using evidence-based treatment guidelines to offer more effective care, and mandates better cooperation between state agencies that deal with workers comp issues. The legislation would also eliminate the current six-member commission that oversees the state's workers comp system, and replaces it with the Texas Workers Compensation Commission, led by a single commissioner. A single commissioner, said Staples, will be more accountable to injured workers, doctors and business, and would be better able to respond to market changes. "Our goal from day number one was to ensure that injured workers receive the type of care that they deserve," added Staples, "This bill will give injured workers the care they're entitled to."
With workers comp reform on its way to the House, the Senate will now focus on the public education finance issue. The challenge for the Legislature will be to find a way to increase funding to public education while reducing state property taxes, which make up a large part of the revenue used to finance public schools. Wednesday, the Lieutenant Governor joined with several key Senators to lay out the Senate agenda for fixing the school finance problem. The Senate plan calls for an increase in school funding of $6.7 billion over the next biennium. Reforms to the public education system will focus on preparing students for post-secondary education. "Our goal for the students is to provide all students in Texas with an education that prepares them for the 21st century," said Senator Florence Shapiro, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. The Senate plans to implement measures to move more high school students on to college or trade school, through increased accountability standards and reduced drop out rates.
Also in the Senate plan is more money for teachers, in the form of performance-based incentives and a pay raise to bring Texas teacher salaries up to the national average. The Senate also intends to put more money into school facilities, textbooks, bilingual education and programs that target at-risk students. The Senate plan will attempt to accomplish all of this while reducing property taxes by a third. Local property taxes, currently set at about $1.50 per $100 valuation, would be eliminated, replaced by a state-wide property tax of $1.00 per $100. In order to make up the difference in revenue, the Senate plan would close the franchise tax loophole that currently excludes most service-based business. Local districts would also be permitted to levy an additional 15 cents per $100 property tax, if approved by local voters. Increases in cigarette, alcohol, and motor vehicle taxes will also be considered. "Our tax system in Texas cries out for reform," said Ogden, "It is antiquated. It is out of touch with the 21st century economy." Ogden added that he expects the Finance Committee to vote out the funding side of the reform legislation in the first week of May. Another component of property tax relief is a Senate Bill 1349, filed by Galveston Senator Kyle Janek, which would lower the appraisal cap in Texas. Currently, the appraisal cap is set at a 10 percent increase per year. SB 1349 would reduce that cap to 5 percent, but would allow local governments to opt out and keep the 10 percent cap if approved by the local governing body.
Tuesday, the Senate Criminal Justice committee passed and sent to the full Senate SB 60, which would give jurors the option of sentencing a murderer to life in prison without parole. Currently in Texas, jurors in capital crime cases have only two choices for sentences: the death penalty, or life in prison with possibility of parole after 40 years. Senator Eddie Lucio, who is carrying SB 60, says these options are not enough. "I have felt, and continue to feel, that in order to strengthen our criminal justice system, and to better safeguard our neighborhoods, from violent offenders, who have proven they cannot live among us, we need the sentence of life without parole available to juries," said Lucio. He pointed out the recent Supreme ruling banning executions of juvenile offenders. Lucio said that the 29 such inmates on Texas death row who had their sentences commuted to life would not be eligible for parole in 40 years if Texas had a life without parole option. Lucio added that jurors need to be assured that someone sentenced to life in prison will never be eligible for release.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 21st, at 1:30 P.M.