WEEK IN REVIEW
LAWMAKERS FILE LEGISLATION AS SESSION GEARS UP
(AUSTIN) — Though Senate rules prevent legislation from being debated on the Senate floor for the first 60 days of session, Senators aren't wasting any time getting their bills in the parliamentary pipeline. Only bills on the Governor's emergency agenda, or those that get four-fifths approval can be brought to the floor before sixty days, but any bill can get a committee hearing with the chairman's approval.
Among the bills already filed is Senate Bill 1, the base budget bill. This legislation will act as a framework for the final appropriations bill, which sets state priorities for spending and provides the money for essential services.
Lt. Governor David Dewhurst laid out the base budget bill Tuesday, January 22, with the help of Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden and Vice-Chair Judith Zaffirini. Dewhurst wanted to make clear exactly how much of a budget surplus the state has available for the upcoming 2008-2009 biennium. Some media outlets have been reporting the surplus as the full $14.3 billion in new revenue, he said, but the state has obligations for most of that money. "We've got enough money to be able to balance our budget over the next four years, provide for modest increase in our essential services, and still provide the promised local school property tax cuts that we outlined last May, a little over 7 billion dollars in local school property taxes each year for the next four years," said Dewhurst.
After paying back state funds used to balance the budget in past sessions, debt service on bonds, Medicaid expense increases, new education reforms, and the cost of lowering property taxes from $1.50 per $100 valuation to $1, Dewhurst said the budget surplus will be about $2.5 billion. He said lawmakers will have to decide how to spend that new money, with competition among higher education, prison construction, border security, and others.
Senator Rodney Ellis filed a bill Wednesday that he says would pressure the Sudanese government to stop the genocide being committed in the Darfur region of that country. Senate Bill 247, the "Stop Darfur Genocide Act" would prohibit state pension funds, notably the Teachers and Employees Retirement System funds, from investing in companies that do business with the Sudanese government, and require them to divest funds already invested with these companies. Ellis said that economic pressure is the best way for Texas to affect the domestic policy of the Sudan. "This targeted disinvestment approach will maximize the impact to the Sudanese government, while minimizing harms to the Sudanese citizens and investment returns," said Ellis.
Also filed Wednesday was a bill that puts single, first-time mothers in contact with qualified nurses to teach them to be better parents. Senate Bill 156, filed by Plano Senator Florence Shapiro, would expand the Nurse/Family Partnership initiative (NFP) from a pilot program in Dallas to 11 other urban areas in Texas. NFP provides in-home counseling and training to mothers from pregnancy up to two years after birth. House sponsor Representative Jerry Madden, who chairs the Corrections Committee, said this preventative program is among the most successful ever in reducing future crime and increasing the quality of life among participants. "The Nurse/Family Partnership has demonstrated consistent, quantifiable outcomes that are verifiable through multiple randomized tests with the first populations [in NFP]. It works everywhere," he said.
Shapiro pointed out that this program offers a good return on investment for Texas. She cited a Rand Corporation study that showed that for every dollar invested in NFP, communities reap $5.70 in social benefits, from increased productivity to decreased crime and learning impairment. "I have always believed in evidence based prevention programs," she said, "I believe in the long-term effects of a long-term initiative that will truly save dollars, not just talk about it, and we've seen the evidence that goes along with it."
It was announced Monday that Houston Senator and Senate President Pro Tempore Mario Gallegos underwent a liver transplant over the weekend. Close friend and colleague Senator John Whitmire said he visited Gallegos, and that the senator was alert, conscious, and optimistic about his prognosis. Lt. Governor Dewhurst said Gallegos told him he could be back to work in Austin in a few weeks.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, January 29, at 1:30 p.m.