GOVERNOR LAYS OUT HIS AGENDA FOR SESSION; BILLS FILED TO INCREASE COMPETITION AMONG UTILITIES
(AUSTIN) — Governor Rick Perry spoke before a joint session of the Legislature Tuesday, identifying his priorities for the 80th Legislative Session. His bi-annual State of the State address highlighted health care, education and economic issues facing Texas, and proposed a number of initiatives that he said will help low-income and disadvantaged Texans achieve prosperity. Perry also asked lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to come together and put party differences behind them. "Before us is a unique opportunity to address great challenges," he said. "We can either dissolve into partisan disputes that leave Texas no better off for the 140 days that we are here, or we can join together in a spirit of bipartisan unity for causes greater than self - greater than political party."
Perry outlined three major initiatives: a $2.7 billion indigent health care fund, $3 billion for cancer research, and an $8 billion dollar education endowment that would put $800 million each year toward public education. The money for these programs would come from a sale of the state lottery to a private company, which would bring about $14 billion, he said.
Senate leaders were skeptical about selling the lottery. Proceeds from the state lottery add a little more than an billion dollars to the education budget each year. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst wondered how the state would make up that money. "One of my initial concerns is, that if the numbers that were mentioned this morning, $8 billion in a trust fund for public education, depending upon the rate of return, you could be some where between a billion or a billion and a half short each biennium," said Dewhurst. "That money would have to come from general revenue." Dewhurst said the Legislature would have to look carefully at the pros and cons of a lottery sale before a final deal could be made.
Another one of the Governor's initiatives caused controversy this week. Last Friday, Perry signed an executive order that would require all girls to receive the human papillomavirus vaccination (HPV) as part of their public school immunization requirements. HPV has been implicated as a major cause of cervical cancer in women. Some legislators say, however, that Perry is working outside the usual legislative process. Lewisville Senator Jane Nelson held a press conference Monday calling for the Governor to rescind his order, and allow the deliberative process to decide whether the HPV vaccine should be mandated. "We're moving way too fast," said Nelson. "I would ask, very respectfully, our Governor to reconsider. This is something that we need to take time discussing, getting answers to, how we're going to pay for it." Nelson chairs the Senate Health and Human Committee, where it is likely any vaccination requirement bill would be first considered.
Some Texans could see lower electricity costs if four bills filed Wednesday in both houses of the Legislature become law. The state deregulated the energy market in Texas in 1999, which led to lower utility costs for the industrial and commercial markets. But soaring natural gas costs last year led to higher electric bills for many residential customers. With energy production costs coming down in past months, lawmakers expected to see residential energy bills decrease as well. This has not happened everywhere, and Senate Business and Commerce chair Troy Fraser says that's not fair. "If they took the record prices, the highest we've ever seen, they've kept them there even though the cost of natural gas is half of what it was a year ago, and they are still charging those high prices, they're making record profits, yes, their stockholders are happy, but they are doing it at the expense of the people they represent, and I would represent that they're not being fair to the customers that have loyalty to them, and as I said in a public meeting, that's not fair to the public," said Fraser.
Fraser filed four bills that would seek to increase competition in the residential energy market and drive down electricity costs. Senate Bills 482-485 would give the Public Utilities Commission broader powers to judge the reasonableness of electric rates and adjust them if they decide the rates are too high. They would also give the PUC the ability to move some customers to providers with lower rates in some circumstances.
|Senator Jane Nelson speaks about her initiative to increase the physical fitness of Texas school children. She is joined by (L-to-R) former HHS Commissioner Eduardo Sanchez, Senator Bob Deuell, Representative Rob Eissler, fitness advocate Dr. Kenneth Cooper, TEA Commissioner Susan Neely, and Round Rock ISD Superintendent Jesus Chavez.|
Another good way to increase competition in any market, said Fraser, is to increase public awareness of the options customers have when it comes to choosing a provider. His bills will do that, he said. "If there's a cheaper price, we want them to know about it. We're going to do public service announcements, we going to do stuffers in bills; we're going to do ads in the newspapers. We're going to make sure that customers in Texas realize there are good competitive prices, and the reliability of service will be there. We're going to make the competitive model work", said Fraser.
Thursday, February 8th, Health and Human Services Committee Chair Senator Jane Nelson announced the filing of legislation that would increase the rigor of physical education at public schools, as well as commission a study on the state of childhood obesity in Texas. Nelson said that physical fitness is intrinsically tied to other important education issues, such as academic success and discipline. She added that for too long physical fitness has taken a back seat to other educational priorities. "Teaching our students about nutrition and ensuring they get daily exercise is as fundamental as reading, writing and arithmetic," said Nelson. Her bill, Senate Bill 530, would require "moderate or vigorous" daily exercise for grades K-12, and would direct the Texas Education Agency to conduct a physical fitness assessment of the Texas student body twice a year, and report those findings to the Legislature and the public.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, February 12, at 1:30 p.m.