WEEK IN REVIEW:
SENATORS LOOK AT HURRICANE IMPACT ON SCHOOLS
(AUSTIN) — Hurricane Ike will cost Gulf Coast school districts hundreds of millions of dollars to repair and rebuild facilities damaged or destroyed by the September storms, according to testimony offered to the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. Texas Education Agency official Dr. Ray Glenn estimated the total cost for these schools at about $300 million to recover from the hurricane. He said of the 7,900 students displaced by the storm, about 6,900 still have not returned to their home districts. Some schools missed as many as 21 days of instruction, while officials tried to restore power and services to communities.
Arnold Proctor, an assistant superintendent at Galveston ISD, testified that Chapter 41 relief would be a great help to property-rich districts like his. He estimated repair and rebuilding costs for his district at $65 million, but the district will still be expected to give money back to the state under district equity laws. Committee Chair Senator Florence Shapiro of Plano said that did not make much sense. "The idea that you would be giving money away, during this time that you're trying to get money to build, almost seems incongruous," she said. "You've got to utilize other dollars, and you're giving dollars away." The committee will continue to look at ways to help districts impacted by Hurricane Ike throughout the session.
Senator Craig Estes filed a bill Tuesday to reform the process of eminent domain, where private land is taken by the government for public interest. Senate Bill 18 would clearly define terms of public use and fair compensation, and would direct the Comptroller to review which entities have eminent domain authority. Estes said this is an issue that must be resolved soon. "When we have this necessary evil of eminent domain," he said, "make sure that the property that is taken is for the public good."
Wednesday, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson spoke before a joint session of the Legislature, encouraging them to reform the way the state chooses its judges. Jefferson delivered his biannual State of the Judiciary address, where he advises lawmakers on necessary legislation relating to the judicial branch. This year, he wants legislators to move away from judicial elections, and use a merit-based appointment system. Jefferson said that 80 percent of Texans believe that judges are influenced in their rulings by campaign contributions. " If the public believes that judges are biased toward contributors, confidence in the courts surely will suffer," said Jefferson.
Also Wednesday, Houston Senator Dan Patrick spoke in favor of a conservative fiscal policy as the Senate looks to ride its budget. Patrick advocated a cap on increased spending, linked to population growth and inflation, or growth in personal income, whichever is least. He praised past Legislatures for keeping conservative fiscal policies, saying this was why Texas finds itself in a stronger economic position relative to other states, and should continue this trend. "It's very important that we get control of spending as we move forward," said Patrick. "This is not a time for government to spend one penny more than needs to be spent."
The Senate Finance Committee continued budget work throughout the week and took two days of public testimony relating to health and human services allocations Thursday and Friday. Hundreds of citizens signed up to testify about the need for more funding for services ranging from disabled care, mental health and state schools. The Finance Committee will begin hearings on funding for the courts, natural resources and general government next week.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, February 17, 2009.