WEEK IN REVIEW
(AUSTIN) — Lawmakers dealt with issues relating to state schools for the developmentally disabled this week, one of Governor Rick Perry's emergency issues for the session. A recently released US Department of Justice report found 250 incidents of abuse and neglect and 53 cases of preventable deaths at the state's 13 state schools in 2007, prompting the emergency designation. This designation means that legislation relating to state school reform can be passed before the 60th day of session. Senators considered two such bills this week.
Senator Jane Nelson, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, held a hearing Tuesday on a bill she filed to increase oversight at Texas state schools. "The abuse and neglect that has occurred in our state schools is inexcusable," said Nelson as she presented the bill. "These are people with serious disabilities; they need our protection, they need our oversight and they need our compassion." Her bill, SB 643, would create an office of ombudsman to act as a liaison between residents and families and administration and would conduct two audits of each state school every year. The bill would require video surveillance in all state school common areas and would implement FBI fingerprint background checks for all employees. Additionally, the Department of Aging and Disability Services would be empowered to conduct random drug tests of employees.
Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston filed a bill that looks for a long term solution for the state schools' woes, one that would require a comprehensive reform plan by the end of 2010. He says Texas often over institutionalizes its clients, putting people in state institutions when they could be better, and more inexpensively, cared for in community or home-based settings. Ellis's bill, SB 1060, would direct the state Health and Human Services Commission to develop a strategy to increase the number of treatment choices and the efficiency of care for the state's developmentally disabled. "It is about providing current residents and family members of current residents with a choice, and giving them every tool possible to be comfortable with that choice," said Ellis. The bill would also require plans to reduce waiting lists, and consolidate and eventually close some of the Texas state schools.
The Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee took a look at the state of the housing market in Texas, hearing testimony that things are not as bad here as in the rest of the country. "Relatively speaking, Texas has been doing very, very well, compared to many of the other big states and particularly to the national level," testified Dr. Jim Gaines, a research economist at Texas A&M's Real Estate Center. Texas was one of only six states to post a slight gain in home values, he said, and during the housing bubble Texas lenders avoided more exotic loan options, like interest-only mortgages. This has let the state weather the housing market collapse relatively well, but he did predict flat or even a slight decrease in home values in 2009.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 2 at 1:30 p.m.