WEEK IN REVIEW
(AUSTIN) — The Senate approved its version of the state budget on Wednesday, passing a bill that would spend $182 billion over the next two years. This biennial budget is a seven percent increase over 2008-2009, but nearly half that growth is attributable to federal stimulus money. Actual state spending grows only about two percent per year over the next biennium, a fact Lt. Governor David Dewhurst says shows the Senate's commitment to fiscal responsibility. "When families all around the state of Texas are tightening the belt," he said, "they know that, at least in the Legislature, our members are trying to do everything we can for people that are suffering."
The Senate budget includes more money for higher education, including $134 million for student financial aid. Health and human services funding is up over last biennium, with $3.1 billion going to reduce waiting lists for state entitlement services. Most of the federal stimulus money for Texas would be spent on infrastructure construction, as well as $500 million for workforce development and re-training. Once House budget writers finish their version of the appropriations bill, members of both chambers will come together to formulate a final state budget, which should come up for a vote sometime in May.
The Senate passed two measures this week aimed at curbing drunk driving in Texas. The first bill, SB 261 by Greenville Senator Bob Deuell, would expand the circumstances under which a drunk driving suspect would be compelled to take a breath or blood test. Suspects couldn't refuse to give a sample if they have one prior felony intoxication conviction or two prior DWI convictions. They would also have to give a sample if they were pulled over while driving with a child in the car, or caused an accident that sends someone to the hospital.
The other bill, SB 298 by Senator John Carona of Dallas, would permit the use of drunk driving checkpoints in urban counties. These checkpoints must be advertised prior to implementation in a newspaper or on the Internet, and cannot last longer than four hours. Locations must be determined based on prevalence of drunk driving, and not ethnic or socio-economic factors. A checkpoint could be set up at a given location only once a year, and a driver would be asked to show a driver's license and insurance card only if there is a reasonable suspicion of drunk driving. Both bills now head to the House for further consideration.
In committee action this week, the Senate Business and Commerce Committee looked at a bill aimed at rebuilding the state's catastrophic storm insurance fund. Bill sponsor Senator Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay said that the fund is almost depleted, and if another major hurricane hit the Texas coast, the state could owe as much as $80 billion in insurance payouts. This is because the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA), intended to be the insurer of last resort for coastal property holders, is now virtually the only entity writing insurance in that region. Fraser said this is a consequence of the low premiums offered through TWIA coupled with a lack of reinsurance for private underwriters.
Fraser acknowledged his plan won't be popular with many people, because it asks both insurers and policy holders to help refill the catastrophic insurance fund, but he warned that the state must take action. "Doing nothing is unacceptable. If we do nothing, we run the risk of bankrupting the state of Texas if we have a major storm," he said. His bill, SB 14, would require insurance companies to kick in $400 million to the fund, and would raise windstorm insurance premiums on coastal property owners by at least 20 percent. The bill remains before the committee.
Also in committee this week was a bill intended to expand coverage of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) by creating a buy in program for families currently above the eligibility limit of 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). The bill, SB 841 by Senator Kip Averitt, would create a graduated program that permits buy-in for families that earn up to 300 percent FPL, with the state contribution decreasing and the individual cost increasing as annual income approached that 300 percent level. Averitt believes this will get more children health insurance in Texas. "I think we're going to be able to attract more children who currently don't have health insurance into the Children's Health Insurance Program," said Averitt. The bill would also permit families that make more than 300 percent FPL, about $66,000 for a family of four, to buy insurance through CHIP, though they would have to pay the entire cost of the premium.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 6 at 1:30 p.m.