AUSTIN - Texas voters will have a chance to improve Texas highways hit hard by free trade traffic, if they approve a proposed constitutional amendment passed by the Senate today. The Committee Substitute for Senate Joint Resolution (CSSJR) 45 allows highway improvements in areas of the state affected by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), particularly the Border area, to be funded by state bonds. Many senators agreed that the increased trade spawned by NAFTA has strained transportation along the Border but argued about the best way to pay for it.
Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. says using bonds will speed up improvements along the Rio Grande, "This one is the one that makes it possible for everything else to work, to fall into place. Without this infrastructure, without these monies being made available as a resource to the Texas Department of Transportation they cannot and they will not address those projects direly needed along the Border."
The state currently uses bonds as a finance mechanism, but not for transportation. The type of bond in this legislation allows states to use federal funds to help pay for bond costs. But Dallas Senator David Cain says Texas should stick with the 'pay as you go' method, "I sincerely believe from the bottom of my heart that the conservative position in this matter and the right position is not to fix something that's not broken."
Supporters of CSSJR 45, including El Paso Senator Eliot Shapleigh, say it benefits all Texans who profit from increased trade with Mexico through Border roads and ports, "If the benefits are going to different parts of the state then let's join in solving some of these burdens. The Texas of the future will be more about Dallas and Monterrey than Dallas and Paris or Dallas and Germany and what we need to do is to make sure these ports to prosperity and the bridges to our future work."
Schools will have to work harder to keep kids in class if the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 1561 becomes law. Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos sponsored the bill which lowers the acceptable dropout rate goal from 6 percent to 5 percent for the 2004-2005 school year. The bill would also change the way the Texas Education Agency computes dropout rates. Barrientos says the dropout problem hurts all Texans in the long run, it results in an untrained workforce and many of them end up in the criminal justice system.
A night in a jail cell may cost as much as a cheap hotel room. Under Senate Bill (SB) 1276, Texas counties can decide whether to charge inmates $30 a day. Bill sponsor Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio says it will only apply when a judge rules the convicted person can afford it.
Wentworth says that it is a small group of people but that those who can afford it, should pay their own way, "What this bill does is try to give a tax break to the working men and women of Texas who don't break the law and yet have to pay property taxes to support their county jails." The Senate passed the bill.
Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini cast her 20,000th consecutive vote in the Texas Senate. She is the only senator in Texas history with a 100% voting and attendance record. The Senate passed legislation sponsored by Zaffirini continuing the Texas Department of Aging for four years. Under CSSB 374, the Department of Aging and the Department of Human Services would be consolidated in 2003 to form a new agency, The Department on Aging and Disability Services.
The Senate will reconvene tomorrow, April 30, at 9:00 a.m.