WEEK IN REVIEW
Senate Passes Bill to Toughen Prohibition of Children Riding in Pickup Beds
AUSTIN - After debating the measure in two session days, the Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would prohibit children younger than 18 years of age from riding in the back of a pickup or truck or on a flatbed trailer.
Current state law prohibits children 12 years old and younger from riding in the bed of a truck, pickup or on a trailer at speeds greater than 35 miles per hour.
Senate Bill (SB) 399, authored by Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, first came up for consideration on the Senate floor Monday, but final action on the measure was left pending after several senators voiced their opposition.
Houston Sen. Mario Gallegos said Monday that the bill would lead to "open season" for police to pull over Hispanics because many Hispanics have only a pickup for transportation.
"It concerns me, that under your law (SB 399), Latinos going to work -- not bothering anybody, looking like they're 16 but really are 36 -- are going to be stopped," Gallegos told Duncan. "We're trying to stop racial profiling and a lot of other things. This would be open season on those folks that I represent in Harris County."
Duncan responded that the bill is not intended to promote harassment of Hispanics but to protect children, regardless of ethnicity.
"This bill is designed as a public safety measure to prevent injuries to the 12-year-old Latino who is required to ride in the back of a pickup by an adult who hasn't thought this through," Duncan said, "to the 12-year-old Anglo who is required to ride in the back of a pickup by an adult who hasn't thought this through."
The vote for final passage of the bill was 22 for, seven against, one present but not voting and one absent.
Criminal Justice Committee Hears Racial Profiling, Indigent Criminal Defense Bills
Dallas Sen. Royce West outlined his proposal before the Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday to end racial profiling by police.
The bill, SB 1074, also calls for police departments to implement policies and training programs aimed at curbing the practice. Police would also be required to collect ethnicity statistics in traffic stops and officers' interactions with suspects. West said that although most law enforcement officers do not engage in racial profiling, making police accountable for their actions is the most critical component of the bill.
"The question is, what is the best approach to prevent racial profiling in this state, and, needless to say, in this country? I do not believe that we can simply adopt a bill that prohibits racial profiling and then pat ourselves on the back," West said.
The Criminal Justice Committee also heard testimony on SB 7, a proposal authored by Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis to improve criminal defense for the indigent. SB 1074 and SB 7 remain pending in the committee.
Committees Focus on Education Issues
Education issues dominated much of Monday's business in Senate committees.
Representatives from the Texas Education Agency and higher education agencies came before the Finance Committee to discuss proposed education-related amendments to SB 1. SB 1 is the general appropriations bill that will set the state budget and guide Texas' basic spending policies for the 2002-2003 biennium. The proposed budget the committee is working with totals $108.2 billion.
The Education Committee heard public testimony on a number of bills proposing a statewide insurance plan for public school teachers and school district employees and retirees.
A reading teacher in the Austin Independent School District with 11 years of experience told the committee that he is having serious trouble making ends meet. He blamed the high cost providing insurance to his family as one of the main reasons and said his salary and benefits are not keeping up with the cost of living.
"I promise you the numbers just do not add up," he said.
Shelly Potter, with the San Antonio Federation of Teachers, said the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) has had to cut benefits to teachers while at the same time increasing the premiums paid by teachers as well as the district's portion. Potter advocated a teacher insurance program equivalent to state employee coverage, but Sen. Teel Bivins, the chair of the Education Committee, reminded Potter that SAISD teacher pay is generally higher than state employee pay.
"We're going to work on both this session," Bivins said.
Senator Announces Bill Promoting Public School Character Education
Dallas Sen. David Cain on Thursday announced legislation that would encourage the teaching of character education in public schools.
SB 130 would authorize schools to include secular character education in their curriculum. Character education includes teaching character traits such as courtesy, respect and citizenship. Some Texas school districts are including character education, Cain said, and SB 130 would encourage other schools to do so and provide guidelines for instruction.
"Character education programs work," Cain said. "They've gotten dramatic results."
State Rep. Barry Telford of DeKalb has authored similar legislation in the House of Representatives.
In the 1999-2000 school year, more than 1.5 million students were removed from the classroom because of discipline problems, Cain said, a situation that SB 130 addresses.
"Unfortunately, many young people today lack moral guidance and positive role models," Cain said. "Character education in school recognizes the importance of our kids learning core values."
Senators Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo joined Cain in announcing the bill.
Senate Passes Transportation-Related Bills
On Thursday, the Senate passed the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 89, a proposal that would prohibit open containers in any passenger area of a vehicle. The bill would also strengthen repeat driving while intoxicated laws.
Flower Mound Sen. Jane Nelson, the bill's author, said CSSB 89 brings Texas into compliance with federal regulations. Noncompliance would lead to loss of federal highway funds, Nelson added.
The Senate also passed CSSB 4 by Plano Sen. Florence Shapiro on Thursday, dubbed the Texas Mobility Fund. CSSB 4 would allow the state to issue bonds on a limited basis to pay for transportation projects.
Texas has historically been a "pay as you go" state, meaning the state has not used bonds to finance highway construction. Shapiro said CSSB 4 is intended to supplement the pay as you go system because bonds will be issued only when there is new revenue to pay for them.
An amendment to the Texas Constitution is required for the state to be able to issue bonds, so a separate measure, the Committee Substitute for Senate Joint Resolution (CSSJR) 16 was also passed. CSSJR 16 would authorize an amendment to go before Texas voters. Shapiro said if both pieces of legislation are signed into law, the constitutional amendment will be on ballots this fall.
On Wednesday, the Senate passed CSSB 577, authored by Bivins. The bill would create a phased-in driver's license system that would restrict the time of day that teenagers can legally drive for the first six months they have their license. Under the bill, new drivers would not be allowed to drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
A pair of amendments sponsored by Houston Sen. John Whitmire were added to CSSB 577 would allow an exemption for students returning home from school activities and would change the hours to midnight to 5 a.m.
Senators Voice Opposition to Tighter Regulations for Longhorn Pipeline
Shapleigh announced in a press conference Wednesday that he will oppose any legislation that would hold the Longhorn Pipeline to stricter standards than other pipelines. Gallegos was quoted in a press release that he would join Shapleigh in opposing such legislation.
The Longhorn Pipeline is an old crude oil pipeline between the Gulf Coast and West Texas. There are plans to begin transporting gasoline through the pipeline. Opponents of the plan say the line crosses too many environmental and residential areas to safely carry gasoline.
"We will oppose any effort to apply a separate standard," Shapleigh said. "We will oppose any effort to delay the project once all federal regulations are met."
Other Senate News
In Wednesday's session, the Senate passed CSSB 6, a bill intended to strengthen Texas' campaign financing laws by increasing the level and details of disclosure requirements.
"I believe money in campaigns should always be visible," said Shapiro, the bill's author.
Debate on bills has become more intense on the Senate floor, but Thursday's session was not without humor.
Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff attempted to recognize Victoria Sen. Ken Armbrister for a motion to bring up a bill Armbrister has authored. The problem was, Armbrister was using the phone at his desk in the Senate chamber and did not hear Ratliff.
After Ratliff called Armbrister's name several times, the senator suddenly realized that Ratliff was recognizing him for a motion and quickly ended his call. Armbrister apologized and joked that he was attending to important business.
"President Bush called me and I had to take that call," Armbrister said to laughs throughout the chamber.
"Tell him you're busy," Ratliff replied.
"I did," Armbrister said.
As of Thursday, 1,810 bills had been filed in the Senate. For more information about the Texas Legislature, please go to www.capitol.state.tx.us.
The Senate stands adjourned until 1 p.m. Monday.