The Senate Jurisprudence Committee continued working on two of its major charges from the 77th Legislature today, January 24, 2002. Charge #2 orders the committee to examine court costs in Texas and Charge #5 orders it to examine how certain peace officers are upholding SB 1074, the bill that seeks to prevent racial profiling by officers of the law. The committee is chaired by Senator Royce West of Dallas.
Regarding Charge #2, Verma Elliott from the State Auditor's office, testified that her office is checking on court costs and fees to make sure they are appropriate. The 77th Legislature directed the Auditor to do this, to ensure that costs are covered and that the courts are consistent in their charges. Rene Henry from the Office of Court Administration said that average fees in municipal courts are about $50 to $55, well up from an average of $15 in the mid 1980s. Mary Hawkins of the Comptroller's Office reported that some cities are having problems meeting state reporting requirements for fees in a timely fashion. Rod Dietz, also of the Comptroller's Office, said many counties are also having problems getting the state's portion of the fees sent to Austin because the deadlines set by the Legislature are too tight, and that some cities are charging other miscellaneous fees and calling them "court costs".
Karen Kennard from the Texas Municipal League testified that to the best of her knowledge, her members follow the state's fee schedule, but that some judges believe they have the authority to charge whatever fees they see fit. Chairman West replied that the state also has the authority to "take away" the courts. Jim Allison of the County Judges and Commissioners Association said the court costs and fees issue is complex and needs to be examined by the Legislature. Kathy Hynson, the Fort Bend County Treasurer, described how the counties allocate court costs across various fiscal years. Other witnesses from the counties and cities gave further details on how local courts operate.
The Senate Jurisprudence Committee is chaired by Senator Royce West of Dallas. Members include vice-chair Senator David Bernsen of Beaumont, J. E. "Buster" Brown of Lake Jackson, Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Rodney Ellis of Houston, Mike Jackson of Pasadena and Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio.
"Many officers believe this bill will be used to harm them", that's what one of the state's top cops thinks about SB 1074. Commissioner Ray Hunt of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards (TCLOSE) says that the threat of being called racist or of breaking the law is causing police to write fewer tickets. Charge #5 calls for the committee to examine the enforcement of SB 1074, which seeks the elimination of racial profiling by law enforcement officers. Chairman West said that the police were involved in the drafting of the legislation and that one of the reasons it was written was to protect police officers as well as anyone else. Hunt says police officers are unsure of the law and uncomfortable with it. He said perhaps when officers understand the law better, they will no longer be concerned with the legislation.
Senator Robert Duncan reiterated that the Legislature wrote the bill with the street officers in mind and suggested that it is the responsibility of agencies such as TCLOSE to make sure the officers are informed. Duncan said any TCLOSE officials who claim that they were not involved in writing the legislation need to remember that they were at the Legislature during the session and did have input. TCLOSE Commissioner Onzelo Markum replied that the benefits of the bill have not been told to the police, while the concerns of the bill may have.
Duncan and West told TCLOSE representatives they were not doing a good job communicating the intention and guidelines of the policy to police officers.
The members also heard public testimony. A representative of ACLU, NAACP and LULAC, who sat at the negotiation of SB 1074, presented a state-wide survey of law enforcement agencies about implementation of the statute. Ninety-five percent of agencies are collecting racial data as mandated by the bill. Most have created or continued with public complaints' offices. Some problems continue, he said, like in Dallas, Senator West's city, which is not complying with the guidelines set by the bill. Other public testimony was presented by law enforcement agencies, related to the video and audio devices needed in police cars.
The committee recessed until February 21st, when it will meet to consider other charges.
State Senator Eliot Shapleigh and Representative Dawnna Dukes of Austin today once again criticized former Attorney General Dan Morales for what they called an overly-broad interpretation of the Supreme Court's Hopwood decision from several years ago, saying that it had caused a severe drop in the number of minority students at Texas' state universities.
Shapleigh criticized the former attorney general, saying: "Dan Morales as the Attorney General, given the demographics of where we are and where we want to be, did not do what was in the best interest of this state to advance the cause of higher education for minorities."
The two were joined by state leaders of the NAACP and students from the University of Texas who described the drop in minority enrollment at that university's law school.
The Joint Select Committee on Public School Finance continues its hearings at the state capitol on how Texas Schools should be funded.
Today, January 24, 2002, the committee heard presentations from large school districts such as Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. These districts have been struggling with funding under the state's "Robin Hood" school plan, which takes money from wealthy school districts and redistributes it to those with less money.
Certain school districts in Texas face special challenges due to high growth. Today, the "fast growth" districts of Katy and La Joya from the Rio Grande Valley told the members what their special problems are. The meeting will continue tomorrow morning, Friday, January 25th.