78th Legislative Session Wrap-Up
Austin - The Senate of the 78th Legislature adjourned 'sine die' at around 7:15 p.m., Monday, June 2, 2003, with a final bang of Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst's gavel.
'Sine die', a Latin term meaning 'without another day', is the 140th day of the biannual legislative session. The last day was reserved for making corrections to bills, acknowledgments and resolutions.
The Texas Constitution dictates that the Legislature convene in Austin for a 140-day regular session every two years. The Legislature stands adjourned until noon on the second Tuesday of January 2005.
This was the first time in 119 years that Republicans made up a majority of the Texas Legislature and controlled the top three state government positions of governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house.
Freshman Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst took over the reins on January 22.
Dewhurst's leadership has been praised by Senators and members of the news media.
This year's legislature faced some tough challenges, including a $10 billion dollar budget shortfall due to the weak economy, skyrocketing insurance rates for homeowners and doctors, heightened security concerns because of the war and a public school finance system that may be challenged in court .
One day before the official start of the 78th Legislative session, the state comptroller announced that the Legislature faced a $9.9 billion dollar budget shortfall. Included in that figure was a deficit of $1.8 billion for the current fiscal year, ending August 31, 2003.
Dewhurst promptly requested all state agencies to cut their budgets by seven percent to assist in meeting the shortfall.
The Senate Finance Committee was given the arduous task of devising a budget using a "zero-based budget" submitted by the governor. The committee held numerous meetings to hear each agency rank their spending priorities to build the budget up from zero, one program at a time.
The Senate adopted its version of the budget in late April.
When the House came out with its budget proposal, members from the two houses formed a conference committee to work out the differences in the versions.
The committee was at odds concerning funding for social service agencies and education, but eventually came to an agreement on House Bill (HB) 1, which was approved by the Legislature on the last day possible.
The approved budget enables Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst to stand by his pledge of no new taxes. However, the $117.4 billion budget has been criticized by some lawmakers who would have preferred searching for more revenue instead of making widespread cuts the next two years.
The 2004-05 budget is estimated to cut nearly 10,000 state employees and makes significant changes to health and human service programs.
Under the appropriations bill, benefits to Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program were reduced to the federally-required minimum, but eligibility was maintained at 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill instates a 90-day waiting period and provides for six months of continuous eligibility.
Senators say that more elderly and disabled adults will be able to qualify for living assistance because the budget lowers the eligibility requirement.
As for education, budget conferees said that growth in public school enrollment would be sustained, the purchase of textbooks for the upcoming year would be funded, and the teacher's retirement insurance would remain intact in the newly approved budget.
A last-minute grant of $1.3 billion in aid allotted to Texas by the federal government will be put in a contingency fund to help the state comptroller to certify the budget before it can be sent to the governor for final approval. $570 million is earmarked for Medicaid-related services.
The budget is the only constitutionally mandated bill that the Legislature must pass.
Legislation Necessary to Supplement the Budget
The Senate was able to pass all the legislation considered to be critical components in balancing the budget.
Just after the Senate approved next biennium's budget, it passed HB 7, the supplemental appropriations bill . The legislation enacts the budget cuts previously asked of state agencies to get through the revenue shortfall for the remainder of this fiscal year, ending August 31.
Another measure necessary to balance the budget was HB 2292, a massive reorganization of the state's health and human service agencies, would consolidate the fourteen agencies into four for a total savings of $1 billion.
Substantive changes to statutes governing public education made in HB 3459 net the state $2.6 billion for next biennium's budget. The bill would change the accounting method of the Permanent School Fund, defer contributions to the Teacher Retirement System and Employee Retirement System trust funds, and increase the active public education employee's contribution rate to it's retiree system, TRS-Care.
Also critical to balancing the budget was HB 2458, which moves the point of collection for motor fuel taxes to the highest point in the marketing chain for $8.3 million in additional revenue.
Relief from Increasing Homeowners Insurance Rates
Horseshoe Bay Senator Troy Fraser acted quickly on emergency legislation aimed at providing insurance relief for homeowners.
A measure requiring residential property insurers in the state to immediately file their rates and supporting data with the Commissioner of Insurance was passed by the Senate two weeks after the matter was declared an emergency by the governor. A preliminary report based on the information requested in Senate Bill (SB) 310 was available one month after that.
The final report presented to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee stated that individual company rates could be reduced up to 25 percent from current rates. The review also discovered that policyholders are paying more for less coverage.
The Senate passed SB 14 as an attempt to drive down homeowners insurance rates. The bill uses a hybrid approach to increase the regulation of residential property and automobile insurance markets.
The bill grants the Commissioner of Insurance more regulation and enforcement power and includes underwriting guidelines in the public information act.
The bill includes language that prohibits insurance companies from collecting a so-called 'skin-tax', a higher premium on old policies that were based on a person's race.
Skyrocketing Medical Malpractice Insurance Rates Addressed
Another matter deemed an emergency by the governor was medical malpractice. The Senate worked until the very end of the session to reach a consensus between all interested parties.
Tort reform proponents argued that multi-million dollar awards in medical malpractice lawsuits are driving up the cost of insurance for doctors.
The agreement reached by the Senate and House on HB 4 would cap pain and suffering awards at $750,000 under a tiered system.
Under the deal, a claimant would be able to obtain a maximum of $250,000 from all doctors and nurses for damages for pain and suffering in medical malpractice lawsuits. A claimant could also sue up to two health care institutions, such as hospitals and nursing homes, for punitive damages for as much as $250,000 each.
Imprisoned Tulia 13 to be Released on Bail
The Governor publicly signed SB 1948, a bill to free the thirteen Tulia residents still in prison despite the indictment for perjury of the sole witness against then. The 'Tulia 13' were convicted in a controversial 1999 drug sting and have been awaiting another trial to repeal the original judgement.
Legislative Ethics Addressed
An ethics bill previously thought to be dead was revived and passed unanimously by the Senate in the waning hours of the last day bills are allowed to be considered. Houston Senator Rodney Ellis said that the conference committee's version of HB 1606 is stronger than the version the Senate previously approved.
The bill would extend the ban on political contributions thorough the governor's veto period, which ends twenty days after adjournment of the legislature.
Legislators would have to file a notice with the House or Senate before introducing or sponsoring a measure if the member has a close relative who is a lobbyist for the subject matter of the measure.
Critics of the bill say that it should have been strengthened to prohibit legislators from voting on a bill that they, or their close relatives, have a vested interest in.
The approved bill would require certain state officers and employees to disclose legal referral fees, personal financial statements, and the names of contributors who donate more than $500 to their political campaigns. State political office filers would have to report all cash on hand.
Tuition Deregulation Legislation
Universities would be allowed to increase the tuition they charge students under HB 3015.
The bill passed by a 17-14 vote of the Senate. Opponents of the bill were concerned that allowing university regents to set tuition rates will make college less affordable, and therefore accessible, to many middle-class students.
A provision in the bill would create a higher education oversight committee that would report to the legislature every two years to review the effectiveness and fairness of the deregulation.
Name Change Permitted for University
Southwest Texas State University may now be called Texas State University--San Marcos if SB 1942 is signed by the governor.
Advocates for the change were concerned that the name gives the impression that it is a small, regional school.
School Finance Reform Attempted
The Senate made an attempt to overhaul the criticized school finance system, often referred to as Robin Hood, due to a recapture provision that redistributes tax revenues from property-rich school districts to poorer districts.
All thirty-one senators and the lieutenant governor met as a Committee of the Whole to consider SB 2, which would broaden the base of funding for public education by increasing and expanding the state sales tax. School property taxes would be cut in half under the bill.
SB 2 would have created the Texas Education Fund, which would distribute dollars equally to guarantee virtually the same spending per pupil in all areas of the state.
The proposed legislation would have allowed the voters in a school district to decide to pay an additional ten cents of local enrichment tax on property to fund programs in excess of the basic programs funded by the state.
The House would not consider the proposal.
The governor is expected to call a special session on school finance later this year.
Relieving Transportation Congestion
Legislation to create a Trans-Texas Corridor was approved by the Senate. The 4,000 mile transportation corridor established under HB 3588 would consist of toll and non-toll roads, passenger and freight lines and public utilities designed to reduce road congestion.
Mandatory Prayer and Pledge in Schools
Legislation signed by the governor requires students throughout the state to observe a minute of silence and pledge allegiance to the state and national flags each morning.
According to the bill, the sixty seconds of silence must be used for prayer, meditation, or reflection. Opponents of SB 83 say that the bill is a step toward mandating prayer in schools.
Health Insurance for Small Employers
The Senate passed legislation aimed at making health care insurance more affordable and accessible for Texans who work for small companies that do not offer coverage. SB 10 would allow small businesses to form group health cooperatives for the purpose of obtaining health coverage for their employees with benefits similar to those enjoyed by larger companies.
The bill would provide a tax break incentive for insurance companies to participate and would lower the cost of insurance for small employers.
SB 10 has been sent to the governor for his approval.
Pyrotechnic Use Restricted In Response to Nightclub Tragedies
A bill awaiting the governor's signature would restrict the use of pyrotechnics for large gatherings. SB 693 was filed in response to nightclub tragedies that occurred during the early part of the session.
The bill would require the approval of a fire marshal or county sheriff before using pyrotechnics before crowds of fifty people or more.
Rights for Unborn Babies
Legislation that would define a fetus as an individual and add 'the failure to be born alive' to the definition of death was approved by the Senate. SB 319 would allow parents to sue for the wrongful death of their unborn child. The mother of the child and abortion providers would be exempt from wrongful death suits.
Providing for Economic Development
Legislation before the governor would abolish the Texas Department of Economic Development and transfer its functions into the governor's office. It is estimated that SB 275 will save an additional $2.8 million over the next biennium.
The bill is aimed at helping the state more efficiently promote Texas to companies looking to relocate.
Session Ends with Filibuster
Dallas Senator Royce West closed out the next to the last day of the session with a two and a half hour filibuster to suffocate SB 86.
The bill itself would have required students in the top ten percent of their high school graduating class to take a prescribed curriculum to be eligible for automatic admission to a state university.
The House added an amendment to the bill that would allow universities to deny these students admission once sixty percent of the spaces allotted for incoming resident freshman were filled.
The bill died once the midnight deadline to consider bills passed.
The Senate stands adjourned until noon on the second Tuesday in January 2005, or at the will of Governor Rick Perry, should he decide to call a special session.