With Friday's deadline for filing bills fast approaching, several Senators held press conferences to announce new legislation. Senator Kyle Janek of Galveston joined with Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst to introduce Senate Bill 15, which seeks to reduce the number of frivolous asbestos claims filed in the state. Texas leads the nation in asbestos- or silica-related lawsuits filed since 1988. According to Dewhurst, many of these lawsuits are filed by individuals who have been exposed to these dangerous substances, but are not yet sick. These lawsuits, says Dewhurst, clog the state's court dockets and keep those who are actually afflicted with an asbestos-related illness from having their day in court. SB 15 looks to correct that problem by establishing standards by which someone can be determined to be ill because of asbestos. "We're trying to lay out solid, objective medical criteria, by which we can judge whether someone has been impaired," said Janek. These individuals, added Janek, would be moved to the front of court dockets by SB 15 in order to expedite their settlements.
Janek said that SB 15 would also protect the rights of those who have been exposed to asbestos but are not yet ill. Under current law, once evidence of asbestos exposure has been obtained, an individual has only two years to file a lawsuit before their right to sue expires. Janek said that the settlement these people receive could be far less than they could expect to receive had they been actually sick, and added that they would need that money should they develop an asbestos-related illness down the road. SB 15 would eliminate the statute of limitations on filing for an asbestos claim. The bill would also prohibit an insurance company from dropping a customer because of exposure to asbestos or silica.
Senator Ken Armbrister of Victoria announced Thursday the filing of a bill that would expand the number of Video Lottery Terminals (VLT) in the state. SB 1326 would permit county commissioners to designate certain areas of their counties to be gambling venues, following voter approval in a local option election. If approved by voters, certain establishments would be permitted to operate VLTs. Armbrister said that VLTs are an excellent way to increase revenue without raising taxes. Forty percent of the net income generated by these VLTs would go back to county and state governments. The lion's share of this money would go toward one of four purposes: lowering local property taxes, water infrastructure rehabilitation, health and human services, or transportation improvements. It would be up to each county to decide how to use the money within those parameters. Armbrister estimated that only 8 to 12 areas in the state would support viable VLT establishments, including South Padre Island or Houston, among others.
Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio filed a bill that would change the way the state draws its congressional districts. Currently, the Legislature determines the boundaries for U.S. Congressional districts. SB 1404 would delegate that authority to a bi-partisan citizens committee composed of four Republicans and four Democrats, chosen by the Legislature. Members of this committee could not be public office holders, lobbyists, or officials in a political party. Wentworth said this bill would do away with much of the bi-partisan in-fighting that characterizes the redistricting process, and allow for a more fair and balanced voting map. "Placing congressional redistricting in the hands of an independent, bipartisan citizens' redistricting committee would do away with the intense partisanship that always surfaces during redistricting deliberations, and allow legislators to concentrate on issues that concern most Texans, such as education, property taxes, highways, and health care," said Wentworth.
Senate Bill 5, the workers compensation reform bill, passed the Senate State Affairs Committee. SB 5, by Palestine Senator Todd Staples, seeks to reduce the cost of workers comp through the creation of compensation networks, similar to the group health care networks used by many businesses. The bill also dissolves the current six-member commission that oversees workers comp issues, and replaces it with the Texas Workers Compensation Commission, headed by a single commissioner. The waiting period before an injured worker can seek treatment would also be reduced by SB 5. The bill will likely come to the floor of the Senate sometime next week.
The Senate Finance Committee finished its work on Senate Bill 1, the general appropriations bill. This bill determines the budgets of all state agencies, including health care, law enforcement, and public education. Because of its sheer size, the bill takes nearly a week to print and prepare, and the Finance Committee is expected to have a final vote on the bill next Friday.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 14th, at 1:30 PM.