Representatives from both chambers announced Friday that a compromise had been reached on Senate Bill 6, the sweeping protective services reform package. Governor Rick Perry declared in January that fixing the state's adult and child protective services (APS/CPS) system was an emergency issue for the 79th Legislative Session. During the past year there were several reported cases of elderly adults and children dying of neglect or abuse even after being investigated by protective services caseworkers. SB 6 will attempt to address problems in the APS and CPS systems by increasing funding and reducing staff caseloads.
SB 6, carried in the Senate by Lewisville Senator Jane Nelson, would increase the number of CPS workers by 2,500, and reduce caseloads by 40 percent. The bill would privatize the state's foster care system this year, and would phase in privatization of case management over the next six years. Psychiatric treatment and drugs could only be administered to children with the informed consent of the parent or guardian, and the relative caregivers program would be expanded, in order to increase placement of children with relatives instead of foster families. Law enforcement would be required to investigate all cases where criminal abuse is suspected.
SB 6 would also add 144 additional caseworkers to APS, bringing average caseloads from 34 to 28 per worker, at a cost to the state of $31.4 million. The bill would create a special task force in larger counties to investigate especially complex APS cases. Local guardianship programs, which would care for an elderly person if no relatives could be found, get an additional $800 million under SB 6.
Nelson said this bill should fix many of the problems that have emerged in the protective services system over the last few years. "We wanted to make sure that no stone was left unturned in ensuring that our most vulnerable citizens got the protection they deserved, and quite honestly, were not receiving."
As this was designated an emergency issue for this session, the reforms present in SB 6 take effect as soon as both chambers approve the changes made by the conference committee and the governor signs the bill.
Tuesday, the Senate passed a bill that seeks to increase competition in the state's telecommunications market. HB 789, sponsored by Horseshoe Bay Senator Troy Fraser, would reduce government oversight of urban telecom markets starting January 1, 2006, and would open up rural and suburban markets subject to Public Utilities Commission approval. The bill would also eliminate state access fees for long distance service, reducing the charge to the federal rate of one cent per minute, and local service fees would be frozen at current rates.
"We are making an attempt to move in an orderly fashion to an open and competitive market," said Fraser.
Also Tuesday, a bill making significant changes to the state's probation system was approved by the Senate. Criminal Justice Committee Chair John Whitmire has expressed concern throughout the session over the number of probationers sent to prison based on technical violations. He has also criticized the number of probationers in the state, saying that the sheer number of them makes it hard for probation officers to effectively deal with their cases. HB 2193, sponsored by Whitmire, reduces the maximum probation sentence from 20 to 10 years for first and second degree felonies, felonies committed with a weapon, and sex offenses. The maximum probation sentence for all other felonies is capped at five years, and is limited to 2 years for all misdemeanors.
A major thrust of the bill is toward review by a judge. To that end the bill includes provisions that would allow judges to reduce sentences if it is deemed that an offender is responding well to probation. After half of the sentence has been served, a judge must review the case annually, and will then decide whether to terminate the sentence or continue it for another year. This will allow probation officers, said Whitmire, to focus on those who need extra attention, while rewarding probationers who are following the requirements of their sentence. "The current problem is that we have too many people on probation who have turned their lives around and that they no longer need that supervision," said Whitmire.
With the session ending Monday, lawmakers are scrambling to work out differences between both chambers. Several important pieces of legislation are still being negotiated, with most of the focus now on the status of HB 3, the tax component of the education finance reform package. The major issues between the two houses are the proposed franchise and sales tax changes. The House wants to increase the sales tax by one cent, while the Senate only wants a half-cent increase. There is also disagreement on the franchise tax rate, and regarding which businesses should be taxed. Because of Senate rules, all tax bills must lay out for 48 hours before they can be debated on the floor, so the conference committee on House Bill 3 has been working around the clock to come to a compromise on which both chambers can agree.