WEEK IN REVIEW
(AUSTIN) — The Senate passed its first bill of the session Monday, approving a measure to increase oversight and resident safety at state development centers, also known as state schools. Senate rules normally prohibit passing legislation in the first 60 days of session, but an exception was made for state school reform after Gov. Rick Perry named such bills an emergency issue. The proclamation came after a U.S. Department of Justice report found hundreds of cases of abuse and neglect and 53 preventable deaths at Texas' 13 state schools.
Senate Bill 643, by Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson, would create an office of ombudsman to advocate for state school residents and their families. In addition to seeking redress for grievances, the ombudsman would conduct two yearly audits of each state school and report his or her findings to the legislature. The bill would also tighten security at development centers, requiring video surveillance in all common areas and allowing drug tests and federal background checks of state school employees. Employees would also have to take enhanced training courses, focusing on resident health, safety and autonomy.
The bill did not address the issue of reorganization or closure of state schools. Nelson said this is a debate that the Legislature will have before the session ends, but these reforms are needed immediately. "As long as one person is in any state school, these [reforms] need to happen," she said. "The whole closure and capacity issue we will address, but this needs to happen."
The Senate met in a Committee of the Whole Tuesday to consider a controversial Voter ID measure that would require Texans to prove their identity before they cast a ballot. Proponents of SB 362, by Senator Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, argued that the bill would ensure integrity of the ballot box, while opponents contended it would make it difficult for many without an ID to vote, including the poor, the disabled and the elderly. The bill would permit those without a picture ID or other accepted form of identification to cast a provisional ballot. The debate went on through the night, nearly 24 hours, with the bill finally passing out of the Committee of the Whole near 10 a.m. Wednesday morning. After the long process, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he was pleased with the proceedings and the result. "We're a little tired, we've been up all night, but I'm really proud of the Senate," he said. "We had two sides, two different points of view, but we had some very good debate, and I'm real proud of where we ended up." The bill will come before the full Senate for an initial vote on Monday.
Thursday, the Senate Education Committee heard testimony on a bill that would expand full-day Pre-Kindergarten education programs in Texas. SB 21, by Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini, would permit, on a voluntary basis, expansion of existing half-day Pre-K programs to full days, if certain conditions are met. To be eligible, schools must limit Pre-K class sizes to 22, and preserve a 1 to 11 teacher-to-student ratio. Schools would also have to partner with private organizations specializing in early childhood education in their regions. Zaffirini testified that spending money on Pre-K programs is a wise investment. "Every dollar invested in high quality early education programs yields a return of investment of at least $3.50," she said, citing a 2006 study at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service. The bill was left pending before the committee as lawmakers try and pin down the ultimate cost of the measure.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 16, at 11 a.m.