SENATE APPROVES HEALTH AGENCY RE-ORG BILL
|Senator John Whitmire of Houston authored the measure that would make truancy a civil rather than a criminal matter.|
(AUSTIN) — The structure and organization of Texas' health care agencies would change drastically under a bill approved by the Senate on Wednesday, but these changes stop short of the full consolidation recommended by an interim review panel. The state Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative panel that periodically reviews the scope and functions of all state agencies, recommended that all five healthcare agencies be merged into a single agency, in order to reduce redundancy and increase quality of services.
The Health and Human Services Commission, however, has been under fire this session, with serious questions raised about contracting problems. Governor Greg Abbott appointed a "strike force" to investigate the agency and they issued a report calling for a delay of that merger. Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound said that her bill, SB 200, takes into account some aspects of the strike force report, and the bill would consolidate three agencies more gradually while keeping two other agencies as separate entities for now.
Under the bill, the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services and the Department of Disability and Aging Services would be dissolved and their functions would be moved to the HHSC over the next two years. The Department of Family and Protective Services would remain independent, as would the Department of State Health Services, though Nelson says that agency will have its focus narrowed to concentrate on the mission of public health. Other provisions in the bill look to aid ease of access to services, eliminate duplicative or redundant functions, and consolidate similar functions in order to increase efficiency. "Our number one goal with this realignment is to make it easier for citizens to navigate what is currently a broken system that no longer reflects the reality of how we deliver services," said Nelson.
Also Wednesday, the Senate approved a bill that its author says will keep truant students out of the criminal justice system. When children miss 10 days of school within a six-month period, or three days in a four-week period, they are considered truant. They can face a $500 fine and court fees, as well as a black mark on their permanent record. Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chair John Whitmire said more than 100,000 children were issued criminal truancy citations in 2014. He added that often, truancy is a result of circumstances outside the control of the parents or child. "We need to save the criminal justice system for those that belong in it," said Whitmire. His bill, SB 106, would end the policy of writing a criminal citation for truancy. School districts would be required to designate an anti-truancy specialist and create uniform truancy prevention programs. It would also institute a graduated series of fines starting at $100 for the first offense.
Another bill passed by the Senate Wednesday would reduce the time before parents can petition for intervention for a failing school. Current law allows parents to petition the state to reform a campus if the school has been rated as failing for five years in a row. SB 14 by Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor would lower that threshold to three years. It would allow a majority of parents to petition the Commissioner of Education for a variety of remedies, ranging from reconstituting the staff all the way up to closing the school and transferring the students to another campus within the district.
The Senate will reconvene Thursday, April 16 at 11 a.m.