SENATE PANEL TAKES UP $16 BILLION RELIEF PROPOSAL
(AUSTIN) — Members of the Senate Finance Committee on Monday considered how to spend another $16.3 billion in federal COVID aid funds, most of which would go towards shoring up the state's unemployment insurance system. As presented, SB 8 would appropriate $7.2 billion to cover employers' increased unemployment insurance liabilities due to pandemic-related layoffs. It would also spend $3 billion to pay for staff surges and treatment costs for hospitals as the state deals with a fourth wave of COVID and $3.7 billion to cover staff salaries for state employees who are working on pandemic response. It would spend $500.5 million on the expansion of broadband internet, a service which has become vitally important during the pandemic and includes millions to cover pandemic related healthcare costs for retired teachers, mental health care, state disaster response and food banks.
Also Monday, the Senate Transportation Committee approved a measure that would officially petition the US Congress to give states the right to regulate school bus drivers. Author and committee chair Senator Robert Nichols of Jacksonville said that the current requirement that bus drivers obtain a commercial driver's license is contributing to a severe shortage in school districts across the state. The problem began about six years ago, he said, when the federal government changed licensure requirements for school bus drivers. Before the changes, said Nichols, the state had 125 locations around the state where applicants could take both the written and driving tests. Afterward that number dropped to 25, meaning fewer appointment slots, longer drives to license offices, and longer waits for applicants. The test itself, said Nichols, is geared toward long-haul cargo transport, not the type of routes driven by school buses. "Most people don't realize that school bus drivers have to have the same driver's license as somebody who needs to be trained to drive an 18-wheeler from Florida to Oregon," he said. School bus drivers, said Nichols, don't need to be trained as rigorously as long-haul truckers.
SCR 3 would officially petition Congress to let states decide for themselves how to certify school bus drivers, allowing Texas to tailor a solution that fits the state's unique needs. "We're not talking about lowering standards of safety, but we've got a shortage out there," said Nichols. "I've got 101 superintendents…they keep saying it's getting worse and worse." The measure was received enthusiastically by other committee members, and they voted to move the bill to the full Senate unanimously.
In committee on Monday, the Senate Special Redistricting Committee advanced that body's plan for new congressional districts following the 2020 US Census results. Population growth handed the state two additional seats in Congress, increasing the state delegation to 38 members. The proposal adopted by the Senate committee would put one of those districts in northwest Harris County and the other would lie within Travis County and include much of the city of Austin. Bill author and committee chair Senator Joan Huffman of Houston said she will be accepting pre-filed amendments to the bill through Thursday.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, October 5th at 1 p.m.