News Release
April 1, 2015
Contact: Sydni Mitchell
(512) 463-0103
My five cents...
A monthly column from Sen. Robert Nichols
by Sen. Robert Nichols, Senate District 3

As the Legislature heads home to observe this holiday weekend, let's hope the members get a few extra treats in their Easter baskets to help them fuel up for the final few months, which is the busiest part of session.

Here are five things that happened this week at your Texas Capitol:

1. State Auditors Report

In January, I sent a letter to the State Auditor's office asking for a review of the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) procurement processes in awarding a contract for the operations of a Texas state hospital to a private firm. This audit was requested in relation to HHSC reviewing a contract with a private company for the operation of Terrell State Hospital. Currently, there is no state statute which directs HHSC to pursue the privatization of state hospital operations.

The report was recently released and I would like to thank the State Auditor John Keel and his staff for the depth of the investigation. I was disappointed with the results of the findings of this audit. Numerous failures to follow standard contract procurement procedures as well as a failure to follow HHSC's own policy on contracts were identified. On March 23rd, the procurement status for privatization was terminated by the head of HHSC.

I believe entering into any new major contracts without first following set procedures is a disservice to all Texans who demand accountability and transparency from their government. People employed by mental state hospitals around the state can be assured the agency will not pursue any further privatization of state hospitals without authorization from the Texas Legislature.

2. House Budget Passed

After 18 hours of debate which ended at 6 a.m. on Wednesday, the House passed a $210 billion state budget for the next two years. Before the debate began, House members filed 354 amendments for the bill, which included funding to expand mental health treatments for prisoners, border security, transportation and school finance.

Once the Senate and House have passed their own versions of the state's budget, a conference committee, made up of members from both chambers, will come to together to work out the differences and come to an agreement on what the state's budget should be for the next two years.

3. State Contracting

SB 20 by Senator Nelson, for which I am a co-author, was passed this week in the Senate. This bill would require state agencies to record their contracts with outside vendors in a database run by the State Comptroller's office as well as post a list of all contracts on their agency's website. As the state relies heavily on contracting for the delivery of services throughout our state, it is important to ensure we are able to keep track the contracts the state is currently pursuing.

This legislation would also require the heads of state agencies to certify contracts worth more than $1 million to ensure they were competitively bid. There are also stricter restrictions on the conflict of interest between agencies and contracted vendors by requiring the agency to increase the number of competitive bids on a contract as the price increases. This legislation is very important as we must ensure we are utilizing the states funds responsibly and providing transparency throughout the process.

4. A-F School Ratings

The Senate passed SB 6 by Senator Larry Taylor, which would change the current ratings for school campuses to a letter grading system of A-F. The current rating system is similar to a pass-fail approach, where schools are labeled either ''met standard'' or ''improvement required'' and are based on students' scores on standardized exams and other performance measures.

The purpose of this bill is to ensure there is an easily understandable system of school campus ratings for parents and the general public. Sixteen other states currently use an A-F system to annually rate their schools.

5. Firefighter and Paramedic Day

This week a resolution was passed in the Senate to recognize March 31, 2015 as Firefighters and Paramedics Day. As first responders, they have served our state, saved thousands of lives and prevented injuries at the risk of their own safety. They also give back to their local communities through charitable activities and programs. I was honored to co-author this resolution with my colleagues in the Senate to recognize these brave men and women for their dedication and selfless work for our state.