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Legislative Study Group

Bill filing deadline has passed

Believe it or not, we are almost halfway through the legislative session, and we have now passed the point where new bills can be filed.

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Racing to beat a deadline for filing bills, state lawmakers on Friday submitted hundreds of measures on everything from abolishing the death penalty to the licensing of auctioneers.

By the time the dust settled, 928 bills had been filed in the state House and Senate on Friday, setting the chambers up for a busy second half of the legislative session.

“Now, it’s game on,” longtime lobbyist Bill Miller said.

In all, some 8,000 measures are now before the 84th Legislature, including 4,114 House bills, 1,993 Senate bills and 1,771 resolutions.

[…]

The most high-profile bill filed Friday was an ethics reform package supported by Gov. Greg Abbott that long had been expected to be submitted by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano. Abbott had declared ethics reform a legislative emergency item during his State of the State address last month.

Taylor’s proposal, known as Senate Bill 19 and also backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would require state officials to disclose contracts with governmental entities, prohibit lawmakers from serving as bond counsel for local and state governments and make departing legislators and statewide elected officials wait one legislative session before becoming lobbyists.

“There is no more valuable bond in democracy than the trust the people have with their government,” Taylor said in a statement. “The common-sense ethics reform outlined in Senate Bill 19 will strengthen that bond and send a clear message to the people of Texas that there is no place in government for those who betray the trust given to them by the voters.”

Tax policy also was a common theme, with [Rep. Dennis] Bonnen submitting his hotly anticipated proposal to cut business and sales taxes.

The Senate, which in some ways has been moving faster than the House, already has debated several tax proposals, and the issue is expected to be a priority focus of the session.

The Trib highlights a few bills of interest.

— House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, filed his long-awaited proposals to cut the rates for both the margins tax paid by businesses and the broader state sales tax. The margins tax bill, House Bill 32, is identical to one filed by Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. The measures should draw the House more into the tax cut debate this session, which until now has been focused more on the Senate, where Nelson has already held hearings on some high-profile measures.

— Several measures filed Friday aimed at allowing Texas to change its approach to immigration, even as broader proposals stall in Washington.

House Bill 3735 by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, seeks to establish a partnership with the federal government to establish a guest-worker program to bring skilled and unskilled labor to Texas.

House Bill 3301 by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, would recognize undocumented Texans as “citizens” of the state. It would allow them to apply for driver’s licenses, occupational licenses and state IDs if they meet certain residency criteria and are can verify their identity.

“It also opens the door for future conversations about the very real fact that these Texans without status are here, they are not leaving, and we should be doing everything we can to help them find employment, housing and opportunity,” said Laura Stromberg Hoke, Rodriguez’s chief of staff.

— House Bill 3401 by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, seeks to establish an interstate compact between interested states for the detection, apprehension and prosecution of undocumented immigrants.

— Looking to add restrictions on abortion, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, filed House Bill 3765 to beef up the state’s informed consent laws when it comes to minors. Texas law already requires patients seeking an abortion to go through the informed consent process, but Laubenberg’s bill would require notarized consent from a minor and a minor’s parent before an abortion is performed.

— House Bill 3785 from Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, would permit patients with cancer, seizure disorders, PTSD and other conditions to medical marijuana. The measure is broader than other bills filed this session that would only allow low-level THC oils to be used on intractable seizure patients.

— The National Security Agency might have some trouble in Texas if Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, gets his way. House Bill 3916 would make it illegal for any public entities to provide water or electric utility services to NSA data collection centers in the state.

— State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur, filed a pair of measures, House Bill 3839 and House Joint Resolution 142, which would ask voters to approve the creation of as many as nine casinos. Under Deshotel’s plan, most of the casinos would be built near the Texas coast, and a large portion of the tax revenue would go toward shoring up the troubled Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, the insurer of last resort for coastal Texans.

— In an effort to pave the way for a Medicaid expansion solution that would get the support of conservatives, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed House Bill 3845 to request a block grant from the federal government to reform the program and expand health care coverage for low-income Texans. Though GOP leaders have said they won’t expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, they’ve asked the feds for more flexibility to administer the program. Coleman’s proposal, titled the “The Texas Way,” intends to give the state more wiggle room while still drawing some Republican support.

Here’s a Statesman story about the casino bills. There’s been a distinct lack of noise around gambling expansion this session, which is change from other recent sessions. I suspect Rep. Deshotel’s proposals will go the way of those previous ones, but at least there’s a new angle this time.

Here’s a press release from Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) in favor of the medical marijuana bill from Rep. Marquez; there is a not-yet-numbered companion bill to HB3785 in the Senate, filed by Sen. Jose Menendez, as well. Two other, more limited, medical marijuana bills, the so-called “Texas Compassionate Use Act”, were filed in February. I don’t know which, if any, will have a chance of passage. I will note that RAMP has been admirably bipartisan in its praise of bills that loosen marijuana laws. Kudos to them for that.

If you’re annoyed at Jodie Laubenberg going after reproductive choice again, it might help a little to know that Rep. Jessica Farrar filed HB 3966 to require some accountability for so-called “crisis pregnancy centers’. Her press release is here.

I am particularly interested in Rep. Coleman’s “Texas Way” Medicaid expansion bill. (A companion bill, SB 1039, was filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez.) I have long considered “block grant” to be dirty words in connection with Medicaid, so to say the least I was a little surprised to receive Rep. Coleman’s press release. I have complete faith in Rep. Coleman, so I’m sure this bill will move things in the direction he’s been pushing all along, but at this point I don’t understand the details well enough to explain what makes this bill different from earlier block grant proposals. I’ve sent an email to his office asking for more information. In the meantime, you can read Sen. Rodriguez’s press release and this Legislative Study Group coverage expansion policy paper for more.

Finally, one more bill worth highlighting:

The proposal introduced by out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) would prohibit mental health providers in Texas from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under 18. Those who violate the law would face disciplinary action from state licensing boards.

Israel acknowledged that House Bill 3495 has little chance of passing the Republican-dominated Legislature, and it wouldn’t apply to faith-based practitioners, but she said it’s an important response to the Texas GOP’s 2014 platform plank endorsing reparative therapy.

“I don’t think that they recognize how hurtful these kinds of things can be,” Israel told the Observer. “To suggest that some young kid that happens to be gay is less than normal is very hurtful and harmful and dangerous, and I think I put myself back in those years when I was first discovering who I was. … I felt strongly about introducing a bill that was a counter to that, to say, ‘We don’t need fixing. We just need your love.’”

Virtually all of the major medical and mental health organizations have come out against reparative therapy, from the American Psychological Association to the American Medical Association and the American Counseling Association.

I agree that this bill isn’t going anywhere, but as I’ve been saying, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been filed. Good on Rep. Israel for doing what’s right. Equality Texas has more.

Texas On The Brink 2013

Quantifying what we long suspected to be true.

TxOTB

Texas remains behind most other states on issues related to educational achievement, public health and the environment, according to the latest version of the “Texas on the Brink” study released Monday.

The sixth edition of the report from the Texas Legislative Study Group, a left-leaning research caucus in the House, says the state has the nation’s highest rate of uninsured residents, ranks 50th in the percentage of the population with a high school degree, and has the highest carbon emissions of any state. The study ranked the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Texas legislators should prioritize funding and support for education to improve quality of life in Texas, said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, chairman of the Legislative Study Group, at a news conference Monday about the study. The state should protect Texas’ future by restoring the cuts made last session to public education and “making sure the amount of money that goes into the budget is growing the budget appropriately for the new students coming in and for the resources they need to be successful,” he added. He also said an expansion of Medicaid would improve health care access for Texans.

The report also examines Texas’ ranking in areas like women’s issues, workforce and public safety.

You can read the report here, and the LSG’s press release here. Former Sen. Eliot Shapleigh released the first Texas On The Brink report in 2003, with the LSG taking it on in 2011 after Shapleigh’s retirement. I encourage you to look at the report, it’s mostly a collection of facts and figures in easy-to-understand pieces. Two tidbits from the section on Women’s Issues that may be of interest: Texas ranks #47 in women’s voter registration, and #51 in women’s voter turnout; on the flip side of that, we are #4 in the percentage of women living in poverty. Think there may be a connection there? Consider that another item for Battleground Texas’ to do list. BOR has more.

(In case you’re curious, the source for the first two figures is the US Census Bureau, Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin, for States: November 2010. The source for the latter figure is the Urban Institute and Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Adult Poverty Rate by Gender, States (2010-2011). Every fact given in the report has a similar citation.)

What’s happening in the House

The House will be debating the budget well into the night, and very likely into tomorrow, if not Sunday. If you want an in-depth analysis of what’s being discussed and what the effect of each line item will be, you can’t beat Legislative Study Group’s floor report on HB1. If you want to get a gut-level feel for what the politics of this will be, check out this excellent use of the passive voice by House Republican Caucus Chair Larry Taylor.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Larry Taylor of Friendswood says Texans should understand that the House’s GOP supermajority is simply being prudent — not callous — by cutting spending and avoiding higher taxes.

“It may be a form of tough love,” Taylor said Friday morning, on the eve of floor debate of a two-year budget that cuts spending by nearly $23 billion.

“It’s easy for our Democratic colleagues to want to spend money we don’t have and to support taxes we can’t afford,” he said. “But we know the short term, feel good, share the wealth approaches to solving our problems by the Democrats are a recipe for disaster.”

[…]

“There will be numerous attempts to portray Republicans as heartless, without compassion and cruel,” he said, predicting the tenor of Friday’s debate. “But the reality is we had the courage and conviction to tell the taxpayers the truth. … This is the hand that we’ve been dealt.

Emphasis mine. Of course, the Republicans have been in complete control of Texas’ government for the past eight years, so one wonders who Taylor thinks the dealer of that hand is. The economy had something to do with it, to be sure, but if cutting public education and Medicaid and what have you is such a dandy idea, why didn’t we do it before now? Who do you think is going to want to talk about this more in 2012, the Democrats or the Republicans? Rep. Mike Villarreal, who’s been very strong on messaging throughout this debate, EoW, and Back to Basics have more

“Texas On The Brink”

Texas On The Brink is a report that has been produced annually since 2003, originally by State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh but now being continued by the Legislative Study Group. It shows how Texas compares to other states in a variety of categories:

1. State Taxes

2. Education

3. State of the Child

4. Health Care

5. Health and Well-Being

6. Women’s Issues

7. Access to Capital

8. Environment

9. Workforce

10. Quality of Life

11. Public Safety

12. Democracy

If you go through it, you’ll notice a theme: Texas is generally at or near the top in bad things – pollution, child poverty, dropouts – and at or near the bottom in good things – access to health care, graduation rates, and so on. You’d think that for a state that others are being told they should emulate, we ought to be doing better than that. I guess it’s a matter of what’s important to you. Check it out, or grab a downloadble copy for easy printing. The Trib has more, and the LSG press release about this is beneath the fold.

(more…)

LSG on the budget

The Legislative Study Group, chaired by Rep. Garnet Coleman, now has an analysis of the Pitts budget outline, which you can read here. The main point to remember:

How We Got Here: Built-In Budget Shortfall Comes from the 2006 Tax Package

The current $26.8 billion budget shortfall is partly the result of a built-in budget hole created in the 3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature, which has now created a structural shortfall in three successive legislative sessions. Unless the tax structure is changed, Texas lawmakers will begin every legislative session with the built-in budget shortfall.

In 2006, Governor Perry signed into law a tax package that changed the state’s business tax structure, redirecting billions each year away from public schools and into a newly created Property Tax Relief Fund. The tax package consisted of four major pieces of legislation:

  • House Bill 2 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), creating the “Property Tax Relief Fund” which collected money from the other three tax bills in the tax package
  • House Bill 3 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the franchise tax or “margins tax” bill
  • House Bill 4 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the motor vehicle sales and use tax
  • House Bill 5 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the $1 cigarette tax

At the time the tax package was presented to the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Perry, the Comptroller estimated that the revenues generated from the new tax package would fall $14 billion short of the cost of the legislation in the first five years. The predicted shortfall has come true, leaving the state billions short of necessary funds to maintain basic state services.

They have charts to go along with the words for all you visual learners. No matter what we do this session, we will continue to have shortfalls until we plug this hole.

From the department of That Didn’t Take Long, we have our first Republican complaints about the budget.

“Why would we ever have a staff recommendation as a starting point that creates a headline that says Brazosport College would be closed?” Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said during an explanation of the budget on the House floor.

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the House’s chief budget writer, said enrollment in the four districts had declined over the past decade.

But Bonnen and other Republicans questioned the legislative budget staff’s analysis. Bonnen said that even if supporters can stave off closure of Brazosport College, the cloud over its future could hurt enrollment.

Other targeted campuses include Ranger College, 85 miles west of Fort Worth, and community colleges in Borger and Odessa.

Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, whose district includes Ranger College, called the closure recommendations “the height of irresponsibility.”

Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, said he doubts there will be savings because most of Odessa College’s students would simply transfer to another state-supported school.

Bonnen’s diatribe sure got attention. Look at what the Trib says:

Bonnen describes Brazosport College as “the hub and center” of his district — one that local industry relies on for job training and that community members go to for education and cultural pursuits. “The thought of losing an institution like that is kind of debilitating,” he says. Though he recognizes that the base budget is “nowhere near” how the final budget will look, Bonnen says that even suggesting a college might be closed is “significant” and even “disastrous.” Students will begin looking to transfer, and others might decide to not bother enrolling.

“It creates a high degree of uncertainty,” he says. “As policymakers, we’d better be damned sure it’s something we’re going to do if we create that uncertainty.” And Bonnen feels strongly that the school will, ultimately get that funding once his arguments have been made.

So…you’re saying that the no-new-revenue, no-rainy-day-fund, cuts-only approach that Perry and Dewhurst and the rest of the GOP have been espousing would kill jobs? I’ll make a note of that. Hey, it’s all fun and games until your own ox gets gored. Look, “cutting waste” and “tightening the belt” and “finding efficiencies” and “shrinking government” and all that other hooey will always be more popular than identifying specific programs, all of which have their own constituencies, for reduction or elimination. Now at least Reps. Bonnen, Keffer, and Lewis know what that means, and perhaps have a better understanding of why we have a Rainy Day Fund, and why that cut-only approach is a lousy idea.

Of course, one can always take the “Don’t cut me, cut that other guy” approach in response:

Bonnen says the realization that the solution to the state’s budgeting woes could include eliminating his local community college does not cause him to look upon revenue-increasing options like tax hikes any more favorably. He says it’s his job to make the case that no responsible budget eliminates Brazosport College, and he hopes that even the architects of HB 1 will come around. Similarly, Lewis is confident that all four colleges will ultimately receive funding.

“There’s no joy in this budget for anybody,” Bonnen says. “As frustrated and unhappy as I may be to see Brazosport College not funded, I can assure you Chairman Pitts and others involved in this baseline budget are as troubled as I am.”

My priorities are worthy. Yours are not. Easy, no? Kilday Hart and Abby Rapoport has more on this.

Finally, here’s a look at how the budget affects TxDOT, and a second glance at the budget and its effects on criminal justice from Grits. Clearly, the lessons learned in 2003 about how cuts in some programs wind up costing you a lot more later have not been retained.

UPDATE: Be sure to read Terry Grier’s memo about what the Pitts budget would mean to HISD:

Our analysis of the House appropriations bill reveals that the proposed $5 billion cut to public education would mean an annual loss of $202 million to $348 million per year for HISD. This represents 15 percent to 20 percent of HISD’s budget. Theoretically speaking, HISD could wipe out all of central administration and would still have to severely cut school budgets to compensate for this large of a reduction in state funding. Put another way, $202 million–the low-end projected revenue loss–is enough to pay the salaries of 3,825 teachers with an average salary of $52,800.

As you can see, there is no way for Houston schools to absorb a blow such as this without causing serious harm to classrooms.

Boy, this sure is going to be Texas’ century, isn’t it?

Interview with State Rep. Garnet Coleman

State Rep. Garnet Coleman

State Rep. Garnet Coleman of HD147 is one of my favorite elected officials anywhere. A 20-year veteran of the House and a member of the House leadership team, he’s a strong progressive advocate and a policy wonk who’s always on top of current issues. He’s a regular source of detailed information about federal legislation that affects Texas – he’s done a ton to educate people about the Affordable Care Act, from the start of the process on – and the Legislative Study Group that he chairs provides thorough analyses of all bills that the Lege debates. I could talk policy and politics with him for hours, but we managed to restrain ourselves to about 30 minutes or so:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.

LSG hearing on expanded gambling

The Legislative Study Group held a hearing on Wednesday to start the discussion about the various proposals for expanded gambling in Texas that will be brought to the Lege next year.

Racetrack and casino interests that want to expand Texas gambling dangled promises of new tax revenue before lawmakers Wednesday, but faced tough, skeptical questions from Democrats about the economic benefits and social costs.

“Could I make a suggestion to you? Don’t pretend like there’s not a downside. Somebody needs to talk about how we’re going to mitigate the downside,” Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, told Jack E. Pratt Sr., chairman of the Texas Gaming Association, which is pushing a proposal that would include destination resorts with casinos.

[…]

Their questions ranged from details of the $1 billion to $1.5 billion projected annually in new state tax revenue to the likely bidding process for casino licenses, as well as the people likely to play and whether they can afford it.

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said the hearing was meant to make public the private conversations that are occurring about the possible legislation for the 2011 session. He said he would like to get updated revenue figures besides those generated by the interests involved.

Racetrack and casino interests testified, as did gambling opponents from the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. At this point, I’m just glad to see decent information getting out there. If people are going to be called upon to vote on this next year, they should have as much accurate data at their disposal as possible. Texas Politics and First Reading have more.

LSG forum on gambling

Earlier this month, State Rep. Jim Dunnam, the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, sent out a letter to the Chairs of the House Republican Caucus, the Texas Conservative Coalition, and the Legislative Study Group proposing that they establish “a bi-partisan ad hoc committee to fully explore all aspects of any and all gaming proposals that might be before the Texas House” in the next legislative session. Rep. Garnet Coleman of the LSG sent out the following in response:

Representative Garnet F. Coleman, Chair of the Legislative Study Group (LSG) House Caucus, announced [Monday] that the caucus would host a forum on the issue of gambling to help prepare members on the public policy implications of expanded gaming in Texas.

“This will be a Gaming 101 forum. Members need to receive information about the public policy of gaming,” said Representative Coleman. “We have the opportunity to look at what has happened in other states that have passed gaming, and review the long range impact for Texas.”

The LSG will host a forum on the issue, where members can learn about the intricacies of the issue. All members of the Legislature are invited to attend.

Representative Coleman said, “In the year since session ended, there has been a legislative vacuum when it comes to this specific issue. Members deserve to have as much information as possible as they prepare for the next legislative session, where various proposals for expanded gambling will certainly be proposed.”

Previously, House Democratic Caucus Leader Jim Dunnam had proposed creating a bipartisan ad hoc committee with LSG and the House Democratic Caucus, the House Republican Caucus and the Conservative Coalition Caucus. Both the Republican Caucus and the Conservative Coalition declined the invitation.

“Representative Dunnam was correct, this is an important issue that needs to be discussed and studied publicly,” said Representative Coleman. “With a revenue shortfall upwards of $18 billion in the next biennium there is a legitimate policy discussion that needs to happen. Members need to know the pros and cons of expanded gambling and the potential impact on our state.”

As I said before, I think this is a good idea. I’m not sure why the RC and the CC declined, but at least someone will be looking into it. The more work that gets done before the opening gavel in 2011, the better.

The effect of health care reform on Texas

Here’s an email from the Legislative Study Group, via State Rep. Garnet Coleman, who has been a constant source of health care reform updates:

LSG Policy Update: CBO Estimates of Impact of Healthcare Reform to Texas

With the United States House of Representatives poised to take a vote on health care reform [today], we wanted to provide you with some data on the expected financial impact on Texas state government.

Congressman Henry Cuellar provided us with a letter from Congressman Henry Waxman, Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. The Chairman responds to an inquiry from Congressman Cuellar on the fiscal impact of the Medicaid provisions in health reform on the State of Texas.

The House will take two main votes [today]: one on final passage of health insurance reform, and one on a sidecar reconciliation bill that improves upon the main legislation. Taken together, these measures will have an historic impact on our country and especially in Texas where almost 28 percent of the population is uninsured.

One important provision is the Medicaid expansion that will bring a million Texans living at or near the poverty level into coverage. Currently, Texas covers parents with incomes up to 26 percent of federal poverty level (FPL). The legislation will increase that to 133 percent of FPL while covering 100 percent of the costs of new enrollees until 2018, then stairstepping down the reimbursement level to 90 percent by 2020.

There have been various estimates of the proposed impact on the Texas state budget – Congressman Cuellar’s letter sheds some light on the projected state impact as viewed by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). To begin with, the legislation under consideration would be in effect for ten years – through the end of 2019 – at which point Congress would have to reauthorize it. Going on the timeline of the bill (2010 – 2019), Texas should expect to spend around $1.4 billion over ten years, the bulk of which would not come until after the changes go into effect, after 2014.

This stands in contrast to estimates by HHSC you may have seen cited in the press that peg the cost at approximately $24 billion. That estimate is on a different timeline: going from 2014 – 2023, or four years past the legislation’s life. It also includes approximately $6 billion in possible cuts to Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) funding that is generally used to compensate hospitals that perform uncompensated care. The HHSC estimate also does not include many of the provisions in the proposed reconciliation improvement bill – for instance, Medicaid DSH reductions are smaller in the Medicaid bill. The CBO projects a $1.2 billion reduction in DSH funds over the course of the legislation (2010-2019).

All told, Texans and Texas state government stand the chance to benefit greatly from federal healthcare reform legislation. Most of the 5.9 million uninsured Texans will gain health insurance, all insured Texans will gain protection from the worst practices of the insurance industry, and Texas will likely receive over $120 billion in federal dollars.

Economist Ray Perryman noted that spending on CHIP and Medicaid has a 3.25 multiplier effect – meaning every dollar spent generates 3.25 times that amount in economic activity. The legislation has the potential to create jobs and boost economic activity in our state while also ensuring the health and well being of all its citizens.

Thank you again to Congressman Cuellar for passing along Chairman Waxman’s analysis. You can view a pdf of the letter here.

So there you have it. Now pass the damn bill already, and let’s get on with it.

Homeowners insurance

An awful lot of attention gets paid to property taxes and the rate at which they rise due to higher appraisals. There are other variable costs to home ownership, however, and one of them is homeowners insurance.

As a result of a dramatic increase in mold claims prior to 2003, homeowner insurance rates were pushed to record heights. In response, legislators in the 78th Legislature passed SB 14, which, among other things, moved Texas to a “file and use” system.

Previously, rates were established by the Commissioner of the Texas Department of Insurance, and companies had to petition the department for approval to raise their rates above the established level. However, a loophole allowed most companies to shift their policies outside of the regulations, meaning consumers still saw high premiums.

The “file and use” system passed in 2003 did little to alleviate the problem. Under the new system, insurance companies were simply required to inform the department of a rate change before they implemented it. The department had no mechanism to regulate insurance companies as they implemented premium rates.

Texas homeowners have failed to see any significant relief from the rates that were in place prior to 2003.

And that’s without taking into account utility rates and flood/windstorm insurance for those who need it, which have also been rapidly rising. Sure would be nice to see some of this addressed in the next legislative session, wouldn’t it? Having a Governor that cares about the issue would help, too. EoW and BOR have more.

More in support of Prop 4

Many groups and individuals are supporting Proposition 4, which is the constitutional amendment to help create more Tier One universities in Texas. One local group in favor of Prop 4 is the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. I had a conversation last week with Chamber President Dr. Laura Murillo about Prop 4:

Download the MP3 file

Also last week, the Legislative Study Group held a press conference urging the passage of Prop 4. Here’s their release from that conference:

At a press conference today at HCC Coleman College for Health Sciences, Legislative Study Group (LSG) Chair, State Representative Garnet F. Coleman (D-Houston) along with LSG board members Representatives Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), and Hubert Vo (D-Houston) stood in support of Proposition 4, which will establish the national research university fund that will allow emerging research universities in the state to achieve national prominence as major research universities.

“As a representative with University of Houston and UH-Downtown in my district, it is high time that UH and other institutions around the state get the opportunity to compete for funds for national excellence. As a joint author and long time advocate of legislation that would establish more top tier research institutions, I am enthused that Proposition 4 will finally come before the voters.” said Representative Coleman.

LSG member Representative Ellen Cohen (D-Houston) added, “As a member of the House Higher Education committee, I was proud to coauthor and work on HB 51, the enabling legislation for Proposition 4. Increasing the number of Tier 1 research universities in Texas will benefit our state and our local communities while driving economic development.”

Texas currently has only three universities classified as tier one institutions even though it has the second highest population in the nation. New York has eight tier one universities and California ten.

“As an alumnus of the University of Houston and the chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, I’m proud to support this proposition. It marks a milestone for the future of education in Texas,” said Representative Turner.

Representative Vo added, “I am proud of the effect this proposition will have on Texas universities, particularly my alma mater, the University of Houston. It will go a long way towards bringing Texas up to scale nationally.”

Rep. Hochberg, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education added “This proposition is necessary to secure success for our state’s future students and to ensure that our state remains nationally and globally competitive.”

“Our students deserve more nationally respected options and a better higher education system in Texas, and it is important to remember that this begins with community colleges,” said Representative Coleman.

In addition, Rep. Coleman reiterated his call for greater investment and action from the state towards Texas’ higher education system. This includes lowering and freezing tuition rates, increasing scholarships for middle income families, preserving TEXAS Grants and the top ten percent, and properly funding community colleges in Texas.

For the best higher education system, it is imperative that the state recognize and support what is oftentimes the bridge to four year colleges and universities: community colleges. Increasing the role of early college high schools, and empowering these colleges ensures that a higher education is within reach of every Texas student that desires one.

State Representative Garnet F. Coleman (D-Houston) chairs the Committee on County Affairs, and serves on the Public Health and Calendars Committees. He also chairs the Legislative Study Group, a house caucus comprised of over 50 members that are committed to developing sound public policy for Texas families. Additionally, he serves on the Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding.

Of all the ballot propositions, this is the one I feel the most strongly about. I’m voting for Prop 4, and I hope you will as well.

Legislative wrapups

With sine die in the rearview mirror, tis the season for legislative wrapups. Here are a couple I’ve come across.

– First, from Bike Texas, which had the fairly easy task of just following one bill:

The final version of the Safe Passing Bill, SB 488, was passed yesterday [Saturday] by the Texas House. Today, the Senate voted on it, and overwhelmingly voted to pass it.

That was the final step for the bill to complete in the Legislature. Now, it will be sent to Governor Perry, and we are cautiously optimistic that he will sign it into law. We will know the outcome by June 21, the last day the Governor can sign or veto bills.

The 21st is a date that’s circled on a lot of people’s calendars. Next up is ACT Texas, which unfortunately had a lot less to be happy about.

How did the 81st Session go? After all the planning, meetings, hearings, email, office visits, phone calls, amendments, amendments to the amendment, how did things go for the ACT agenda this session?

The bottom line: we didn’t make the kind of progress on clean energy and clean air issues we had hoped to make. ACT bills faced two hurdles that could not be overcome this session. The first was strong industry opposition that both slowed the process (especially getting bills voted out of committee) and undermined the bipartisan support these measures had going into the session. The second was a legislative session that was behind from the beginning and ultimately derailed by a partisan stalemate in the House.

It’s important to note that bills did indeed pass that will continue to move Texas toward a cleaner, healthier future. Over the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at each of the 2009 issue areas in-depth and publish an assessment of how we fared on each. By the end of the month, ACT plans to publish a 2009 Legislative wrap-up.

Follow the link to see the specifics. The death of SB545, the solar bill, is in my mind the biggest disappointment.

Scott Henson had even less reason to be happy.

After all the fawning over Timothy Cole’s family and public declarations throughout the 81st Texas Legislature that the state would act to prevent false convictions, all the major innocence-related policy reforms proposed this year died in the session’s waning hours with the exception of one bill requiring corroboration for jailhouse informants.

Two other pieces of legislation for a brief moment had passed both chambers on Friday as amendments to HB 498, but after a 110-28 record vote approved the measure, Rep. Carl Isett moved to reconsider the bill and it was sent to a conference committee, where the amendments were stripped off for germaneness.

Sen. Rodney Ellis earlier in the day had requested the House appoint a conference committee and approve a resolution to “go outside the bounds” to consider eyewitness ID, but that resolution never came and instead the bill was denuded of all policy substance to become a bill to study whether to study the causes of false convictions.

We didn’t need more study by the Legislature on this issue, we needed action. Eyewitness ID errors make up 80% of DNA exoneration cases and the Court of Criminal Appeals’ Criminal Justice Integrity Unit said it should be the Legislature’s highest priority for preventing false convictions. But unless the issue is added to a call in a special session, at least two more years will pass before the Lege can begin to rectify the problem.

That’s inexcusable. It’s not okay for the Legislature to know that innocent people are being convicted under the statutes they’ve written and simply decline to prevent it.

The irony, as he notes later, is that by adopting HB1736, which increases the restitution made to exonerees, the state has ensured by its inaction that there will be more of them. So much for fiscal responsibility.

– On another single-issue matter, the saga of Gulf Energy, which got screwed over by the Texas Railroad Commission, won the right to sue the RRC to force it to clean up its mistake as SCR72 made it through on the last day. Good luck in court, y’all.

– And finally, a mixed bag from the Legislative Study Group, which I’m copying from email and reproducing beneath the fold.

All in all, the good news of this session is that there wasn’t much bad news – very few truly atrocious bills, the kind we were used to fighting off (usually unsuccessfully) in the Craddick days, made it to the floor, much less through the process. That’s part of what a lot of us hoped for with Joe Straus as Speaker, and up till the voter ID fiasco we got it. The bad news is that there wasn’t nearly enough good news, especially when you consider the number of good bills that were needlessly snuffed at the end thanks to voter ID. I’m not sure which is worse after sine die, feeling like you’ve spent 140 days fighting off zombies, or feeling like a whole lot of potential slipped through your fingers. What I do know is that we need to do better next time, and the fight for that starts now.

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More Tier One schools

Here’s some genuine good news from Sunday night’s chaos.

Legislation intended to lift some of the state’s public universities to top-tier status has passed the House and Senate and now goes to Gov. Rick Perry, who is expected to sign it.

The measure, House Bill 51, also includes authorization for a $150 million bond issue for the hurricane-damaged University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, part of a $1.3 billion package of funding for that campus, and $5 million for Texas A&M University-Galveston.

Seven so-called emerging research universities would compete for extra funding in hopes of joining the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University as nationally recognized research institutions. Rice University, which is private, is also a top-tier school.

The 2010-11 budget approved by the Legislature includes $50 million for the emerging universities in addition to their normal appropriations. The $50 million would be parceled out based on which schools raise the most money from private donations for enhancing research and recruiting faculty members.

Officials of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board say it could take 20 years and considerably more funding for even one of the seven emerging institutions — UT-Dallas, UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio, UT-El Paso, the University of North Texas, the University of Houston and Texas Tech University — to rise into the big leagues

Still, lawmakers and higher education leaders said passage of the legislation represents a commitment that, in time, should lead to the development of more high-demand universities, reducing pressure on UT-Austin under the state’s automatic-admission law.

“This is one of those real privileges to carry this legislation,” said Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

That is good news. You may recall a report from the Legislative Study Group, which I blogged about a year ago, that highlighted the need for more Tier I schools. I think this represents a major step forward, and I’m glad to see it got done. Kudos to all for that. Statements about HB51 from Reps. Ellen Cohen and Garnet Coleman are beneath the fold.

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More Tier I schools

Good news.

The Texas House on Friday voted unanimously on a plan making it easier for the University of Houston to gain elite status by gradually becoming a national “tier-one” research institution.

Houston, the country’s fourth largest city, deserves a public tier one university, said. Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, a member of the House Higher Education Committee.

“A tier-one university will attract that much more in the way of research and all the types of things that you can accomplish when you have tier one status,” she said.

Texas has two public tier-one schools — Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin. The lack of additional elite universities creates enrollment pressures at UT and A&M and causes a net loss each year of 6,000 high-achieving Texas high school graduates who leave for a top-tier university in another state.

Texas has identified seven emerging tier-one universities. Texas Tech, the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Dallas are generally considered in the upper echelon from which the next tier one university will emerge, said House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, author of HB 51, which requires Senate action before it heads to Gov. Rick Perry.

A Legislative Study Group report (PDF) from last year showed that those seven schools weren’t all that far off financially from meeting Tier I status. If the Lege budgets the $50 million Rep. Branch mentions for this bill, that would help a couple of them get there. There’s a lot more that can and should be done, but this is a good first step. I’ve got a press release from Rep. Garnet Coleman on the House passage of HB51 beneath the fold, and Postcards has more.

In related news, the Senate Higher Education Committee took action on the matter of tuition.

Senate Bill 1443, by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who chairs the panel, would limit increases in tuition and mandatory fees at the 35 institutions in various ways depending on a school’s current charges, recent increases and other circumstances. The limits include the inflation rate, 5 percent, $315 a year and $630 a year. The amount of legislative appropriations is also factored into the calculations.

That’s a key, as I’ve said before. We deregulated tuition so the state could cut its appropriations to the schools. We can’t now turn around and limit their ability to set tuition if we don’t make up the funding. I don’t know if SB1443 is adequate to that task, but at least it takes the need into account.

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Voter ID coming to the House

Well, that didn’t take long.

Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, chair of the House Elections Committee, announced today his committee will devote two days of hearings to voter ID on April 6 and 7. The first day will be devoted to expert testimony, with an equal number of people for and against the bill invited. The second day will be for public testimony.

Smith said he thought splitting the hearing over two days would help the House avoid the tense, all-night, marathon session the Senate endured on the issue.

“We’re going to meet two days that week just because I didn’t like that the public testimony (did) not start ‘til midnight,” Smith said. “I thought that was not the best way to approach it.”

The best way to approach it is to leave it alone and deal with other matters. But I suppose since voter ID is the single most important issue facing Texas today, this was going to happen. Given that, we can use this thorough analysis by the Legislative Study Group to answer – again – the allegations and wild accusations that are sure to come up again. Not that it’s likely to change anyone’s mind, but there it is anyway. Sometimes having the facts has to be its own reward. And remember, unlike the Senate, this will go through a committee before coming to the full House for a vote, if indeed that happens. Which means we’d get two opportunities to wallow in this. Joy.