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Capitol Briefs

Fri., April 20, 2007

• Texas is inching closer to a journalism shield law, with the Senate Jurisprudence Committee sending Senate Bill 966 to the floor. Authored by Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston; Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; and Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, it's a bipartisan bill that protects journalists and their confidential sources. Nicknamed the Free Flow of Information Act, the bill may shock onlookers and civil liberties enthusiasts in that … it actually looks pretty good. The bill says that, by default, journalists have a right of privilege, so they don't just have to hand over files just because some officeholder says so. It sets up a judicial-review process whereby any public official asking for reporters' files has to be able to prove that they're essential for a criminal prosecution or a public inquiry. It requires that the parties demanding the files prove a genuine public interest and that they had exhausted all reasonable means of finding out what they want to know without grabbing the reporter's files. It also prevents overzealous prosecutors from using a subpoena to "obtain peripheral, nonessential, or speculative information" – so no fishing trips. Even better, if the only criminal act in question is that the source handed the journalist confidential information, the journalist doesn't have to hand over anything or testify in court – an essential protection for whistle-blowers. Thirty-two states currently have shield laws, with a bill pending in Washington state and even a federal law up for debate. – Richard Whittaker

• Legislation designed to control Medicaid costs sailed out of the Senate Tuesday on a unanimous vote. SB 10 author and Health and Human Services Chair Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, says the measure would save the state an estimated $9 million or more. The trick here would depend on the success of an incentives-based pilot program designed to encourage Medicaid recipients to develop healthy lifestyles. The Committee on Health and Human Services would have the option of offering incentives such as expanded health benefits or reward accounts, among other choices, to entice Medicaid clients to participate in the program. The HHSC would have to implement the pilot program in one region of the state by Sept. 1, 2008, and provide the Legislature with a progress report on the program within two years. – Amy Smith

• Texas public-school teachers would see a boost in their pensions under a House bill approved Monday, but teacher advocacy groups say they aren't terribly optimistic about their prospects in the Senate. The proposed increase – from 6% to 6.7% – would be the first hike in six years for the Teacher Retirement System. House Bill 1105, sponsored by Rep. Ruth McClendon, D-San Antonio, is part of the budget package the House approved earlier this month. The Senate budget proposal, by contrast, would leave public-school teacher retirees with only a 6.4% increase – hardly enough to make a difference in benefits, according to the Texas Federation of Teachers. The group had lobbied legislators for a return to the state's original level of 7.31% before "temporary" cuts in 1995 set the rate back to the current constitutional minimum of 6%. – A.S.

• Computers and electronic devices are becoming increasingly larger parts of our waste stream, with observably damaging health effects, including the dispersal of the toxic cocktail of heavy metals they contain if disposed of improperly. But a bill initiated by Dell and Hewlett-Packard, offered by Austin Sen. Kirk Watson – SB 1324, which requires computer-makers to offer convenient e-waste recycling free of charge in order to sell products in the state – is moving closer to a vote at the Capitol. Its House companion, HB 2714 (Bonnen/Gattis), passed unanimously out of the House Committee on Environmental Regulation earlier this month. Joining Texas' leading e-waste reformer, Texas Campaign for the Environment, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Commissioner Larry Soward has reportedly voiced unofficial support for the bills, as has the usually environmentally indifferent Texas Association of Business. And now a major push by TCE, the Texas Retailers Association, and a handful of conservative leaders is under way to have television manufacturers added to the bill, mindful that the approaching advent of digital TV will lead to the discarding of many nondigital-ready units. Currently, 14 Texas cities and counties have passed e-waste producer take-back legislation, including Travis County this month. Find more info, including where to recycle your old electronics, at www.texasenvironment.org. – Daniel Mottola

• Committees in both the House and Senate have passed bills to replace the exit-level Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test with end-of-course tests (though the bills vary in a number of ways). The House version, passed out of the House Committee on Public Education on Tuesday night, would take an additional two years to implement the end-of-course tests, cut back the number of tests that must be passed to graduate, and limit the amount of field testing to create the tests. – Kimberly Reeves

• Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, laid out his long-anticipated transportation omnibus bill on Wednesday morning. A substitute for SB 1929, it puts additional limitations on toll-road agreements, adds corridor councils to oversee the placement of the Trans-Texas Corridor, and outlines additional duties for metropolitan-planning organizations such as the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. A plan for a gas-tax index was pulled from the bill; Carona said such taxing legislation would have to originate in the House. – K.R.

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