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Capitol Briefs

Fri., May 4, 2007

• A bill meant to address major funding shortfalls at the state's parks is set for debate on the House floor at press time. HB 12, offered by House Culture, Recreation, and Tourism Committee Chair Harvey Hilderbran, addresses requests by a state parks advisory board and a coalition of parks advocacy and environmental groups for $85 million in additional annual funding through the elimination of the $32 million cap on state sporting-goods-tax revenue originally intended for parks. But HB 12 combines an early park-fixing bill, HB 6 (co-authored by virtually every member of the House), with the newer, controversial HB 7, which would transfer selected state historic sites from Texas Parks & Wildlife to Texas Historical Commission control, a move that makes parks advocates uneasy and is seen as a favor to beer distribution baron and GOP campaign benefactor John Nau, chair of the Historical Commission. It is uncertain whether Appropriations Committee members will allocate HB 12's full park funding amounts or whether acquisition of new parkland, mentioned in the bill and sorely needed around turbo-suburban Houston and Dallas, will be funded at all. – Daniel Mottola

• The House Tuesday overwhelmingly agreed to exempt 60,000 small businesses from a restructured franchise tax that legislators approved last year as part of a new school finance package. The original bill exempted businesses with annual revenues less than $300,000; the new proposal would exempt businesses bringing in $600,000 or less per year. – A.S.

• In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, some lawmakers are saying a well-armed student body may be the best defense against gun-wielding maniacs. Gov. Rick Perry and some House members are contemplating legislation to repeal a state law that expressly forbids the possession of firearms on college campuses. GOP Rep. Frank Corte Jr. told the Statesman Tuesday that the massacre at Virginia Tech might have been avoided had a student or a professor been armed. "To me that situation could have been changed if that rule wasn't in effect," he said. Although it's too late to pass a bill this session, Corte and two other lawmakers are considering drafting a bill for the next session. Texas is one of 16 states with laws prohibiting concealed weapons on college campuses. Considering the Lege's record on gun-related bills – it passed two pro-gun measures earlier this session – a bill like this is likely to become law if drafted. "I've always felt that the NRA absolutely controls the legislative process in Texas to the detriment of public safety," said Democratic Rep. Lon Burnam. – Justin Ward

• While it may be a central theme in the upcoming presidential race, State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. has gotten little traction on his bill for universal health care in Texas, which continues to languish in the Senate State Affairs Committee. Other states, most notably Massachusetts, are experimenting with a single-payer system to address health-care needs. Shapleigh tailored his proposal on a bill out of California, which was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a news conference this week, Shapleigh said a quarter of Texas residents are uninsured. Most of them are the working poor. – Kimberly Reeves

• Both chambers of the Legislature managed to pass a two-year moratorium on privately funded toll-road deals in the past week, with major exemptions carved out for the Houston and Dallas areas. Gov. Rick Perry appears inclined to veto the legislation, saying in a released statement, "I will review this bill carefully because we cannot have public policy in this state that shuts down road construction, kills jobs, harms air quality, prevents access to federal highway dollars, and creates an environment within local government that is ripe for political corruption." He cited a recent letter from the Federal Highway Administration noting concerns about specifics of the bill and the general direction of state policy. This week, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison jumped into the fray with a letter rebuking the FHWA for intervening in Texas policy, noting that the agency's role is technical assistance, not advocacy in favor of public-private toll-road deals. – K.R.

• Citizens took the lawmaking into their own hands Monday night with a "shadow hearing" at the Capitol on HB 1534, Rep. Elliott Naishtat's bid to protect medi-pot patients from prosecution. Medi-pot advocates with Texans for Medical Marijuana organized the event as an opportunity to vet the bill publicly, which to date has been blocked from being heard in the House Public Health Committee by its chair, Dianne Delisi, R-Temple, who has said she's opposed to any pot-decriminalization measure – even one as mild as Naishtat's, which would create an affirmative defense to prosecution for use by seriously ill patients. Dianne Delisi: Stickin' It to Sick People. Bravo. Since Delisi has apparently made up her mind without even hearing any evidence, the bill is doomed to languish in the House – but is unlikely to disappear, says Noelle Davis, TMM executive director, who vows to keep pushing the measure until it passes. "There are too many lives at stake not to keep fighting," she says. – Jordan Smith

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