On The Lege
Cue the Fat Lady
It's been quite a legislative session, one muddled by as many accusations and second-guesses as a daytime-TV talk show. In the last week alone, over 600 bills made it over their finalhurdle in the Legislature and onto the governor's desk. But hundreds more were defeated by midnight deadlines and quiet political intrigue. Here's a quick-and-dirty guide to some of the bills that survived Sunday's do-or-die midnight deadline, and a few that didn't make the cut:
• SB 766: Lake Jackson Republican J.E. "Buster" Brown's controversial environmental bill that in its original form allowed large "grandfathered" sources of pollution -- industrial facilities exempted from clean-air legislation adopted by legislators in 1971 -- to "voluntarily" reduce their air emissions, was passed with a provision that partially closes the grandfather loophole. That provision, decried as insufficient by environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, would triple fees for toxic emissions over 4,000 tons. But the Sierra Club maintains that the requirement will affect fewer than a dozen grandfathered plants. Texas' remaining 800-or-so exempted facilities, meanwhile, would continue paying $26 a ton under the bill passed in the Senate on Sunday.
• SB 4: This session's massive education bill (carried by education committee chair Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo), which passed on Saturday, will allow Gov. Bush to take credit for "the biggest property tax cut in history." (However, those cuts -- about $60 a year on a house valued at $100,000 -- will probably be erased by rising local property taxes, much like last session's $2 billion "reduction" was.) SB 4 will also provide a fairly substantial ($3,000) pay raise for teachers, who according to several national reports rank 38th among all states in average salary, and 49th when statewide average salaries are taken into account.
• HB 1269: While the phrase "gun control" has become virtually verboten in the halls of Texas' increasingly conservative Capitol, punitive gun-related measures continue to fly. HB 1269, sponsored by Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, and signed by Gov. Bush last week, will lock up any juvenile caught carrying a gun illegally. It will also allow a court to keep a teen or child locked up indefinitely if a judge does not deem the juvenile ready to be released.
• HB 713: Although the Lege shot down numerous measures that would have mitigated some effects of the anti-affirmative action Hopwood ruling, the House did approve this legislation sponsored by Laredo Democrat Henry Cuellar that provides for $100 million in new grants designed to attract qualified minority students -- as many as 29,000 in the next two years. The legislation provides $2,400 per student in grants based on financial need, and is expected to benefit minority students the most, because minorities -- primarily African-Americans and Latinos -- make up the majority of those in poverty in Texas.
• HB 801: The much-altered legislation, authored by Bay City Democrat Tom Uher, originated as an effort to limit citizen input on permitting decisions made by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC). It emerged from the Senate sans Austin-bashing restrictions which would have barred Austin from enforcing its environmental regulations in the parts of Hays County in its jurisdiction and from enforcing the SOS ordinance, by requiring a uniform water-quality ordinance citywide. The bill in its current form provides for a slightly enhanced public notification and comment period than did the original bill, and continues to allow contested case hearings, which the legislation originally sought to partially eliminate.
• SB 326: The effort by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D- Houston, to halt executions of retarded inmates failed in the House despite strong Senate support of the bill, which Ellis said would ensure that, just as Texas does not execute children (the minimum age for execution is 18; the minimum for sentencing, 17), it would no longer execute those "with the mental capacities of children." Gov. Bush did not support the bill, which was only one of many death-penalty-related measures to go down in flames this session.
• HB 4: Senate opponents prevented this campaign finance disclosure bill passed by the House from coming to a vote by talking past the Wednesday Senate deadline for final passage on bills and joint resolutions -- thus ending the session's only major attempt to increase disclosure of the sources of campaign contributions. HB 4, sponsored by Rep. Pete Gallego,D- Alpine, would have required candidates for state-level offices to have a single political committee through which all contributions and expenditures would be channeled. In addition, the legislation would have required candidates' financial disclosure forms to include the occupations and employers of all contributors who gave $100 or more to a campaign, and would have required more timely financial reporting in a campaign's final days. --E.C.B.