Lege Notes

Odds and ends (mostly odds) from the 79th

Elliott Naishtat
Elliott Naishtat (Photo By John Anderson)

• After much wrangling and one painful compromise, the Texas Senate last week passed a life-without-parole capital-case sentencing option. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, finally got enough votes – 25-6 – to pass SB 60 and move it to the House for consideration. Unfortunately, the victory came with a price: An amendment authored by Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, which removes the possibility of a life-with-parole alternative. Now, instead of the proposed three options – death, life with parole, and life without parole – capital case jurors will again have just two outcomes from which to choose. The prosecutors' lobby long bemoaned the possibility of three options as a measure that would do nothing but confuse the apparently mentally challenged jurors tasked with navigating their way through the often-complex capital trial process. In an April 8 opinion piece, Ogden explained his thinking on the matter: "In my view, adding a third sentencing option as proposed by SB 60 could create confusion and an opening for additional appeals in an already drawn out process. Juries need a straightforward 'either/or' instruction from the judge and a way to choose between them." – Jordan Smith

• Lawmakers fought over privatization again Tuesday, as the House argued the overhaul of the Department of Family and Protective Services. Elliott Naishtat authored an amendment accepted by Killeen Republican Suzanna Hupp and passed by the House that would slow down the rollout of privatization of child welfare services; instead, Naishtat proposed what he called an "almost pilot" on a 61Ú2-year timeline with plenty of feedback and controls. Opponent Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, called it "Parents R Us," with private companies making decisions best left to government. Privatizing engineering services is one thing, but decisions that impact families are best left to government, Coleman said. The Center for Public Policy Priorities' Scott McCown, who preferred the pilot project proposed in the Senate version of the bill, called the Naishtat amendment a good first step, but said it does not go far enough to provide protections in case of failure. "If privatization proves unworkable, then the only way to stop it is to enact new legislation, signed by the governor," McCown said. "The Senate version to pilot privatization and then authorize it only if it works ensures that it won't continue if it doesn't work." – Kimberly Reeves

• Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, held a news conference on Friday with Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, chair of the House Transportation Committee, to announce that SB 478 – a proposal for a regional gasoline tax – would get a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee. But given the Senate's aversion to naming its taxes – they have yet to announce their preferred poison on the school finance bill – it's questionable just how far that measure would actually go. Gas taxes are unpopular to begin with; add to that the point both Barrientos and Krusee made last week – that a gas tax would not replace tolls, because it simply wouldn't generate revenue fast enough to put major projects on the ground – and the gas tax doesn't sound real promising. It would amount to $25 million a year, up against a $2 billion price tag on toll road construction. "There have been some expectations stated that might not comport with what the bill can do," Barrientos said Friday. "It will not, as some have suggested, completely relieve the need for tolling." Instead, it could alleviate the need for some roads, Krusee said, or it could provide a revenue source for mass transit projects. – K.R.

• The Ways and Means Committee room was thick with people and bad puns April 13, and forces both pro and con descended to discuss bills pertaining to Texas gambling. Most contentious was HJR 4 from Dem Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, proposing a constitutional amendment allowing for video lottery terminals at racetracks and Indian lands, and authorizing casino gaming. The HJR, if it passes out of the Capitol, will see a vote this November. Saying the "legend of Texas is rich with the imagery of horses," Flores described how the insertion of VLTs into racetracks would save a lagging horse industry and bring an influx of money into cash-strapped Texas. VLTs would also be found in newly built casinos, none of which could cost less than $400 million, ostensibly to shut hucksters and the untoward out of the action. The bulk of the day's testimony came from casino and horse interests in favor of Flores' bill, many operating under ad hoc group Keep Texas Running. As the day grew longer, and the puns repeated endlessly ("I don't have a horse in this race"), bill opponents shrouded a seeming moral indignation in fuzzy math. A Christian Life Commission speaker claimed only 7 cents on the dollar would be the profit from each VLT; apparently, they didn't bother to count the 35% cut the state receives before figuring the VLTs' profit margin. With the late hour keeping the anti-gambling forces at bay, all bills were left pending. – Wells Dunbar

• On April 14, when the Texas Senate voted to pass SB 706 over to the House, Travis County's Emergency Medical Services paramedics got one step closer to securing the opportunity to enter labor negotiations with the city. The bill, authored by Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, would extend so-called meet-and-confer negotiation rights to Austin's EMS personnel if city voters approve the measure. Austin's EMS personnel are currently the only public safety employees without formal labor negotiation power. Austin police use the meet-and-confer process, and Austin firefighters negotiated under meet-and-confer until last year when their union secured the right to use collective bargaining – a more regimented process – during their negotiations. Although state law extends the right to use the meet-and-confer process to all large municipalities, Austin is the only major city that has chosen to use the process, according to the Senate Research Center. –J.S.

• As far as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is concerned, the showdown between the House and Senate on workers' compensation reform is over. Even though each chamber has passed its own version of a reform bill, Dewhurst insists it will be the Senate version that will prevail. Dewhurst told reporters on Tuesday that Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, and Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, had agreed that Staples would carry the reform measures and Solomons would carry the sunset provisions. Solomons chairs the Sunset Advisory Commission in the House, one of two House committees to hear testimony on the issue. "I explained to [Solomons] the Senate would not agree to a sunset bill with reforms," Dewhurst said. "We don't want Christmas trees on sunset bills. We want reform bills, and then we want the normal sunset bills." Dewhurst said the Senate, after plenty of notice, had led with its own bill and passed its own version of workers' compensation out first. That's the bill that should lead, Dewhurst said. Staples says he and Solomons have agreed to meet to discuss how to divide up the bill, but to date, that meeting has not happened. – K.R.

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Texas Legislature, SB 60, life without parole, death penalty, Eddie Lucio, Steve Ogden, capital punishment, Ways and Means Committee, HJR 4, Ismael Flores, HB 9, video lottery terminals, Keep Texas Running, Christian Life Commission, workers' compensation reform, Todd Staples, Burt Solomons, David Dewhurst, Sunset Advisory Commission, Gonzalo Barrientos

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