Lege Notes

Odds and ends – mostly odds – from under the pink granite dome

• As in previous sessions, State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez has filed what is becoming a perennial income tax bill, despite its dead-on-arrival status in the Legislature. The Austin Democrat has vowed to keep refiling the measure until a state income tax becomes a reality in Texas. Rodriguez is one of only a few state lawmakers who can promote an income tax without the fear of getting run out on a rail by anti-tax constituents. The tax shift would require a voter-approved change to the state constitution. Rodriguez files the bill for symbolic reasons more than anything else, the theory being that the more educated voters are on the subject, the less fearful legislators will be about putting it on the table. Rodriguez's House Bill 33 and its corresponding resolution, HJR 13, would create an income tax and thus a new revenue stream for financing public education. The funding method would abolish the state's dubious "Robin Hood" property tax system. Legislators are under a court order to come up with a new funding solution for schools, but for now, an income tax just isn't in the cards. – A.S.

• Austin Rep. Terry Keel has announced his candidacy for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – a race that will pit him against an incumbent in the Republican primary. Keel seeks the Place 8 bench currently held by Charles Holcomb, who at 72 would only be allowed to serve three years of his six-year term before reaching the state's mandatory retirement age of 75 for judges. Keel made headlines at the close of the regular session when he killed a bill that would have increased the judiciary's salaries. It wasn't until after the session that the lawmaker announced he would run for one of two appellate courts, and last week declared his candidacy for the state's highest criminal court – the last stop for criminal cases before they're appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Keel's experience runs deep; he's a five-term legislator, a criminal defense attorney, a former Travis Co. sheriff, and an ex-prosecutor. For the past two sessions, Keel has chaired the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. "To my knowledge," Keel said in a statement, "there has not previously been a candidate for this bench with the same breadth of experience on both sides of counsel table, as well as in both the enforcement and the enactment of criminal law, that I would bring to the court." – A.S.

• Central Texas House Democrats scored "exemplary" ratings on a Texas Freedom Network report card, while all but one of the GOP delegates ranked "academically unacceptable" for their votes on public education issues during the regular session. Austin Rep. Terry Keel was the only local Republican delegate to score a "recognized" rating for meeting half of TFN's expectations on six critical votes. Austin Democratic Reps. Dawnna Dukes, Elliott Naishtat, and Eddie Rodriguez, along with Dripping Springs Rep. Patrick Rose, each scored 100% for their votes. GOP Reps. Todd Baxter of Austin, Mike Krusee of Round Rock, and Dan Gattis of Georgetown each received a grade of 0%. All told, TFN flunked four out of every 10 House members. – A.S.

• Senate Natural Resources tackled their own nuclear option Monday, as Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, laid out SB 39, which "transfers jurisdiction over the disposal of all radioactive waste," minus radioactive oil and gas nasties, "to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality." Why? According to Duncan, it's required to "deal with the 11(e)(2) waste [uranium ore enrichment] coming in from Fernald, Ohio," courtesy of major Perry donor Harold Simmons' Waste Control Specialists. WCS was granted its money-minting permit in February, when the company was allowed to import the toxic slough of uranium enrichment leftovers. WCS's facility, west of the small city of Andrews, sees two truckloads of the stuff weekly, WCS attorney Mike Woodward said to the committee. "They're not fully at liberty to discuss their contracts," said Woodward when asked about them, yet he estimated WCS' windfall at $7 million for storage and $9 million for disposal, "from what I've read in the papers." The Sierra Club's Ken Kramer supported transferring authority to TCEQ, and SB 39's taxation of importers. Other provisions, however, accelerate the permitting timeline, limit the duration of contested case hearings, and, most ominously, allow uranium mining permit holders to conduct "minor" mining without additional permitting or hearings. – Wells Dunbar

• Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, says more Texans would benefit from tax relief under two bills he filed this week. Senate Bill 43 would raise the $15,000 homestead exemption to $30,000, which, combined with a lower property tax cap of $1.25, would provide savings to a wider range of income brackets, Barrientos said. Under his plan, homeowners at the lowest end of appraised home values would save $304.44 in annual property tax relief, while homeowners in the "average" appraisal bracket would pocket $424.10 in savings. Another bill, SB 44, would require landlords to pass on 6.25% of the savings to tenants in each month's rent, which would bring a $120 savings per year for a tenant in an average one-bedroom apartment. – A.S.

• As lawmakers wrangled with the school finance dilemma inside the capitol Tuesday, outside on the south steps advocates from Texas Public Interest Research Group, Public Citizen, and the Texas Center for Policy Studies released a new report titled "Bridging the Gap: Green Tax Options for Funding Texas Schools," which recommends a series of "pollution sin taxes" that authors say could generate more than $1.2 billion for Texas schools while minimizing some of the most serious health risks children face. Among the report's recommendations are a tax on emissions created by electricity generating plants, a coal use tax, establishing a surcharge for high-polluting vehicles, and an increased fee on high-polluting types of diesel. The report also recommends finalizing the boost to the state's renewable portfolio standard, which mandates inclusion of renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and biomass, in the state's overall energy use. The renewable portfolio standard boost was agreed upon in regular session but died in committee. Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, has filed legislation regarding the renewable portfolio standard, Senate Bill 20, and is hoping the $14.6 million in 2004 school taxes paid by wind power alone ($26.8 projected for 2005) will entice the governor to add the bill to the special session agenda. Read the full report at www.texascenter.org. – Daniel Mottola

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Texas Legislature, TexPIRG, Public Citizen, Texas Center for Policy Studies, Bridging the Gap:Green Tax Options for Funding Texas Schools, renewable portfolio standard, SB 20, Troy Fraser, Eddie Rodriguez, Robin Hood, House Bill 33, HJR 13, income tax, school finance, Terry Keel, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Charles Holcomb, House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, Texas Freedom Network, Terry Keel

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