The Austin Chronicle

Lege Notes

July 22, 2005, News

• Chalk up a victory for the legion of teachers battling belittling legislation this session. Under the auspice of reforming the Teachers Retirement System, the unsuccessful Senate Bill 8 would have set teacher retirement at the age of 60, breaking with the "Rule of 80," where retirement with unreduced benefits is possible once an educator's age and years of work total 80 or more. The bill's author, Lubbock Republican Robert Duncan, shelved it after an outpouring of opposition. If passed, SB 8 would have "taken more than $1 billion in promised pension benefits from more than 450,000 public school employees," according to the Texas Federation of Teachers. TFT credits "thousands of letters and hundreds of phone calls to state senators" with influencing Duncan's decision. The federation thanked Democratic Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa for tagging SB 8, which "postponed a hearing on it for two days, giving Sen. Duncan even more time to hear from teachers and retirees about this injurious bill." – Wells Dunbar

• Flinging it all against the wall to see how much will stick, Gov. Rick Perry also added tuition revenue bonds to the Special's call. HB 6, from Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, Speaker Tom Craddick's perpetual water carrier, picks up where similar legislation from the 79th session sputtered and croaked in committee, allocating some $2.75 billion in funds for campus improvement, repair, and building construction. The UT system is expected to see more than $1.1 billion alone, but the more jaded (i.e., realistic) at the Capitol speculate that HB 6 stuck because of funds earmarked for construction in Craddick's district: namely $13.5 million for new Texas Tech facilities in Midland. The even more jaded might see the recent proclamation from Lt. Governor David Dewhurst (the Lite Guv being no friend of the Speaker) that no other legislation would be considered until school-finance was resolved, to be aimed at the Speaker's kind contribution to his alma mater. – W.D.

• "Their so-called tax reform 'swap' actually shifts the burden to average Texans … while the richest Texans get a tax cut – at our expense. In fact, if this legislation passes, the state sales tax will go up again – making it one of the highest in the country." Who authored this hard-hitting indictment of the Legislature's latest tax package? None other than tobacco-pusher Philip Morris. Despite early reports of frogs falling from the sky and plagues of locusts swarming the capitol, the cigarette maker aligned itself with myriad teacher associations and public interest groups opposing HB 3. Ostensibly drafted to fund Texas schools, the bill's actual concern is slashing property taxes for the richest 20% of Texans. To pay for this, the Lege is raising the sales tax, levying taxes on services like auto repair, and calling for a dollar hike on cigarette packs and increased taxes on other tobacco products. Not surprisingly, the latter has incensed Philip Morris, which rolled out its anti-HB 3 radio campaign in several Texas cities (Austin not included) on Saturday at a cost of around $200,000, according to a dismissive release from the governor's office. – W.D.

• In the midst of a battle over University of Texas plans to seize their property for a proposed hotel and conference center project, owners of renowned MLK Boulevard burger joint Players watched the Lege anxiously this week. Senate Bill 62, which sought to limit state eminent domain takings for the primary purpose of economic development and specifically included an amendment prohibiting UT's taking of the restaurant, passed the House Sunday, but faltered Tuesday after House members refused to negotiate with Senate legislators over amendments they placed on the bill (see next item). SB 62 came in response to June's U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing local governments to take land for private development. The amendment barring UT's plans to take Players, which would be replaced with a parking garage, was added by the cousin of Players co-owner Carlos Oliveira, Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville. He told the Statesman, "This to me is an unfair taking of property. These are relatives and friends and constituents. The University of Texas has no business going into the hotel business." SB 62 died when the special session ended Wednesday, and it is unclear whether legislators will take it up in an anticipated second special session. – Daniel Mottola

• In a display of derring-do, Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, threw down the gauntlet Tuesday and convinced the rest of the House to reject the Senate's offer to negotiate on a property rights bill. The move effectively killed the eminent domain legislation for this session, but it will likely be resuscitated in the next special session. Senate Bill 62 was a direct response to counter the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling allowing local governments to take private property for private development to generate tax revenue. The ruling didn't go over well in Texas, where property rights are as sacred as football and gas-guzzling vehicles. Still, the Senate didn't care for several amendments that the House added and requested the appointment of a conference committee to work out differences. When Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, put the motion before the House, however, Corte rushed to the microphone to voice opposition. "They have to accept our House version or turn it down," Corte declared, adding that the Senate had no intention of accepting the House amendments. "So basically they're gutting the bill, aren't they?" egged Austin GOP Rep. Terry Keel, who authored one of the amendments in jeopardy. That's right, Corte said. Reps. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, and Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, each tried to talk Corte down. "We go to conferences in order to work out differences," Krusee explained patiently. Corte shot back, "The Senate will not run over the House!" The House agreed, voting 40-91 against a conference committee – a rare defeat for Woolley, a key House leader and chair of the powerful Calendars Committee. – Amy Smith

• Parents across Texas are mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore. So instead of wringing their hands over the Legislature's inability to craft a meaningful school finance plan, they've formed a new political action committee – Texas Parent PAC – with the intention of raising more than $250,000 to help elect new blood at the state level. The group will lay out its goals at a press conference Friday morning, and spend the rest of the day leafletting the more than 3,000 parents expected to attend the Texas PTA summer seminar at the Austin Convention Center. Founding leaders of the new organization include Carolyn Boyle, who until this week served as coordinator of the Coalition for Public Schools, an advocacy group that successfully lobbied against a major private school voucher bill in the regular session, which opponents say would have siphoned millions of taxpayer dollars from public schools. More details on the new political group are available at – A.S.

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