On the Lege

A Senior Moment

Rep. Elliot Naishtat of Austin is leading charges to protect both seniors and children this session.
Rep. Elliot Naishtat of Austin is leading charges to protect both seniors and children this session. (Photo By John Anderson)

Chalk one up for the AARP and other advocates who rode herd on lawmakers to approve a promised property-tax cut. You would think that doing the right thing for senior Texans would be an easy sell. It was, in the end, but not without a GOP attempt to fasten the tax-cut question, which voters are expected to decide May 12, to a proposal to exceed the constitutional spending cap. The Republican leadership spent the last election campaign bragging about fixing the school finance dilemma while giving most homeowners some relief on school property taxes. Now the Legislature needs to bust the state's spending limit to pay for the $14 billion tax cut. Because seniors and people with disabilities have their property taxes capped under the state constitution, they were shut out of the tax breaks lawmakers approved in a special session last year.

After AARP leaders called Republicans' bluff for trying to lump the cap-busting measure in with the senior tax bill, lawmakers had little choice but to separate the two and vote accordingly. Following the Senate's passage of both measures last week, the House on Monday afternoon voted 146-0 to extend the one-third reduction in school property taxes to people with disabilities and the 65-and-older set. The House bill underwent a few changes, requiring its return to the Senate for approval.

The House also passed, after lengthy debate, a second proposal to allocate funds to pay for the tax overhaul lawmakers approved last year, under a court mandate to restructure the school finance system. Democrats took the opportunity Monday to lambaste the proposal, which essentially bears out their argument last year that the tax package would leave the state scrambling to come up with several billion dollars to finance the new plan.

Meanwhile, AARP leaders are keeping a watchful eye on the senior tax legislation to see that it doesn't experience the same fate it suffered in 2006. Then, Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat had tried to add a similar amendment to include the elderly and disabled in the tax-cut package. The amendment won House approval but got the axe during some last-minute changes in the Senate. This time, Naishtat, co-authored the senior tax bill with the oddest of bedfellows – ultracoservative Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler – to help ensure that it makes its way through the House and Senate without any last-minute shenanigans.

Protecting Child Protective Services

Here's a newly filed bill that bears watching. In view of the mess that grew out of one privatization experiment that wreaked havoc on the lives of families in need of assistance, Naishtat wants the state to ease out of the privatization mandate for Child Protective Services. House Bill 1361 would give authorities the option to privatize but would relieve them of all the bureaucratic pressures that go along with hard-and-fast requirements to farm out the care of fragile children to private agencies. At the same time, the bill calls for the Department of Health and Human Services to develop an improvement plan to review all the right ways and wrong ways to privatize this important function of state government. Needless to say, private agencies are up in arms over the legislation because it threatens to cut into their revenues. On the other hand, many child advocates would prefer to see privatization put out to pasture altogether. Naishtat seeks to achieve a middle ground in the debate by giving state authorities the freedom to make their own judgment calls on privatization while looking for avenues to improve and build on public-private partnerships.

Lege Notes

• Freshman state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, would, it seems, rather stack bills than work on them. To protest against the Senate's proposal to bust the budget cap, Patrick organized a Valentine's Day press conference in the Legislature: He borrowed $1 million in $20 bills from an unnamed local bank, stacked them on a table, and railed for the cameras against the extravagance of state government. The pile, he claimed, was equal to what 200 average Texas households pay in taxes every year. Problem? The photo-op meant he missed a morning session of the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, which he sits on and which heard three bills while Patrick was in absentia. – Richard Whittaker

• Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, apologized to Jewish groups after circulating a memo calling evolution a kabbalah conspiracy. On Feb. 9, Chisum forwarded a memo from Georgia state Rep. Ben Bridges, R-Cleveland, to members of the House. In it, avowed creationist Bridges proposed a draft bill outlawing teaching evolution in tax-funded schools. He'd failed to get it through the Georgia Legislature in 2005, but now he's sending it to like-minded legislators in other states. In his covering letter, Chisum thanked Bridges for his "information on this important topic." However, "evidence" in the memo comes from anti-Semitic conspiracy theory Web site www.fixedearth.com. Run by former high school teacher Marshall Hall, it claims that many scientific theories of the past thousand years are part of a massive Jewish conspiracy and calls the Big Bang a "15-billion-year alternate 'creation scenario' of the Pharisee religion." Now the finger-pointing begins: Chisum claims he was just being a "Good Samaritan" to Bridges and had not read the Web site, Bridges claims Hall wrote the memo without asking him, and Hall says that just because he calls evolution a Jewish conspiracy, that doesn't mean he's anti-Semitic. Bridge's bill, if taken up by any legislator, would put the term "anti-Christ" in the law books. – R.W.

• State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, announced Feb. 20 that Texas has been selected as one of seven states to work on establishing a comprehensive statewide task force on criminal-justice and mental-health issues. Texas' plan, submitted by Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, demonstrated that the state had "engaged legislative and executive branch leaders, and that their task force had the potential to yield a viable, comprehensive plan," Evelyn Stratton, associate justice on the Ohio State Supreme Court and co-chair of the advisory board of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said in a press release. "Texas clearly demonstrated the broad base of leadership necessary to make the plan successful." In all, 23 states applied for acceptance to the Justice Center program, which will provide funding as well as technical assistance for the creation of a statewide plan that will better define how the criminal justice system handles mentally ill defendants – according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 30% of prison inmates have a history with the public mental-health system. "Addressing the challenges posed by mentally ill persons in our court system is critical to reduce recidivism and increase public safety," Madden said. – Jordan Smith

• Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson is calling on state lawmakers to create a Texas Innocence Commission to review cases of wrongful imprisonment as a way to avert wrongful convictions. Jefferson's support for the formation of the commission – made during his speech before a joint session of lawmakers on the state of Texas' judiciary – got the nod of approval from Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who has long championed the creation of such a body. Ellis filed legislation in 2005, which languished in committee, and has again filed legislation this year (Senate Bill 263) that would create an independent commission to review wrongful convictions, identify their causes, and recommend to lawmakers changes in the state's criminal justice system that would help prevent further such convictions. In a press release, Ellis said he was "extremely pleased" that Jefferson was joining his call for criminal justice reform. "More and more criminal justice leaders realize that we can no longer wait to enact this crucial reform," Ellis said. "The bottom line is that we have got to get the right person and, when we don't, we need to find out what went wrong." – J.S.

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Texas Legislature, Elliott Naishtat, Leo Berman, Child Protective Services, Department of Health and Human Services

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