181 Reasons to Beware BY ROBERT BRYCE LIKE IT OR NOT, the Texas Legislature is coming back. At noon on January 10, the 150 members of the Texas House and 31 members of the Texas Senate will convene in the newly restored State Capitol to be sworn into office for the 74th regular session of the Texas Legislature. As always, we can count on the lawmakers to provide entertainment. Already, two bills have been filed regarding the distribution of condoms in schools. The first, filed on November 11 by Representative Ron Wilson, Houston Democrat, would make condoms available to any student who wants one. Three days later, Representative Ted Kamel, Tyler Republican, filed a bill which would prohibit the distribution of condoms. Obviously, sex remains a high priority with legislators. Lots of energy will be spent on more mundane items, such as school funding, the budget and taxes. But this spring’s session also will see battles over electric power, gambling and firearms. So here’s a rundown of the major and not-so-major issues facing the 74th Legislature: The Campaign Issues The Budget. Spending $70 billion takes some effort. And it gets tougher when you have 181 legislators and several thousand lobbyists trying to influence how to spend it. Unlike previous years, legislators will not start this session in the hole. Instead, they will have a $2-billion surplus. But that doesn’t mean things will be easy. Some of the $2 billion has already been allocated and legislators are expecting a shortfall of $3.5 billion over the biennium just to continue the current level of services. That has many legislators looking at cuts in health and human services Education. Lawmakers will need more than $2 billion in new revenue to fully fund the 1993 school-funding equalization plan and set up a new court-ordered plan to give school districts state aid for facilities. Governor-elect Bush and company will be pushing to weaken the Texas Education Agency and to give more authority to local school districts. Lawmakers also will be Robert Bryce is a contributing editor to the Austin Chronicle. James Cullen contributed to this article. trying again to authorize publicly funded vouchers to pay for private schools. Educators are not only seeking their first pay raise since 1989, but they also want more authority to move disruptive students from regular campuses to alternative programs. The Education Code expires next year, which makes education reform a high priority and gives lawmakers a vehicle to advance education reform proposals that otherwise might not get out of committees. Criminal Justice. Bush made criminal justiceand particularly the explosive growth in violent crime among juveniles a campaign theme and there will likely be attempts to “reform” the juvenile justice system. The Texas Commission on Children and Youth, examining the causes of juvenile crime, recently found that one of every four Texas children lives in poverty, that confirmed cases of child abuse in Texas have quadrupled in the past decade, that Texas ranks third in the nation in teen-aged pregnancy rates and it has the country’s seventh-highest dropout rate. But the response most likely to clear the Legislature is a reduction of the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults in the criminal justice system and tougher punishment for violent juveniles. Also, expect to see bills asking for more funding for the Texas Youth Commission and longer sentences for juvenile offenders. Proposals will be revisited to “streamline” death penalty appeals to speed up executions despite the fact that at least five people have spent more than a decade each on Texas death row before their innocence finally was established. Tort Reform. Bush campaigned long and hard on getting rid of “frivolous and junk lawsuits,” so he will make this issue a primary focus. He has powerful allies in Lieut. Gov . Bob Bullock and Speaker of the House Pete Laney, a Hale Center conservative Democrat, so this could be done quickly. In addition, Bush’s buddy, lobbyist Mike Toomey, is working for the group called Texans for Lawsuit Reform. The trial lawyers and the business community don’t agree on product liability issues, but the elections gave the business community the edge, so look for a reduction in the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded to plaintiffs. Welfare Reform. Bush campaigned on restricting welfare benefits, which already are among the lowest in the country, limiting the number of children who can qual ify for benefits and forcing mothers to take jobs or lose benefits. Legislators will be looking for ways to control Medicaid costs; managed care is one alternative they will consider. Pistol Packing. Two bills have been introduced, one in the Senate, one in the House, that would allow any Texan over 21 with no felony convictions to carry a pistol. Licensees would have to pass a safety test. Their marksmanship and abilities would determine what type of license they can obtain. The Clint Eastwood types, of course, would want the SA1 license, which would allow citizens to carry semi-automatic pistols with calibers of 9mm and above. More than a dozen other states allow citizens to carry concealed handguns. Police and school groups oppose the measure but it will take a lot of them to stop this idea. Gov . Ann Richards vetoed similar bill during the last session. Bush has said he’ll sign it and the odds are that the Legislature will have him reaching for his pen quickly. The Alamo. The fight didn’t end when Santa Anna’s troops killed the last Texian in 1836. Ron Wilson, Houston Democrat, wants to get the Alamo out of the hands of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. He proposes turning over the facility to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The DRT has emotion and their version of history on their side. But the opposition is growing. Term Limits. Numerous bills have been filed on this topic. Some favor a limit of 14 years or seven legislative sessions. Others favor shorter terms in the House and Senate. Warren Chisum, Pampa conservative Democrat, has introduced a resolution calling for the U.S. Congress to call a constitutional convention to discuss term limits at the federal level. Chisum wants a limit of 12 years for members of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. But Republicans who were pushing hard for term limits before the election have cooled their rhetoric now that the GOP has gained control of the Congress. The Lobby Issues Some of the things you didn’t hear about in the campaign, but the lobbyists have been worrying about, include: Utility Deregulation. Billions of dollars are at stake. New companies are eager to offer services, but the entrenched monopolies want to make sure they aren’t left hold THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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