Week in Review
(Austin) President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Tuesday, approving nearly $800 billion in economic stimulus and federal aid to state governments. Texas' share of this money is estimated at about $17 billion, including $5 billion more for state healthcare and almost $4 billion for public and higher education.
Lt. Governor David Dewhurst said Tuesday that though he and his staff had just begun looking through the 1100 page bill, federal money could help the state in those areas. He did caution, however, that relying too heavily on one-time federal money could leave the state facing a deficit in future years. "We need to be careful on how we use one time funds, so that we're not painting ourselves into a deficit in 2011, but a number of these funds, I think, will be able to help us in these program areas," he said.
Finance Committee member Senator Robert Duncan of Lubbock said Wednesday that some of the federal provisions could come with strings attached. Because Texas' relative economic position is strong because of conservative fiscal policies, he said, Texas should look to maintain its fiscal independence. "This is Texas. We're fairly independent here, and it's because of that independence that we are as healthy as we are today," he said. "You can rest assured that the Texas Legislature will be very careful in going through these programs so that we can ensure that we maintain independence and the Texas spirit in the way these funds are expended."
The Finance Committee this week continued its deliberations on the state budget, looking at criminal justice and public safety, among other areas. Officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety testified before the committee on Thursday, painting a picture of the budget needs for this critical agency. At the top of their list is more money for employees, including state troopers.
Texas Public Safety Commission Chairman Allan Polunsky pointed out that a state trooper can make as much as 40 percent less than his or her counterpart working for a city police force. Better compensation, he said, will help DPS attract top candidates to state trooper positions. He also promoted the purchase of 450 additonal marked police cruisers, at a cost to the state of $27 million.
Officials from the Legislative Budget Board also testified Thursday about current trends in the prison population. They said reforms made during the last legislative session have flattened inmate population growth, and have increased paroles and reduced the number of offenders sent back to prison for violating their probation.
Part of these trends are attributable to an increase in capacity at community-based intermediate sanction facilities, which hold low-level offenders. More money for substance treatment programs has also contributed to reforms. Committee Member and Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chair John Whitmire praised the progress made since last session. "We've got a lot of work left to do, we've got some problems, but overall I think the health of our criminal justice system is very good," he said.
Senators announced the filing of several new initiatives this week, including a measure aimed at reining in abuses at electric co-ops. Senator Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay filed Senate Bill 921 Tuesday in response to reports of board and management misuse of funds and board elections irregularities at the Pedernales Electric Co-op, which serves thousands of customers in Central Texas. SB 921 would require open meetings for all co-op board meetings, and would require co-ops to set guidelines for reimbursement, use of co-op funds and whistleblower protection. It would also allow for state auditors to look into co-op books if approved by the Legislative Audit Committee.
Monday, Houston Senator Rodney Ellis announced a bill intended to reduce the spread of HIV through Texas. Texas has seen a 30 percent increase in HIV cases since 2003, up to 62,000 cases in 2009. African-Americans are disproportionately affected, with infection rates four times higher than that of whites or Hispanics. SB 877 would make HIV tests part of routine checkups, with an option for patients to opt out. Ellis says increased testing is vital to checking the spread of HIV in Texas.
"Thankfully HIV is no longer a death sentence, but it is clear that early diagnosis is a key to fighting the disease and its spread," he said. "The sooner a person is made aware of their status, the sooner they will change their behavior, which will reduce the risk of transmitting the disease to others." Texas already requires HIV tests for inmates entering or leaving Texas prisons, as well as for pregnant women.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, Feb. 23, at 1:30 p.m.