State Capital Highlights Feb. 19, 2015

By Ed Sterling

AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott on Feb. 12 announced he had joined a coalition of 24 governors in signing and sending a letter to President Obama that urges the nation’s chief executive “to reconsider his threat” to veto legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline.

“With one stroke of a pen, you have the power to give thousands of Americans the shot at a good-paying job that will help them provide for their families and get ahead in a tight economy,” the letter says.

The pipeline runs from a terminal in the province of Alberta, through Saskatchewan and Manitoba, then cuts down through several states to Cushing, Oklahoma. From there, a pipeline would carry product to refineries in Port Arthur and Houston.

Legislation authorizing the pipeline recently passed with bipartisan votes in both chambers of Congress, Abbott said, and he quoted language in the letter asserting economic and energy security benefits of the pipeline project for states along its route and for the whole nation.

The letter also says: “According to the State Department’s own analysis, the Keystone XL pipeline will create an estimated 42,000 American jobs. Given the number of jobs at stake, it is no surprise that the project has garnered the support of many of our nation’s largest labor unions, including the AFL-CIO Building & Construction Trades Department, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Laborers’ International Union of North America. But the real economic impact extends far beyond numbers on a page. As one labor union representative put it, ‘this project is not just a pipeline; it is, in fact, a lifeline.’ ”

According to general figures for Texas compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 10,877 members of labor unions in 2013 and 11,205 in 2014.

Panel passes ‘carry’ bills
The Senate State Affairs Committee on Feb. 12 heard testimony on SB 11 by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, legislation that would permit concealed handgun license holders to carry concealed weapons on the campuses of public universities but allowing private universities to ban “CHL carry” on their campuses.

The panel also considered SB 17 by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, which would allow concealed handgun license holders to carry handguns openly, either holstered on the belt or under the shoulder.

Both bills were approved on votes of 7-2, with the panel’s Democrats, Judith Zaffirini of Laredo and Rodney Ellis of Houston, voting against.

Comptroller distributes revenue
The state comptroller’s office on Feb. 11 announced cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts will be sent February local sales tax allocations totaling $873.1 million.

The February 2015 allocation is up 8.9 percent compared to February 2014, Texas  Comptroller Glenn Hegar said, and state sales tax revenue in January was $2.56 billion, up 11.2 percent compared to January 2014. “This allocation marks the 58th consecutive month of year-over-year growth and is indicative of a dynamic and diverse economy that continues to generate business investment and spending in Texas,” Hegar added.

Business spending led the growth in revenue and receipts from the manufacturing and wholesale trade sectors were up sharply, and, “in spite of the recent decline in crude oil prices, tax receipts from the oil and natural gas mining sector also grew strongly,” Hegar said. His office will monitor the impact that lower oil prices on the state economy, he added.

Fingerprinting practice changes
Texas Department of Public Safety announced, effective Feb. 6, it would stop the practice of collecting “all 10 fingerprints” from driver’s license and state identification card applicants.

The department will continue to comply with a 2005 “image verification system” state law requiring the collection of an applicant’s facial image and thumbprints or fingerprints.

According to DPS literature, “Texas law authorizes fingerprint-based criminal history checks for designated volunteers and employment or licensing applicants in a wide variety of areas such as child care providers, teachers, security and armed guards, security system contractors, and a host of others.”

TxTag issues are addressed
Texas Department of Transportation on Feb. 6 announced personnel and resources have been added because of “increased service demands related to recent TxTag toll road billing activities” related to inaccurate billing and other customer service issues.

TxDOT said its vendor, Xerox, has expanded to three call centers around the state, added more than 60 new customer service representatives to answer the phones and is working to expand those capabilities as needed, according to an agency news release. And, because pay-by-web activity is increasing, TxDOT plans to make its website easier to use.