State Capital Highlights April 16, 2015

By Ed Sterling, Texas Press Association

AUSTIN — Statewide authority to investigate and prosecute public corruption would be moved out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office under Senate Bill 10, legislation approved by the Senate on April 9.

Sen. Joan Huffman, chair of the Senate State Affairs Committee, wrote the legislation under which the Texas Rangers, a division of the Department of Public Safety, would reestablish and support the state’s Public Integrity Unit and assume the initial investigatory role when a complaint is filed against a public official. 

Cases would be prosecuted in the county where a public official resides. “After more than three decades of accepting this cultural norm, the public has lost confidence in this tacit scheme, and Texas needs a fair and explicit process to hold wrongdoers accountable,” Huffman said. 

The unit has been located in Travis County since 1982, when it was created by an act of the Texas Legislature. Efforts toward stripping the unit and its authority from Travis County began two years ago when Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who heads the unit, was arrested and pled guilty to drunken driving. 

Then-Gov. Rick Perry called for Lehmberg’s resignation approaching the end of the 2013 legislative session, but Lehmberg rebuffed Perry by remaining in office. Perry vetoed the unit’s $7.5 million budget. He was later indicted on a charge of official coercion for using his veto power in an attempt to force Lehmberg to resign. Lehmberg was elected to a four-year term as district attorney in 2012. 

SB 10, approved by the Senate with all 20 of the body’s Republicans voting in favor and all 10 of the body’s Democrats voting in opposition, has moved to the Texas House for consideration.

Senate’s budget bill moves
The Senate Finance Committee on April 8 unanimously approved Committee Substitute House Bill 1, its version of a state budget for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. 
Coming in a $211.4 billion — about $1.5 billion more than the version passed earlier by the full Texas House — the legislation was authored primarily by Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Vice Chair Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. 

Next step in the process will be for the bill to be passed by the full Senate and then to iron out differences with the House version, be assigned to a joint House-Senate conference committee, to be named by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Joe Straus.

Regarding the Senate version Hinojosa said, “We increased access and funding to services needed by our most vulnerable populations: the young, elderly, sick and poor. We invested in infrastructure, border security, and our students. The budget is well within all constitutional spending and debt limits, and will pave the way for an educated and healthy workforce and a successful Texas economy.”

Senate passes Right to Try
SB 694, legislation to give terminal patients quicker access to experimental treatments, unanimously passed the Senate on April 9. 

Freshman Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said he offered the legislation because he believes the current system is too cumbersome and slow to help people who need treatment fast. 

Bettencourt said his bill would create a “framework to help those with a terminal disease get access to drugs and treatments still in the federal Food and Drug Administration trial process quickly and safely.”

In Senate floor debate, Health and Human Services Committee Chair Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, raised a concern that families and patients facing dire circumstances could be easily deceived by people making false promises for profit. Language in the bill was amended so that a company offering a drug covered under the bill or a doctor administering the treatment must agree to do so at no cost to the patient.

Sales tax revenue increases
State Comptroller Glenn Hegar last week said state sales tax revenue in March totaled $2.12 billion, a 1.5 percent increase compared to March in the previous year.
“State sales tax collections have now grown for 60 consecutive months despite weakening in the energy sector. This moderated growth was expected and is currently in line with estimates presented in January,” Hegar explained in an April 8 news release. “Receipts in the construction, services and restaurant sectors remained relatively strong. We will continue to monitor the state’s economic activity and its impact on key revenue sources.”

Cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts will receive their April local sales tax allocations totaling $576.6 million, up 4 percent compared to April 2014.


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